Let’s Look Back At The Best (And Worst) Eras Of Kanye West’s Career Ahead Of The Release Of His Newest Album

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It took an eternity but Kanye West is finally releasing a new album on Friday

However, if past history is any indication, it might not be released. It’s either that or it’ll be released, and then unreleased, and then released again, the same, but different.

This could happen several more times. Or it might just not come out at all.

Or it might.

But it might not.

There was once a time when Kanye’s penchant for doing things his own way was admirable and endearing but now it’s just flat out frustrating. In a world where literally no one likes to wait for anything, Kanye West is perfectly content only making people wait.

Jesus Is King will be Kanye’s ninth solo album and his first since he found himself religion (hence the title). However, if you thought he was referring to himself as Jesus, that’s okay. It’s Kanye West. That’s kind of on-brand for him.

It feels like Kanye has been in our lives forever, and to be honest, he kind of has been.

He got his big break back almost twenty years ago when he started working with people at Roc-A-Fella Records—specifically Jay-Z. His work on The Blueprint kicked the door wide open and he’s been a part of our lives ever since (for better or worse).

Any artist who has been around as long as Kanye is going to have a career full of ups and downs, all both equally mesmerizing and head-scratching. But his run has been especially trying for his fans.

For the artists that we develop long-term relationships with, we typically pine for some semblance of consistency and, at the very least, hints of reliability. Going rogue for an album is fine, provided that it somehow resembles the artist we’ve come to know and love. We just want to know that the core remains even though everything around it might seem different.

With Kanye, the only real aspect of consistency throughout his career is the lack of it. Us not knowing what to expect from him has become what we expect from him. It’s confusing to say the least.

It’s also why Kanye West’s discography can be best described when broken down into eras.

Era One: “Woke Up An Optimist, Sun Was Shining, I’m Positive

Kanye’s first album, The College Dropoutwas a bomb in the best possible way. It dropped amidst a sea of machismo-soaked gangster rap complete with thunderclaps of positivity and resiliency backed by gospel and funk samples.

Kanye had long struggled to get label executives to take him seriously as a rapper, largely because he just didn’t look the part. His beats were fire, but in a world where 50 Cent reigned supreme, his penchant for pastels and Cosby sweaters were a step too far.

He ran with the outsider hook throughout his debut, one that is remarkably confident given the circumstances. He rapped through a jaw wired shut, sampled Aretha Franklin, and dropped lines like:

“They be askin’ us questions, harass and arrest us/ Sayin’, ‘We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast’/ Huh? Y’all eat pieces of shit? What’s the basis?/ We ain’t going nowhere, but got suits and cases.”

His rapping wasn’t perfect but his lyrics and the production was. The rapping would get there in time.

The good times continued with Late Registration, which is about as good of a sophomore release as you’ll ever find. On Late Registration, we got our first taste of West saying eff it and going big.

He made a Ray Charles’ tune into a banger (“Gold Digger”) teased us with his first epic (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”), and cranked up the speed on Otis Redding’s “It’s Too Late” for “Gone,” which featured Consequence and Cam’ron.

Coming in at 21 tracks (including skits), it became clear that West had a lot to say and fully intended to say all of it.

Kanye later called the album “indulgent” and “poorly put together” but he can be forgiven for any mistakes he feels he might have made. He was coming off of a massively successful debut and had the world’s attention.

For someone who had been fighting for opportunities and had been routinely met with resistance, to suddenly see nothing but green lights would have been too hard to resist, which he didn’t and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The last album of this era, Graduation, was the first one to see Kanye abandon some of the production hallmarks he had ridden with throughout his first two albums, as he eschewed horns, lively backbeats, and Motown samples for synthesizers and stadium-filling sounds.

His confidence in his abilities was now in overdrive—as was his creativity.

Influences on the album were all over the map, as Kanye drew inspiration from reggae, synth-pop, krautrock, and rock, as well as music from The Killers, Steely Dan, Radiohead, and Keane—not to mention U2, who he had recently opened for.

If you’re labeling Kanye albums, then this is the transitional record; the one where he started to show signs of the artist he was about to become, both from a sound standpoint and an ambition standpoint.

Let’s just not talk about “Drunk and Hot Girls.”

Era Two: “Everything I’m Not Made Me Everything I Am”

Kanye had hinted at a change in direction with Graduation but no one expected that new direction headed toward 808s & Heartbreak. 

It wasn’t a left turn or a right turn. My dude jumped the median, stopped his car in the middle of oncoming traffic, got out, and just started walking.

Once the fog had lifted, it very quickly became apparent that Kanye had dropped another gem, albeit one that was completely different than his first three albums.

