I anticipate crap from fans. The list’s brevity is clear: Kanye’s achievement ended after 2008. I don’t rate anything after 2010, a few singles from the Jay Z collab Watch the Thrones and Yeezus aside. My Boring Conventional Fantasies is the kind of thought-through, meticulous achievement that sounds hamhandedly arranged and insular as any bedsit songwriter’s, yet mixed as if Station to Station were Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I suppose this is an achievement too. My students acknowledge no Kanye before 2010; they also acknowledge no Jay Z before The Black Album.
1. Graduation (2007)
From anyone else this third album would have been treading wheels time already; from Kanye, it’s a consolidation, an affirmation. The sheen on Graduation is like a new Ashton’s, and that’s the point: he’s got money, he can afford to hire Chris Martin, sample “P.Y.T.” and Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and lure T-Pain and Lil Wayne at the peak of their own careers. Finally, Graduation marked the point at which hip-hop started sounding like the unserious miscellanies that listeners had assembled as iTunes playlists, which meant acknowledging how more people had been listening to electronic music than bizzers had previously thought. “Stronger” is the visionary result: a Daft Punk collaboration half in love with its easeful powerglide. Of course the sample works; we don’t hear enough about the synths, the guitar pokes over the outro. As for the rest, I’m glad I got him the first time around.
2. The College Dropout (2004)
In the beginning he rapped about his mom, arrested in her youth for sit-ins, from whom he learned an appreciation for English as a language. If already he uses family relations as kindling for offerings burned in his name, the polyphony of R&B samples sustains the illusion that Kanye’s got a musical family when the real one won’t do, and both support systems understand the embarrassment of being asked for ID at Sam’s Club. Whether reading James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk or watching Barry Jenkins’ adaptation, fans look to a work of art that accepts the vibrancy of a middle class of color. Let The College Dropout stand as its mix tape and achievement this century.
3. Late Registration (2005)
Goodbye sped-up Minnie Mouse samples, hello, Jon Brion. Rather than enchanting some of his fans (cough) and going Fiona Apple, Kanye applies to hip-hop the orchestration and dynamics with which singer-songwriters had thickened their craft. The section from “Drive Slow” to “Bring Me Down” is the prof. “Gold Digger, which sounds even worse now than in 2005, illustrates the Kanye problem: he responds to Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles interpolation like a high schooler growling about wearing a tie to church. On the other hand Gil Scott-Hero n darkens the prolix confessional “Addiction” and Natalie Cole sweetens “Heard’Em Say.” If Late Registration has a classic, it’s the remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” in which Jay-Z explains how centuries of black exploitation at the hands of white conquerors have led to this moment of supremacy.
4. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
A year after Graduation he had moved onward, or, rather, gone inward. No bliss of solitude, though. Sure, the 808 programs, string arrangements, and the artist’s fixation on misery as signifier of aesthetic ambition weave a temporary spell; but West’s shortcomings as a melodist become clear. After the Violator-era Depeche Mode-worthy “Welcome to Heartbreak,” the anti-single “Love Lockdown,” and maybe “Robocop,” the rest is a slog. Yet listening to 808s & Heartbreak is like studying a Pre-Cambrian fossil for clues about the future. “Robocop” is faster and weirder than its successors.