The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2004)
Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2005)
Graduation (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2007)
808s & Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2008)
"I'm doing pretty good as far as geniuses go," Kanye West rapped in 2007 (on "Barry Bonds"). It wasn't an idle boast. West was as interesting and complicated a pop star as the 2000s produced—a rapper who mastered, upped and moved beyond the hip-hop game, a producer who created a signature sound and then abandoned it to his imitators, a flashy, free-spending sybarite with insightful things to say about college, culture and economics, an egomaniac with more than enough artistic firepower to back it up. Instead of adapting to the mainstream, the Louis Vitton Don reshaped it, establishing a style of introspective yet glossy rap on The College Dropout and Late Registration, two of the decade's best records.
By the time West released his debut album, he was already a pretty big name in hip-hop circles. He'd produced a string of hits including Jay-Z's "Takeover" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and Ludacris's "Stand Up," earned a reputation for making distinctive tracks that often involved pitched-up samples of old soul records, and even scored a couple of hit singles of his own: "Through the Wire," recorded while his jaw was wired shut after a serious car accident, and a hyperspeed duet with Twista called "Slow Jamz." But he'd been struggling for years to get the album through a system that didn't have much use for a producer who wanted to do some rapping, too.
The College Dropout was less a breath of fresh air than a splash of ice-cold water: a fuck-you to the educational system from a professor's son who felt so conflicted about leaving it that he named his first three albums after it, and a demonstration that hip-hop—real, banging, commercial hip-hop—could be a vehicle for nuanced self-examination and musical subtlety. "We Don't Care" was a hilarious triumphant anthem where ghetto survivors taunt polite society— "We weren't supposed to make it past 25 / Joke's on you, we still alive!"—while "Jesus Walks" showed more spirit by wrestling with faith than most modern gospel does by affirming it.
Late Registration is even better, an uncompromisingly eccentric, arrogant, jubilant hammer-hurler of an album, produced in collaboration with pop mastermind Jon Brion. It comes off as a conversation with vintage soul as well as with West's hip-hop contemporaries—the mammoth hit "Gold Digger," as angry as it is irresistible, bounces his rhymes off a snatch of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman," and West was the only rapper of that moment who would've dared to juxtapose guest appearances by Jay-Z (a remake of the earlier single "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," in which 'Ye discusses his own complicity in the bloody diamond trade) and Nas (the victory stomp "We Major").
The shock value of West's first two albums had mostly worn off by Graduation, a totally solid record that suffers only by failing to deliver another revolution. It's his slickest, proudest album to date, with a few tracks that succumb to West's ongoing struggle with high self-esteem. Fortunately, his musical ideas are as adventurous as ever—the #1 single "Stronger" is built around a Daft Punk track, "Flashing Lights" incorporates a cinematic string section, and the woozy Mos Def collaboration "Drunk and Hot Girls" gets its hook from a sample of German experimental band Can, of all things.
You have to give West credit for the guts it took to release 808s & Heartbreak, a synth-pop album on which he mostly sings rather than rapping, with the ubiquitous aid of the ultimate late-'00s pop cliché, Auto-Tune's robotic pitch-adjustment effect. Still, despite a couple of decent grooves (especially "Love Lockdown"), listening to West electro-warble about romantic despair is like watching Michael Jordan play snooker.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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