Important and self-important, demanding attention because he demands our attention, Kanye West will one day get the critical adjudication he deserves when he stops being an industry. Let’s face facts: the fate of thousands of blogs and outlets depend on his existence. Posting about Kanye generates the clicks that get me paid for other work. As a producer with a shrewd eye for the poignant R&B sample, he recorded three exemplary rap-R&B fusions before submitting to a megalomania that coincided wit the rise of social media. The subject was fit for the times, and this subject didn’t mind assuming the form of an object when it suited him.
But this list concerns itself with his music, which like any goal-shifting art created the terms by which it was analyzed. Until his monstrous ego found its medium in the untold possibilities of the modern recording studio, he redeemed his at best clumsy rapping with clever images and a playfulness as inapposite in 2017 as a painting of George W. Bush’s toes. Readers might be surprised by my loving Graduation, to my ears still his tightest and most assured release. “We made it” has more pathos than embellished paranoia in a VIP section.
Triumphalism defenestrated the period detail that enlivened The College Dropout and Late Registration. The urtext for Drake and Future, 808s and Heartbreaks is the hip hop equivalent of boomer icons like Paul McCartney experimenting with Linn drums and Fairlights, a nice try. Then he released My Boring Conventional Tiresome Fantasies, an album as generation-defining as OK Computer and The Dark Side of the Moon in every way: like Jay Z’s The Black Album it consigned to obscurity the earlier work as an apprenticeship. At the time I recoiled, then hated its clamor; now I don’t bother. The multi-track hell into which his method has devolved since 2010 adduces his lack of contact with other people; the accumulation of samples and guests represents a frantic attempt to substitute abundance for inspiration. By the time of The Life of Pablo I got bored defending indifferent and often loathsome raps because he insisted I should — he was “self-aware” and all that. I wrote at the time:
The release schedule is a mess? That’s how he wanted it. The track listing isn’t final? It’s a new way of listening to albums. He’s a mess? But he knows it (also known as the Drake Defense). This is auteur theory at its most decadent (Napoleon at least believed in accidents).
I’d add “cluttered, inchoate tracks are the point.”
Still, the list below represents a fucking prodigious achievement. Staying sober assessing a catalog that by Wikipedia’s count encompasses “seven studio albums, two live albums, three video albums, four mixtapes, one hundred and ten singles and ninety-three music videos” is an achievement too. I know I’m forgetting stuff. I included guest appearances that immediately stood out, although I could write another list of fifteen. At any rate Kanye’s not done yet. I assume a back-to-basics album co-produced by Rick Rubin and Jeff Lynne is in the works.
2. Through the Wire
3. Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)
4. My Way Home
5. Family Business
6. Can’t Tell Me Nothing
7. Jesus Walks
9. Drive Slow
10. Black Skinhead
11. Good Life
12. Flashing Lights
13. Real Friends
16. We Don’t Care
17. Niggas in Paris (w/Jay Z)
18. Monsta (w/Jay Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver)
19. Never Let Me Down
20. Side 2 Side (Extended Remix) — Three 6 Mafia
21. Hey Mama
22. All Falls Down
23. The Corner — Common featuring Kanye West and The Last Poets
24. Slow Jamz (w/Twista and Jamie Foxx)
25. See You in My Nightmares (w/Lil Wayne)