by Brian Erickson
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
We've seen artists like Kanye West before. They're called David Bowie, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Spoon, Pavement, Joni Mitchell, The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan. They are artists who offer sustained streaks of brilliance across their respective catalogs.
Now seven albums into his career, we're witnessing something that we actively don't want to have happen. The person who will replace precious, fragile (and almost equally-unpredictable) Kurt Cobain as the defining artist of a particular generation is radically honest, outspoken, braggadocios, and so prone to brilliantly-choreographed public shit storms that it's now become routine to expect a Kanye tirade around Grammy season. And I love it. All of it.
But while I think some of the stunts aren't quite real, West's desire for validation and respect among his peers is very real because it's something we all want. As artists, or business people, or husbands and wives, or as parents, we want people like us to know we're good and we need to be able to show it. Everyone wants to be a standard-bearer and that's not too much to ask. And West's question-and-answer game plays like an autobiography of the voices inside his head across these seven great-to-fantastic albums.
I'd say let's separate the man from the music, but we can't. Because - like John Lennon's solo work - one so completely defines the other. The best we can do is listen.
The College Dropout (2004)
When I talk about Kanye to friends who like rap music, they reference The College Dropout as the one which remains his best. And it's hard to argue with them. Had West dropped this album, with game-changers like, "Jesus Walks," "Never Let Me Down," and "School Spirit," then rode off into the sunset forever, Dropout would be no less impactful, standing alongside Ready to Die, Illmatic, Marquee Moon and Are You Experienced as one of the finest debut records ever made.
While I'm not a big fan of the skits and interludes, they do serve to move the album's narrative along pretty nicely. And by the end, our character has an epiphany: What is all of this worth? What did this "education" really get me? It's a canny parallel to the "street life," that so many of his peers rap about, particularly when it involves making it safely to the other side. What did the street game get me? Jail? Violence? Desperation? On The College Dropout, West - the son of a photojournalist father and English professor mother - talks about having played a decidedly different game with a different type of desperation. In the end, he only winds up in a different type of prison. He's not street but he's rapping what he knows with 100% honesty. If the best parts of hip hop culture are about pride and integrity, West shows that - right from the rip - he belongs.
Late Registration (2005)
No less sprawling, but more focused than its predecessor, Late Registration sounds like what might have happened had The Beatles gone right form the primal burst of Please Please Me to the heady euphoria of Revolver.
Instead of producing the record mostly himself, Kanye handed the reins to noted film score composer Jon Brion who's string-drenched major sevenths helped create standout records for the likes of LA inside-out pop weirdos like Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. In Brion's capable hands, Late Registration becomes arguably the most imaginatively-produced rap album of all-time; the product of an unlikely meeting of two extraordinarily musical minds. West's conversational flow tightens, deepens, and becomes more introspective on songs like, "Roses," and "Heard Em Say." Meanwhile, "Crack Music," points to the harder, more aggressive aesthetic West would adopt much later on Yeezus. Oh yeah, and "Gold Digger," will be played at every party ever until the Earth gets swallowed by the sun.
Another round of skits showcases West's ever-growing ego as he laughs along at the common people, trolling them all the way to the bank. It's one thing to want to feel as though you belong - a theme West revisits as often as any in his oeuvre - but it's another to like having nice things (wanting to move up in life). And sometimes when a poor man gets rich (when we go from one life stage to another), he leaves those old friends behind. Apropos since the last line of the album proper is, "Sorry, Mr. West is gone." Kanye knows where he needs to be. There's nothing left here for him. It's time to graduate.
While teachers and parents will tell you to "go to college, learn, and come out smarter than you were when you went in," what they don't tell you is most of that education gets acquired through your experience, not your textbooks. This epiphany effectively answers the question The College Dropout's question: is it all worth it? Yes it is, but in no way that you could have expected.
"Tell me what it takes to be number one," Kanye West raps on the song "Champion," before repeating the same line again, hammering home the emphasis. "Do you think about me now and then?" asks guest Chris Martin on "Homecoming."
With these thoughts hanging in the air over the album, Kanye hits the existential, post-collegiate quarter-life crisis right on the head. And all the education and all the money-spent in the world still means nothing if you can't figure out how to gainfully do something for someone else.
And in the post-Facebook era, with all eyes on us at all times, the scope of public failure has never been so immense. West knows this as much as anyone and poses another deep question to his audience: What is success, and if obtained, what will it do for me? To quote the titular song, "I wonder what it means to find your dreams?" Everyone has a different answer. And even if you don't find proper success, the human condition allows us to eventually define it for ourselves as a means of survival. Over time, we care less and less about the opinions of others, exposure be damned. This is what West will eventually come to realize. But - like the rest of us - he's got to go through a little bit of Hell to get there first.
808's & Heartbreak (2008)
It's on 808s that Kanye lays it all out on the table. His mother is dead, his engagement has been broken off and - like Bob Dylan during those crucial mid-60s years from which he would eventually retreat - West has the public's attention whether or wants it or not. So with his dirty laundry airing out for all to see, he makes a play for the truest connection between maestro and audience: he sings.
West employs the use of Auto-Tune throughout 808s; a central criticism from the rock traditionalists who had previously praised his artistic, boundary-blurring guile. But "Welcome to Heartbreak," and "Heartless," are still easy highlights while "Paranoid," is an instant classic. If 808s didn't exist, there's a good chance Drake, The Weeknd, and Frank Ocean would sound vastly different if they'd even be listened-to at all. 808s with its analogue throwback sound ends up being West's most futuristic album as it successfully paved the way for the next generation of prominent hip hop artists.