How the album will be remembered is worth keeping tabs on, but halfway through his career, it feels like it’s already been somewhat forgotten. However, moving on from 808s & Heartbreak is a mistake and is sleeping on how hugely influential the album was to music in the years that followed.

It says a lot about the career and legacy of Kanye West that one of his most over-looked albums is also one of his most influential.

Era Three: “I Guess Every Superhero Need His Theme Music”

The fourth album for any band or artist is more often than not “the shit just got real” album.

Long gone are the jitters and trumped-up bravado of the first two albums and the casual embracing of more resources and opportunities that come with the third album is yesterday’s news.

If everything has gone to plan, the fourth album is where an artist lays it all out on the table, pushes their chips to the middle, and proclaims for all to hear that they’re all in.

On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West didn’t just proclaim he was all in—he yelled that shit from the rooftops and enlisted the likes of everyone from Elton John to Alicia Keys to help him spread the word.

“Masterpiece” can be far too easy of a word to throw around, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is just that; it’s a masterpiece from start to finish. It’s massive and mammoth, unapologetically indestructible, and is driven by the kind of ambition we only see once every few years.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is to Kanye what Use Your Illusion was to Guns N’ Roses both in terms of scope and scale but also in the sense that it was an equally big statement of an artists’ intentions. He was bigger than hip hop, and if we didn’t know it before, it became crystal clear once we heard “All of the Lights.”

What makes Twisted Fantasy such a wild experience, though, is that for as beautiful as “All of the Lights” is, “Monster” is equally straight-up menacing.

“Monster” is the sound of impending doom and is both unsettling and intriguing. You want to know what’s next but are also worried about what that might be.

You know, kind of like the rest of Kanye’s career.

But wait, before we move into the next phase, we’d be remiss to ignore Watch the Throne, his collaboration with Jay-Z.

Released in 2011, I think that the magnitude of these two dudes working together and producing an album has lost some of its luster. The passage of time can do that. It can either prop something up or knock it down a rung or two, the latter of which has happened with Watch The Throne.

While West was coming off of Twisted Fantasy, Hov was coming off of The Blueprint III and Watch The Throne was initially meant to be a short, five-song EP.

At this point, though, Kanye wasn’t messing around with anything less than ten songs, so the project soon expanded to a full album.

What makes Watch The Throne so special is how the production pulls from the sounds of both Kanye’s first few albums and his previous one. There’s the Motown samples—most notably his use of “Try a Little Tenderness” on “Otis”—but also a futuristic rock vibe that’s featured in “No Church in the Wild,” which features Frank Ocean singing the hook.

Watch the Throne could have so easily not worked and probably shouldn’t have. Supergroups are tricky that way.

A little over a year later, he continued again with the collaborative spirit by releasing Cruel Summer, which is not technically a Kanye West album but more of a Kanye West production.

 

Cruel Summer is a compilation of tracks from artists on Kanye’s GOOD Music label, a roster that included Pusha T, Big Sean, Kid Cudi, and more. Kanye dropped some verses and handled some production duties, but was largely the creative force behind the album.

Overall, the project was a flex by West and is best viewed that way as opposed to a natural inclusion in his discography.

Era Four: “I Go For Mine, I Got To Shine, Now Throw Your Hands Up In The Sky”

Since 2009, Kanye had been literally all over the place. There was The Taylor Swift Incident followed by the release of his magnum opus and then Watch the Throne.

Kanye had also found himself a lady and was starting a family. It was only natural then to be curious how all this transition would manifest itself in his next record.

I’m not sure anyone expected that manifestation would come in the form of Yeezus.

Yeezus marks the first point where (at least from a musical standpoint) a line in the sand was drawn. Fans had experienced changes in Kanye’s sound before—first with 808s and then Twisted Fantasy—then they experienced a melting point of sorts with Watch The Throne, so it’s not as if they were resistant to change.

However, Yeezus asked you to gauge how much change was too much change.

I remember thinking after listening to the album the first time that it sounded like two robots fighting each other—like metal slamming onto metal—and I couldn’t figure out when the hell you’d actually listen to Yeezus.

With the earlier albums, this was an easy call to make.

Those first three records were full of jams perfect for all occasions, 808s was a little different but still provided us with the soundtrack to those more meditative times in our lives, and Twisted Fantasy was just required listening, regardless of the situation.

But Yeezus was different. It demanded your attention—all of your attention. Doing something while Yeezus was playing was a fool’s errand. Even if you listened to it to hate it, you still gave it everything you had so you could really hate it, which a lot of people did.

