in Retrospecticus

Have you heard Kanye West’s new album yet?  Well, since no one but millionaires and people who love millionaires (which probably isn’t the demographic of this site) are the only people who use Tidal — the only platform the album is available on right now — I’m guessing the answer is probably “no”.  So before you figure out some other way of downloading The Life Of Pablo that doesn’t involve Tidal, let’s take a look back at the impressive collection of albums Kanye has put out thus far, and perhaps remind ourselves why we fell in love with this brash knucklehead in the first place.

The College Dropout (2004)

collegedropoutThis is by no means a perfect album, which is why I feel a little weird giving it a five star rating, but I think there is something kind of perfect about it’s sprawling messiness.  The College Dropout is the product of years of songs and ideas that had been building up in Mr. West’s always fertile mind, as he struggled to convince the major labels that he was just as viable as a rapper and solo artist as he was as a producer.  Needless to say, this debut almost always feels that way, since The College Dropout is such a deluge of inspiration, with so many different sounds thrown into each song, all the while establishing a new model for actual beauty and melody in modern hip-hop, but without ever questioning whether that was something we needed (hint: it was).

The subject matter here is also similarly all over the place, but it works since it all now seems so indicative of this always complicated and contradictory-laden artist.  The College Dropout thematically attempts to cover inner city strife (“We Don’t Care”), religion (“Jesus Walks”), drugs (“Get ‘Em High”), education (“School Spirit”), and of course VHS workout videos (“Workout Plan”).  And yet despite this disparity of tones, it’s all held together by Kanye’s silky smooth production and his knack for bringing out the best in his colleagues (this is an album that happens to be an unimpeachable classic that also happens to feature Ludacris on it).  So clearly, The College Dropout established that there was a lot to this Kanye dude, and thankfully he was just getting started…

Favorite Tracks: “All Falls Down”, “Slow Jamz”, “Family Business”

Late Registration (2005)

Late_Registration_coverA lot of people seem to hail Late Registration as the peak of the so-called “college trilogy” (and perhaps Kanye’s entire discography), though for me this has always felt a little like The College Dropout vol. 2.  But either way, it’s more or less another sprawling knock-out from an artist that seemed intent on connecting as many musical dots as possible.  Again, it’s another imperfect album, though that may be more indebted to the “just throw everything on the CD” nature of mainstream hip-hop albums at the time, though I’m no expert on that particular niche, or most of the artists that were influenced by Mr. West’s presence in hip-hop at the time.  So why am I writing this piece then?  Well, because like a lot of music listeners of my ilk, who have a very modest interest in hip-hop, I can’t help but marvel at the musical prowess and depth of knowledge that we get on a Kanye West album, and Late Registration might be the best example of that.

The contributions of composer/producer Jon Brion have often been cited as key components of Late Registration, and I’ll admit that his more orchestral contributions are what keep the album from actually sounding like The College Dropout vol. 2.  A lot of Kanye’s early career was marked by bringing a greater sensitivity and introspection to hip-hop, and it is weirdly ballsy to hear a song like “Heard ‘Em Say” (featuring the Maroon 5 guy from The Voice) or either of his tributes to his late mother (“Roses”, “Hey Mama”).  But I guess that’s what separates a genius from the rest of us schlubs — the ability see past whatever trends are popular at the time and focus solely on your own creative vision so vehemently that you in turn become the thing that’s trendy or popular.  Which is the kind of sentence I always feel a little reluctant in typing, since god knows Kanye’s self-importance doesn’t need any more inflating.  But I suppose it’s a little easier when talking about Late Registration, which came out at the point right before Kanye’s ego started getting the best of him.

Favorite Tracks: “Heard ‘Em Say”, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, “Gone”

Graduation (2007)

graduationOf course, listening to Kanye’s rise to superstardom was a lot of fun anyways.  Not that anything on his first two albums where anything less than irresistible, Graduation feels more than any other release like Kanye’s “pop album”.  Synthesizers and anthemic choruses are even more prevalent this time around, while the vintage soul samples are mostly absent, which overall makes for a bit of a broader sonic palette.  There also doesn’t seem to be quite the level of collaboration on Graduation, as there aren’t a lot of guest verses from other rappers the way Kanye is usually wont to do, which probably even further fuels Graduation‘s status as his “rock star” album.

And on this surface, this approach totally works.  Basically every song on Graduation holds together as an undeniably catchy and well-constructed pop song, while the fact that Kanye doesn’t seem to entirely embrace his newfound fame keeps them from becoming too obnoxious.  Also, the fact that this was the first Yeezy album without the skits found on his first two releases (which I’ll admit are amusing, but unnecessary) and features a comparably brief 51-minute running time, makes it a more focused version of Kanye’s deceptively intricate sound.  Still, the absence of much in the way of social commentary and the fact that it deals with fame in a way that isn’t as dark or complicated as his later albums kind of makes Graduation feel a little hollow, albeit in the masterful way that most great pop records aspire to be hollow.