At this juncture, West has ceased to be the thinking man's rapper. He is now the feeling person's artist; an avenue he would continue to explore moving forward.
My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy (2010)
The fallout from 808s & Heartbreak hit West particularly hard. The Auto-Tune-assisted live performances were, at times, disastrous. So instead of continuing the album-a-year (including 2006's live Late Orchestration) assault on the public, Kanye backed off. He cancelled what would have been a massively lucrative tour with Lady Gaga, moved to Hawaii and kept his mouth shut.
And then he went on SNL.
West debuted the song, "Power," and the public completely lost its collective shit. In a cornerless white room dressed in all red surrounded by two dozen ballerinas, ready for his closeup, Kanye delivered one of the most inspired live performances television had ever seen. Kanye at this point is both Michael on Motown 25 and Sinead tearing Pope John Paul II's portrait; equally beloved as he is reviled. Let's have a toast to the dbags, indeed.
West's music has grown increasingly more complex and the major/minor vocal melody, bassline, and piano tinkle of "Runaway," confuses and amazes me every time. The downright scary (I think it's a) synth of "Monster," keeps me up long past lights-out, and "All of the Lights," is the kind of deadbeat, anti-hero anthem that every good comic book villain wishes they had. Of course only Kanye is ballsy enough to actually create it.
My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy once again changed the game. Except unlike the slow burn of 808s & Heartbreak which would reveal its influence across the ensuing decade, Fantasy was an immediate call to arms not just for rap but for music in general. There's a new sheriff in town and he's burying his critics one-by-one the same way any of the great rock musicians of old had: by delivering an inarguably great album and daring everyone else to top it.
Now here's something completely different.
After the universally-praised My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West settled down and became a husband and father. Released just three days after his daughter's birth, one would have expected Yeezus to be a more subdued, domestic album. Perhaps West would ruminate on ageing and staying relevant, or the prospect of fatherhood, or we'd get a Kardashian kameo. We get none of those things. In fact, West takes none of those things, strips them bare, skins them, sticks them in the freezer, then tosses them out into the wild in the middle of February. That is to say this album is colder than cold. It's downright Antarctic.
Unlike every album West has made at this point, there are no hooks. There is no musicality. There is no soul. And amid this drastic stylistic about-face, West declares under no uncertain terms, "I am a God," finally admitting what the public has basically been waiting for him to say since the very beginning. Kanye has taken his talents to South Beach. He has embraced being the villain.
With the assistance of Rick Rubin, who fashioned starkly-produced, artistically-triumphant records by Johnny Cash and Black Sabbath, West makes his American Recordings, gunmetal gray and all. This is not music of the people. This is music for one person and one person only. West is no longer Dylan. He's Jordan Belfourt. He's Patrick Bateman. Kanye is staring ice and razorblades down at everyone from his corner penthouse.
I had a music critic friend call this Kanye West/Plastic Ono Band in reference to John Lennon's famously stark debut solo album. But to me, that's still too rich an experience; it still gives us too much. Instead, Yeezus is Kanye's 4'33. It may not music at all. But it's not quite silence, either. It's up to we the listeners to decide if what we're hearing in all that empty space is even worth coming back to.
The Life of Pablo (2016)
This is more what I was expecting with Yeezus, to be quite honest. But sometimes a man must purge, I suppose.
In creating The Life of Pablo but only making it available via a single digital streaming site (in this case, Tidal), what West has done this time around is bigger than the music itself. He has altered the conversation concerning the ownership of music ("I buy CD's and vinyl, therefore I own this music"). West has already gone back to TLOP made changes, and reuploaded new mixes since the album's release date.
Artists like to swing their integrity around by saying things like, "I make music for me; for my own self-fulfillment." But by not putting TLOP in a physical format; by not committing it to something which can never be changed, West has so completely committed to the art of music-as-self-fulfillment, it almost makes me angry because I don't quite understand it. The version of Pablo that I listen to today might not be the version I hear two weeks from now and there's something unsettling but exciting about that!
Then there are the songs! "Famous" is a Millennial anthem; hands in the air because you do care, after all. And opener "Ultralight Beam" with its couplet, "This is a God dream/This is everything," redeems the coldbox anger of Yeezus's "I Am a God." Here, West is looking to testify. And he's made the perfect 21st century gospel record to go along with his atonement.
At all times furious and joyful, guarded and celebratory, Pablo is both not and exactly like any other album West has produced. There are pieces of everything he's done and everything that's been done in both his name and his wake. It's like listening to the History of Rap (2004 - 2016); yet still an exciting direction for a man who remains one of music's great, innovative provocateurs. And like Dylan, Gainsbourg, Biggie, Tupac, Lennon, Wilson, Hendrix, Redding, Cooke, Wonder, Gaye, Cobain, and Jackson, West continues to reach all new levels of brilliance, challenging his global audience every step of the way.
With each passing album, the public like to think it's possibly getting closer and closer to a critical misstep; to the point where West's massive ego finally outruns his actual ability. But seven albums in and no sign of clear failure in sight, perhaps West - now more mature and grounded with (I can't believe I'm saying this) what appears to be a stable, happy marriage and two kids - may prove us all wrong and simply fly this high forever. I can't wait to see what happens next. This is everything, indeed.