Kanye West fans are pretty annoying. Our most annoying quality, though, is that we rarely agree with each other on how to correctly rank and discuss his best album.
Although music is subjective, and every listener finds something different to attach themselves to, Kanye fans take the word subjective, inject it with steroids and watch it bench press 500 pounds of irrationality and passion like it’s nothing. Kanye fans, along with every music publication known to man short of Andy Rooney’s 60 Minutes segment, love to argue about which album is his best work but rarely does anyone talk about his worst.
Just as there is a worst Daniel Day-Lewis movie and worst type of pizza, there is a worst Kanye West album—even if the worst of those things is still arguably better than the best of their contemporaries. Maybe it’s hard to come to grips with, but Kanye’s ingenuity as an artist, coupled with the distinct sound of each project, means even his most die-hard fans will have an album they’d die trying to argue wasn’t as good as the rest of his catalog.
Here are those arguments… listed in order from easiest to hardest.
The Life of Pablo
One of the main reasons Kanye has always been held in such high regard as both an artist and a curator of wondrous sounds and ideas is the precision with which he captures them. Even when Yeezy is at his most insane (Yeezus), or his most avant-garde (808s & Heartbreak), there is always the feeling that he’s in complete control of his vision. The Life of Pablo is not that album.
There is brilliance scattered throughout TLOP. “Ultralight Beam” is a perfectly crafted ascendance into musical heaven, “Real Friends” is the type of throwback, self-conscious Kanye many fans prayed would return, and “Wolves” and “No More Parties in LA” find Kanye floating lyrically when inspired by the featured artists around him. The key word, though, is scattered, as the rest of TLOP sounds like a collage of unfinished thoughts and wide-ranging concepts that never attempt to mesh with one another.
In other words, while TLOP could be considered a very good to great collection of songs, most of it and its ensuing rollout felt like a rough draft of ideas that Kanye couldn’t manage to self-edit. For all of its bleached asshole lyrics, and Chance The Rapper come-ups, The Life of Pablo is the only Kanye project that legitimately feels like he both overthought and undercooked his own album.
One could argue Yeezus was ahead of its time. You could be the one who brings up the genius in the horns drop on “Blood On the Leaves,” or “Black Skinhead” being an all-time underrated rap single. You could even be the guy like me who argues it’s Kanye’s way of coming to grips with fatherhood by exercising his musical demons through distorted production and minimalist raps.
All of the arguments made in favor of Yeezus, however, still feel like cop-outs for an album that, honestly, might not make any fucking sense. Listening to Yeezus feels like of one of those sci-fi movies where a hole in the spaceship causes one of the characters to be sucked into the air pocket, and their insides are jettisoned out of their bodies. Tracks like “On Sight” and “New Slaves” are as exhausting as they are brilliant, but even if Kanye is the smartest guy in the room, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to listen to him yell.
Yeezus also suffers from the fact that songs like “Send It Up” and “Guilt Trip” feel like Kanye getting distracted by his own mania, and for an album with only ten tracks there’s not enough room for King L features or uses of the word “Swaghili.” Every Kanye album purposefully aims for something different, but Yeezus is the only project where Kanye’s self-indulgence comes at the expense of the listener’s enjoyment.
808s & Heartbreak
When I think about 808s & Heartbreak, I'm reminded of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.; a movie hinged upon its ability to emotionally attach its audience to its narrative and characters, all while trying to distract them from the fact that the alien kind of looks like shit.
808s, as an album, is the musical equivalent to E.T. in the sense that, despite Kanye’s trendsetting introspection and vulnerability, his voice is still a glaring flaw. Spoiler alert, but Kanye can’t actually sing, and much of 808s' effectiveness is built upon distorted, Auto-Tuned vocals and booming drum patterns doing their best to keep you thinking about how much better “Street Lights” and “Paranoid” would sound with literally anyone else singing them.
It's hard to hate most of 808s—“Heartless” and “Amazing” still hold up as bona fide rap hits ten years later—but it’s understandable to look at an album devoid of key ingredients of successful R&B-rap albums, like singing, and feel slighted. The spectacle of 808s, watching Kanye pour his heart out in such a completely unique fashion, only diverts your attention from “RoboCop,” “Bad News,” and “See You In My Nightmares” for so long before you start wondering if a grieving heart should ever overrule a rational mind.
