The chip on Kanye’s shoulder often sat over a Ralph Lauren Polo top back in 2004, when he released his debut album “The College Dropout.” Back then he was an outsider—the backpack rapper with a lot on his mind and a fashion sense that didn’t jibe with an era where his peers swam in XXXL tees (regardless of physique) and retro sports jerseys. In pastel hues, West attacked from a different angle.
He’d already made a name for himself as a producer, crafting a chunk of Jay-Z’s critically acclaimed “Blueprint” album among other smashes. But West had much to prove as a lead man on the microphone. Like Dave Chappelle, a comedian that owned the mid ‘00s with the Comedy Central riot “Chappelle’s Show,” West cloaked social commentary in his rhymes with jokes. The formula worked. “Dropout” has sold 3.3 million copies to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
On “All Falls Down,” Kanye raps of his fixation with meaningless material things and is humorously ignorant to the pronunciation of luxury brand Versace. It peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100 in 2004.
West’s patented soul sound blanketed “Dropout.” On the smooth Jamie Foxx-assisted “Slow Jamz,” he samples Luther Vandross’ “A House Is Not A Home” while on “Jesus Walks,” he uses ARC Choir’s "Walk With Me.” It’s one of the album’s few charmless tracks. At the start, he jabs with accounts of crime in his hometown of Chicago, and then moves on to spit about the powers that be, filtering out hip-hop artists that have God-boasting content. “They say you can rap about anything,” Kanye says. “Except for Jesus.”
From the jump, West had style and substance.
Kanye West's 20 Biggest Billboard Hits
"Late Registration" (released Aug. 30, 2005 through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Still leaning heavily on his soul bounce, the biggest hit on his sophomore album was "Gold Digger,” with Jamie Foxx flexing his Ray Charles vocal abilities and interpolating the legend’s “I Got a Woman."
The Hot 100 chart-topper found the tongue-in-cheek Kanye recounting a tale of being swept up by a vixen known for bedding Busta [Rhymes] and Usher. That said, West did grow musically on “Registration.” He paired with Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion, who anchored the effort in lush waters. The keys twinkle a bit brighter on “Heard ‘Em Say” than they do on anything from “Dropout.” The beat on the downright militant “Crack Music” (West claims President Ronald Reagan is to blame for the demise of the Black Panther party) marches like an army. And horns blare as if they’re being played to soundtrack the coronation of a king on “We Major,” which makes sense. This album cemented West’s place at the table as one of hip-hop’s elite and has sold 3.1 million copies to date.
A week after the album dropped at a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon on NBC, Kanye--already known for being outspoken--made his infamous "George Bush doesn't care about black people" remark. It wouldn't be the first time he spoke his mind on a grand stage, potential backlash be damned.
Page 2: "Graduation" & "808s & Heartbreak"
All art by Marco Cibola
"Graduation" (released Sept. 11, 2007 through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
With the hip-hop world in his palm, Kanye decided to reach for another groove. His quest led him to sampling French dance duo Daft Punk’s "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." West’s “Stronger” whips and thwacks in a way none of his sped up soul-sampling single ever did. And through the Venetian shades he wore in its video, West watched the single whiz to No. 1 on the Hot 100.
Though it had its fair share of defiant (Can’t Tell Me Nothing”), heartfelt (Jay-Z-dedicated “Big Brother”) and pensive (“Everything I’m Am”) moments, the mood of “Graduation” is generally a contented one. The joyous T-Pain-featuring “Good Life” is the effort’s other smash (peaking at No. 7 on the Hot 100). This album sold 2.7 million copies.
"808s & Heartbreak" (released Nov. 24, 2008 through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
If “Graduation” marked West’s ascension to the pop star ranks of Justin Timberlake (who he referred to as the Prince to his Michael Jackson), “808s & Heartbreak” chronicled his abrupt decent back to Earth. Just two months after “Graduation" hit stores, West’s mother Dr. Donda West died of complications from cosmetic surgery. As if that loss wasn’t enough, Kanye’s relationship with then fiancé Alexis Phifer crumbled as well.
Rather than retreating from the music scene to recuperate and grieve, West hit the studio and whipped up “808s,” an album soaked in despair and clearly showing how lonely the top was for Kanye at the moment.
Mourning the losses of a parent and a breakup with a wife-to-be, Kanye opted to sing via voice-altering device Auto-Tune instead of rap. The emotionally raw effort spawned two Top 5 Hot 100 singles: "Love Lockdown" (No. 3) and “Heartless” (No. 2). In the artful videos for each, West was moody and muted, with hair grown past its usually close-trimmed length.
It’s also the first Kanye West album where the bulk of it is sample free. There’s no soulful joy here—just gut-wrenching honesty. West mostly leaned on the Roland TR-808 drum machine and producer Jeff Bhasker to create airy, tribal soundscapes.
The melodic rap style West popularized on “808s” to the tune of 1.7 million records sold also paved the road for artists like Drake and former protégé Kid Cudi to unabashedly be themselves artistically on arrival.
Page 3: "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" & "Yeezus"
"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (released Nov. 22, 2010 through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
After a self-imposed exile, following his notorious interruption of Taylor Swift’s MTV VMAs acceptance speech in 2009 – which prompted President Barack Obama to call him a “jackass” -- West recorded his most critically acclaimed album yet: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
“MBDTF” featured a who’s who of guests; Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Fergie, Elton John, Bon Iver and a host of others played roles in the effort. Still, Kanye led the way. Though he raps for the majority of the album, the set is a masterfully created amalgam of all of the skills West had picked up throughout his career. Several tracks sample from classic records of yesteryear. He sings on numerous songs, including standout single “Runaway.” And on the effort’s biggest single “All of the Lights” (No. 18 on the Hot 100), the content revolves around grim topics like domestic violence and the pitfalls of not being a supportive father.
Overall, “Twisted Fantasy” is a gloomy album. Race relations, societal injustices and relationship woes dominate its content. That paired with the fact that West’s image had yet to fully recover from the Swift incident, made this his lowest selling solo album. Fortunately for Kanye, “low” is 1.3 million albums sold.
“Yeezus” (out June 18, 2013 through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Points about society’s ills and West’s shortcomings are no longer undercut by witty quips on “Yeezus.” “Songs like “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” “I Am a God” are swigs of dark liquor with no chaser in site. Sonically, only two tracks (one of which is closer “Bound 2”) resemble the soul-sampling Kanye of yore. The remaining eight smack of new wave, punk, and dance. With Rick Rubin executive producing and Daft Punk also assisting with this set, West has clearly put a great deal of work into ensuring its quality. But he certainly is not pandering for album sales or even to be appreciated for anything other than being an artist. Not one song here pleads or screams “hit single.”
Really though, they don’t have to. Without a conventional album rollout (no singles have been released ahead of its June 18 release) and only one major interview to his credit, “Yeezus” aims to be West's most experimental and polarizing album yet.