Since the early noughts, Kanye West has continued to shift the paradigm of not only hip hop but modern music with his innovative production and boastful quips. A trailblazer in everything he does, the Chicago native is known for both his controversial pop culture moments and his ability to blend genres and samples together to background his honest storytelling. With nine studio albums (not including his collaborative efforts), 22 Grammy Awards and half his catalogue permanently placed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, it’s not hard to see why Kanye is hailed as an absolute musical genius and one of the most influential artists in history.
To celebrate upcoming tenth studio album DONDA, we unpack the always impressive discography of Kanye West.
The College Dropout (2004)
In the beginning, a twenty-something Kanye was making it big as a producer for Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records but was struggling to get people to take him seriously as a solo artist. His sped-up soul sampling (dubbed now as ‘chipmunk soul’) and preppy swagger was a stark contrast to the gangsta rap movement that was so popular at the time, and both artists and execs in the field didn’t see the need for someone like Kanye to step onto the scene as a rapper. But after a reluctant sign to Roc-A-Fella and a near-fatal car crash in 2002 that left the rapper with a shattered jaw, Kanye laid the foundations for his debut album The College Dropout.
Four years in the making, The College Dropout is Kanye’s extraordinary proof that he can do anything. Detailing the pivotal moments of his life leading up to this, the album explores Kanye’s thoughts and feelings on religion, self-consciousness, racism, and the world’s obsession with higher education. A college dropout himself, Kanye cites the overall theme of the album as “making your own decisions and not letting society tell you this is what you have to do” (in true Ye fashion). The College Dropout well and truly put the star on the map, making Kanye a double threat in both the world of production and rapping, and went on to win Best Rap Album at the Grammys.
Late Registration (2005)
After the success of The College Dropout, the hip hop world started overflowing with other artists trying to emulate the chipmunk soul sound Kanye had influenced, so he simply created something new. Enlisting film composer Jon Brion (his work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind inspired Ye), the two expanded the vision of hip hop and experimented with string orchestration, Chinese bells and the instrumentation of keyboards and pianos. Kanye’s rapping had significantly grown as well, with the star following his higher education concept but sprinkling in discussions of capitalism, the pros and cons of fame, drug trafficking and health care.
Late Registration only further enhanced what Kanye knew he was made of, and it showed the world that the rapper could grow musically with ease. In the span of a year, Kanye had already become an entirely new artist. One that found himself trapped in the very web he was once so desperate to get stuck in. The album was an immediate success and earned Kanye eight Grammy nominations, including another win for Best Rap Album.
The conclusion to his education series, Graduation sees Kanye where he always wanted to be: sat comfortably at the table. He’s grown, he’s changed, he’s gone from everyone’s favourite background producer to everyone’s favourite worldwide phenomenon. But is it really what he wants? Fame, and all its drama, is a journey Kanye’s always struggled to navigate and it’s on Graduation that we see the beginnings of a star start to crumble under the pressure.
Musically, the album took inspiration from indie rock and house music. After joining U2 on tour, Kanye became inspired by the anthems the band would play to sold out stadiums and he looked for ways to bring that kind of unity to hip hop. He simplified his lyrics and themes, created catchy hooks and rhythms, and experimented a whole lot with synthesisers and electronics. This of course marked a true turning point for hip hop, showing that rap didn’t have to always conform to the same conventions (specifically those found in gangsta rap) and paved the way for other hip hop artists to become commercially successful. Graduation earned Kanye his third Grammy win for Best Rap Album and his third nomination for Album of the Year.
808s & Heartbreak (2008)
In the lead-up to his fourth studio album, two tragic events happened in Kanye’s life; first his fiancé of 2 years, Alexis Phifer, ended their engagement and second his mother, Donda West, passed away from complications with cosmetic surgery. Dealing with an unbearable amount of grief (and guilt, due to Ye blaming himself and his fame for his mother’s death), Kanye pulled together the broken pieces of his heart and tried to replicate the emotion in his music. A distorted, melancholic electro-pop album is what emerged.
808s … is lonely. It’s a harrowing, personal reflection of a star who simultaneously has everything and nothing all at once. The rapper just can’t seem to grasp why he has all the money he’d ever need but not the love of those he longs for. Stripping everything back, the album focuses on moody electronic beats (made mostly with the 808 drum machine) and sees Kanye singing roughly with Auto-Tune. It’s known to be one of the biggest pioneers for emo-rap and experimental R&B, yet again bending the boundary lines of hip hop, and falls suddenly from the stadium-chanter heights Graduation had set. But despite its dramatic shift in sound, the album is cited as one of the best in Kanye’s entire catalogue.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
By the time 2010 rolled around, Kanye had officially hit a decade in the music biz, and he knew all his previous collaborators enough to now pick out the moments where they shone the brightest. He knew who sounded best on what track, or what production was best suited for their energy, and he culminated everything he had ever learned into one gorgeous little package. Ask anyone, fans and critics alike, and they’ll all say MBDTF is one of the greatest things Kanye has ever done.
Going back to the grandeur of Graduation, MBDTF is known to be a fantastic exploration of maximalism and the excessiveness of fame and wealth. Following the controversial 2009 VMAs moment that saw him interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, Kanye took some time away from the flashing lights to recoup himself and really try and understand the things he was feeling. The album touches on the American Dream, consumer culture, race, and celebrity status, and incorporates musical elements from all of Kanye’s previous albums. It won the rapper his fourth Best Rap Album Grammy and has been named one of the best albums in history.