Battle lines were drawn with Yeezus. You were with it or against it.

Or you just were over Kanye West, which was pretty understandable at the time.

Era Five: “It’s Amazing, I’m The Reason Everybody Fired Up This Evening”

How many times can we ask “Where does Kanye go after [insert album title here]?” Well, at least one more time I guess because honestly, after Yeezus, what comes next?

The Life of Pablo was next, but it took a while to get there (roughly about three years).

West started working on the follow-up to Yeezus in the fall of 2013, initially shooting for a release sometime in the next year. At first, the album was going to be called So Help Me God, then SWISH, then Waves, only to land on The Life of Pablo days before the album’s release.

Along the way, he worked with everyone from Rick Rubin to Q-Tip, as well as Paul McCartney and Rihanna, releasing possibly the most simplistic song of his career, “fourfiveseconds,” in January of 2015.

Kanye had already become an artist that required patience, but the run-up to Pablo really put that patience to the test. There were scandals like declaring Bill Cosby was innocent, feuds with Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, and renewed interest in The Taylor Swift Incident all going down in the weeks leading up to Pablo’s release.

There was also the fact that no one knew if the album was actually going to come out.

Portions of the album debuted during a presentation of Yeezy Season 3 (the one that looked like clothes worn by homeless people after the apocalypse) at Madison Square Garden, an event that was streamed live and led to a reaction best described as “confused but intrigued.”

Then, following an appearance on Saturday Night LiveThe Life of Pablo was released on February 14, 2016.

Then it was released again.

And again.

And maybe two or three more times. I honestly can’t remember.

Pablo wasn’t just an album. It was—as Kanye said at the time—”a living breathing changing creative expression.”

That’s cool. Everyone else called it kind of annoying because it seemed as if everyone’s version of the album was different. West tinkered with the mix, the tracklist, and the cover almost constantly for the next week or so.

In the end, though, there was the reaction to the music itself, something that felt almost like an afterthought given all the noise surrounding Pablo.

It was a lot (and not necessarily in a good way). There wasn’t the cohesion of his past projects, which isn’t saying a lot, seeing as how Kanye West was never one for cohesion. There were themes in his earlier work but The Life of Pablo felt like a Thanksgiving dinner where everyone just brought whatever they felt like as opposed to what was asked of them.

The end result was a jumbled (if not occasionally delicious) mess.

Era Six: “Lost In This Plastic Life, Let’s Break Out Of This Fake-Ass Party”

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After The Life of Pablo, things took a curious turn for Mr. West and to say that shit got weird is a pretty big understatement.

Outside of the recording studio, Kanye seemed to alienate even more fans by embracing Donald Trump and his MAGA lifestyle (and attire—although in true Kanye form, he redesigned that to best suit his style.) He was back on social media, then he wasn’t, and then he was again. He had “dragon energy” and no one knew what the hell he was talking about half the time.

What we did know, however, was that West had holed up in Wyoming (of all places) to get back to making music.

And that’s pretty much exactly what he did.

The end result was the “Wyoming Sessions” series, a run of seven-track albums that started with Pusha T’s Daytona. That was followed up by ye, then Kanye’s album with Kid Cudi (Kids See Ghosts,) Nasir by Nas, and K.T.S.E. by Teyana Taylor.

On ye, Kanye seemed to have fallen back in love with softer tones and more accessible-sounding samples, favoring Motown, soul, and gospel as opposed to the more industrial-sounding tones of his two prior albums.

More importantly, Kanye also seemed to have discovered the joy of the editing process. Whereas The Life of Pablo felt like the result of dumping all of the contents of your bag onto the floor, ye was stripped down and direct; straightforward and somewhat simple.

The collaboration with Kid Cudi wasn’t as focused as ye but was still tighter than what West had produced in the past few years and was a welcome reunion with Cudder, who he’d previously drifted apart from.

The samples on Kids See Ghosts range from Nirvana to old-school swing music, and overall, the album has a redemptive quality to it. Cudi was looking to get back on track following a stint in rehab and Kanye definitely seemed to be re-energized and re-invigorated.

Era Seven: “You Got A New Friend? Well, I Got Homies”

Fast forward a few months and Kanye started talking about a new album, Yandhi. However, the album— originally slated to be released at the end of September 2018—kept getting delayed and by the time it was 2019, it had yet to come out and probably never will based on the current evidence at hand.

In the meantime, West began making news with his Sunday Services and his renewed interest in religion, which then led to Yandhi being shelved to make way for the Christian-influenced Jesus Is King which, again, may or may not come out on October 25th.

I guess we’ll see in a couple of days how this era will be judged.

Or not.