Favorite Tracks: “Good Morning”, “Flashing Lights”, “Homecoming”

808’s & Heartbreak (2008)

808s&heartbreakHere’s the thing about 808’s & Heartbreak.  I think it is another testament to Kanye’s brilliance that what was once thought of as the mopey stepchild in his discography has ended up being quite possibly his most influential album.  Kanye’s music had always been marked by its introspection, but with this album, he took his then-recent personal turmoil (marked by a break-up and the death of his mother) and turned it into something both melancholy and forward-thinking.

That said, the modern artists that have taken obvious cues from this album (Drake, Kid Kudi, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, etc.) tend to be artists that I’m kind of indifferent towards, as this recent trend of mope-rap or PBR&B or whatever you wanna call it always feels a little wishy-washy for my tastes.  And that’s kind of how feel about a lot of the synth and autotune-centric songs on 808’s & Heartbreak.  Still, I do always find myself responding to the sly dance-ability of a song like “Paranoid”, or the sweep of “RoboCop”, though it’s questionable whether that movie’s evil robot needed to do a guest vocal on its chorus.  So basically what I’m saying is that I recognize that 808’s is uniquely important, but not necessarily in the ways that I go to Kanye West for (also, I needed an excuse to give a relatively low rating to an artist who hasn’t had a ton of missteps artistically).

Favorite Tracks: “Heartless”, “Paranoid”, “RoboCop”

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

mybeautifulblahblahblahAnd for those clamoring for the old Kanye to come back, here was the answer to all their prayers.  At this point, it almost feels like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the most critically acclaimed album of our time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up becoming the consensus Best Album Of The ’10s.  Which is more or less what compelled me to finally check out this album when it was released, despite the fact that I had gone so many years avoiding ever get into Kanye West’s albums.  And though I will say this album’s bombastic pop acumen made it a decent introduction to this most vital of artists, it is an album that probably worked best if you heard it in 2010 having the established relationship that most music critics and fans had already had with Mr. West.

Here we have the man confronting his demons and well-publicized eccentricities (this came a year or two after that Taylor Swift awards debacle), and turning them into something exhilarating, sad, funny, odd, and unmistakably Kanye.  While we get an even more maximalist return to the maximalism of Kanye’s early records, we also get the return of his innate ability to put all the right collaborators together in the same room, as the album features memorable turns from plenty of established names like Jay-Z, Raekwon, and Rick Ross, while also introducing the world to Nicki Minaj.  Yet despite this album’s almost unimpeachable critical standing, I will say for me MBDTF always drags a bit towards the middle with songs like “So Appalled” and “Devil In A New Dress”, though that might just be due to how overpowering the tracks preceding them are.  Also, I’m not entirely sure why Chris Rock is on this album.  But however you slice it, this is a beast of a record, and living proof that you can be super rich and successful and still have something to prove.

Favorite Tracks: “Power”, “All Of The Lights”, “Runaway”

Yeezus (2013)

yeezus-new-coverI wrote a review for Yeezus back when it came out a few years ago, and at the time, I think my reaction was a mix of both admiration and befuddlement.  And I think the thing I admire about it, is that more than any other Kanye album, Yeezus is clearly meant to be more of an artistic statement than a thing that people are meant to listen to.  It’s still a loud, abrasive work that isn’t quite like anything else sonically in Yeezy’s catalogue, though perhaps you could make a case for Yeezus being the darker flip-side of the sparse electronics featured on 808’s & Heartbreak.  But whatever the case is, I feel like this will be the example people use in the coming decades when they talk about Kanye as an uncompromising genius, which may account for it being another overwhelmingly critically lauded effort, despite the fact that I can’t imagine a lot of people listening to any of these tracks when shuffling through their music library other than commercial staple “Black Skinhead”.

At the time of its release, I remember there being some talk of Yeezus feeling a bit like Kanye’s way of exorcising all his demons on record, by letting all of them out into a hedonistic orgy of glitchy chaos before settling down as a married man.  And from the looks of it, that narrative might prove to be true.  I haven’t heard a ton from The Life Of Pablo, but the songs I have heard seem to catch Kanye at peace in a lot of ways and embracing a more docile sound.  It’s hard to say if this means he’ll proceed to ease into a less artistically fruitful period of his career as he focuses on being a family-man and his fashion line and, I don’t know, becoming Steve Jobs or whatever he’s been talking about.  And yes, this does seem a little hard to imagine, since he’s walked such a focused line of artistic reinvention for so many years.  But you do have to remember, even David Bowie, the king of reinvention eventually succumbed to artistic flaccidity in the late ’80s after an unparalleled 15-year run.  But whether such a thing will plague Kanye as we head in to the future, well… only time will tell.

Favorite Tracks: “Black Skinhead”, “New Slaves”, “Bound 2”