It’s hard to believe Yeezus came out in 2013 when its sound is so advanced. That’s particularly what set the album apart from the rest of Kanye’s catalogue, but also because it’s wrapped up in a generally hopeful message. Yeezus is the first album after Kanye started dating Kim Kardashian, and somehow through all the glam, glitz and drama, the reality star mended the rapper’s broken heart.
Sonically, the album is a madhouse of Chicago drill, acid-house, industrial and punk. Taking inspiration from literal furniture, Kanye looked to industrialism and minimalism and applied that to his own life, citing that “visionaries can be misunderstood by their unenlightened peers.” But despite its minimalistic approach (the album has no cover art and is sold exactly how it looks), Yeezus is based on Kanye’s alter-ego; his glorified, godly persona that sees him fall into all the darkest and gluttonous parts of himself, and what that monster turns into when it falls in love. The album earned two nominations at the Grammys and became the most critically acclaimed record of 2013.
The Life of Pablo (2016)
A year on from Yeezus, Kanye and Kim were married and had welcomed their baby daughter North into the world (and by the time TLOP rolled around, son Saint had arrived too). Things were looking good for Kanye; he had all his life boxes checked and was settling into a familial dream he had always seen himself live. But what does it mean when you start a family when you’re Kim Kardashian and Kanye West? The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s ode to family and his own paranoia of keeping it far, far away from his biggest nemesis: fame.
Slotted in against Kanye’s other shiny records, TLOP undeniably stands out. Not only for its long track list (something Ye hadn’t done since Late Registration) but for its messy composition. Coming from the jagged Yeezus, TLOP felt a little all over the place musically (multiple rereleases and edits altered the album’s success), but it seemed to really represent the rapper’s jumbled personal life and mind at the time. Stepping into the world of gospel, the album plays like a spiritual awakening. Kanye is reconsidering what’s important to him in this new life he’s created and hoping this is his final level to conquer. TLOP earned five Grammy nominations and introduced the world to the new, equally as fascinating, era of Kanye.
Once 2018 hit, Kanye and Kim had welcomed another child into the world and Kanye had added a few more controversies back to his belt. From being hospitalised in a psychiatric ward in late 2016 and then being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, to famously saying slavery was a choice in that 2018 video, the world was anticipating what new music from the rapper would be like. Coming in at a succinct seven tracks, ye is an emotionally raw and vulnerable peek behind the curtain of a suffering megastar.
While also his own well-known nickname, ‘ye’ is the archaic pronoun of a collective whole. As in ‘you’ and ‘us’. Linking back to his religious obsession, Kanye is on his knees trying to convince the world he’s one of us and by stripping ‘ye’ of its capitals, he’s parting with his ego and denouncing his own importance. He’s a fragile shell of the god he used to be and he’s hoping we’ll all still accept him the same. Ye arises from the darkest parts of Kanye’s mind, touching on his battle with mental health, his marriage, and the realisation of your children (especially daughters) growing up in today’s climate. It became Kanye’s eighth album to debut at number 1 on the Billboard 200 and became the best album of 2018.
Jesus Is King (2019)
A full Christian hip hop album, Jesus Is King signalled a new journey Kanye was finding himself on: one of salvation. Working with the Sunday Service Choir (a group Ye led and performed with every Sunday around this time), the album uses gospel and orchestra elements to cross the lines between Christian music and hip hop.
Originally titled ‘Yandhi’, Kanye explores the idea of sin on JIK and essentially becomes a born-again Christian. All tracks have no profanity or sexual references and follow the path of what you’d expect a hip hop track playing at church to sound like. While it may seem a bit far from home from his usual stuff, the album is a gentle reminder that Kanye is always pushing the creative boundaries of music and his own artistic expression. Following a complicated few years, the rapper is trying to build himself back up in a positive way, for not just himself but his family. Sure, it might come off a bit preachy, but isn’t this what Kanye has always done? Handed us something strange on a platter and gone “trust me, just give it a try”? JIK earned Kanye his first Best Contemporary Christian Album Grammy, making the star the most awarded hip hop act in the ceremony’s history, and has been cited as “one of the bravest and boldest albums of the decade.”
After a constant shift of the goal post, Kanye’s tenth studio album DONDA finally arrived to a much-anticipated crowd, showcasing a whopping 27 experimental tracks. A testament to his late mother, DONDA is a fantastic display of everything Kanye is great at and further spearheads the rapper as one of the most influential artists of our time.
Tapping into the gospel and Christianity themes found on Jesus Is King, DONDA continues Kanye’s new reign of mixing the two into modern hip hop. The album has also intentionally cut out any expletives on all streaming services. But it also sees parts of the rapper’s older moments as well, including electropop, industrialism, drill, and pop. With a stacked line-up of features, including Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Jay-Z and Kid Cudi, the album is a lot darker than most in Kanye’s discography and sees him dip into themes of religion, addiction, his loyalty to his ego, his divorce from Kim Kardashian, and of course the death of his mother. It’s Kanye at arguably his most vulnerable, offering up every thought and emotion he’s had to the events in his life and asking us to please just understand. While still early days, DONDA has already broken several records and earned Kanye his tenth consecutive number one on the Billboard 200, making him only one of eight artists to do so in history.