It’s particularly hard to write any sort of slight towards Late Registration, as it is one of my all-time personal favorites. There’s so much to love, from the lush Curtis Mayfield backdrop on “Touch the Sky," to the face-melting trilogy of “Drive Slow,” “My Way Home,” and “Crack Music,” to Kanye’s spectacular verse on “Gone.” It’s the type of album that should play when you find the word “glee” in the dictionary, and it balances social commentary and playful ignorance better than any other Kanye album.
However, Late Registration is also way too long. Not just “yeah I could have lived without that song in the middle” long; you could easily make the argument that Kanye could have achieved a better album without a fourth of what he gave us. Not only do songs like “Bring Me Down” and “Celebration" feel boring upon every revisit, but there are far too many unfunny skits peppered throughout that fail to capture the iconic nature of College Dropout’s interludes.
Late Registration is what skyrocketed Yeezy into hip-hop superstardom, but it also remains Kanye’s most bloated album. There are arguments to be made that the worst Kanye albums are less fun or organized than LR, but feeling overstuffed can be just as insufferable.
Graduation, the last rapping album before “too much Hennessy at the VMAs” Kanye and “IT AINT NO RALPH THO” Kanye enveloped “old” Kanye, is the dark horse candidate for Kanye’s best album on any given day, given the right fan. It’s a tightly knit, fast-paced celebration of all things Kanye, except people at the time were still rooting for rather than booing his self-congratulatory tone. Not to mention, with tracks like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Everything I Am,” and “The Glory,” it’s arguably the pinnacle of rapping Kanye.
So how exactly could an album with such perfect moments be Kanye’s worst? It’s in the album’s tone more than anything else. Graduation thrives off the glitziness and braggadocio that come with being at the top of your craft, but it also means the album is devoid of the insecurity and introspection that we insatiably desire from Kanye’s music.
The least interesting Kanye has, unfortunately, always been the happy one, and in a catalog filled with angry, self-reflective, and humorous iterations of himself, it’s not impossible to imagine fans less intrigued by a rapper they can only admire and not relate to. That confidence leaves undeniably fun tracks like “Barry Bonds” and “Champion” at just that and nothing more.
Also, “Drunk and Hot Girls” fucking sucks.
The College Dropout
Now is where we veer into “this must have been playing when you walked in on your fiancé cheating on you in order to put this album last” territory, but here we go.
If I were a person trying to argue that The College Dropout was Kanye’s worst album, which I could never be, it would have to revolve around the idea of what we as fans want from our favorite artist's debut compared to their subsequent releases. Truly, the only argument for College Dropout coming in last is that it depicts Kanye as a hungry, cynical rapper masquerading as an established superstar as opposed to actually being one.
College Dropout is a life story album, giving us Kanye’s entire history, and quite literally on “Last Call,” leading up to the fame he has just acquired, but it’s also the only album that can’t give us the progressions and regressions from that price for fame. Other albums in Ye’s catalog arguably have richer backstories and inner workings, strictly because we as fans were able to the see the developments from College Dropout take place. Although CD remains his artistic Big Bang, what life evolves into can be more interesting than whatever it actually derived from, no matter how perfect a creation.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Let me be clear: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has never been the worst of anything. It is an immaculate album, from Nicki Minaj reading Roald Dahl in “Dark Fantasy” to Rick Ross’ verse on “Devil In a New Dress,” to the low, saddened hums at the beginning of “Lost In the World.” The thought of even writing anything further physically bothers me, but because I'm already six feet down the rabbit hole, we might as well get a little crazy.
The only, ONLY, way to argue MBDTF as the worst Kanye album is to conclude that its best moments are ones that don’t involve Kanye's vocal presence. We remember “Devil In a New Dress” because of Rick Ross, just like we remember “Monster” for Nicki Minaj. “Blame Game” isn’t fully complete without Chris Rock’s monologue, and even “Runaway” veers into dangerous tonal overload without Pusha T stepping in. Even the most iconic production, from “Runaway” to “Power,” is at the front of our memories before a Kanye verse begins.
Maybe it feels like a delusional person grasping at straws, but there is a case to be made that MBDTF hinges upon its ensemble cast, and for fans who want uninterrupted bouts of Kanye, no matter how deranged or sad, he shares quite a bit of the spotlight with heavy hitters arguably out-punching him lyrically.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go pray to my Kanye poster for allowing myself to write this.