Album Analysis: ‘Graduation’ tops Kanye West’s best

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You don’t have to hold the musical genius of the Album Analyzer to know this: Kanye West won’t fade.

West’s debut, “The College Dropout,” dropped 10 years ago this month. Although I’ve mocked his outlandish tweets and cringed at the more egocentric lines he laces hit tracks with, this anniversary means a great deal to me. Until hearing West’s “Gold Digger” on the radio as a peach fuzz-plagued 12-year-old, I never listened to music for anything but a placeholder for silence. However, his discography has played in the background of numerous significant moments in my life since.

Here are West’s seven studio albums ranked in order from worst to best.

7. “808s & Heartbreak” (2008)

Crafting a follow-up to the college trilogy, which started with “The College Dropout” and ended with “Graduation” three years later, presented an impossible task for West. He based those initial albums around a basic concept all people can relate to: the rigors of academia and how school — for better or worse — shapes culture.

West not only shifted the content of his lyrics, but also switched the production from light and soulful to dreary and nightmarish. “808s & Heartbreak” marks the halfway point of West’s quest to alter popular music’s direction. Standout Track: “Amazing”

6. “Yeezus” (2013)

“Yeezus” kicked off with “On Sight,” where West hinted at the Internet-fueled “Yeezy” season that followed the release of his latest album. For once, he placed the finishing touches on hip-hop’s latest movement, industrial rap, rather than starting from scratch by incorporating sounds from world pop genres and electronica-inspired rock.

Switching the punch line-packed lines from prior albums for primitive screams and chants, he approached “Yeezus” with a minimalist, economic viewpoint in both lyrics and the production. Standout Track: “Blood on the Leaves”

5. “Late Registration” (2005)

After getting past the crossover catchiness of hits “Gold Digger,” “Heard ‘Em Say” and “Touch the Sky,” the album’s real takeaway came from its dreamy, orchestra-dotted latter half. With “We Major,” West battled blow-by-blow with one of rap’s most introspective MCs, NaS. 

Originally seen as a producer who happened to spit rhymes on the side, West lamented himself as a jack of all trades with his second album, producing potent, soul-infused beats and scribing thought-provoking verses to play over the instrumentals. Standout Track: “Hey Mama” 

4. “Watch the Throne” (2011)

West handled a bulk of the production on Jay-Z’s early-‘00s projects, but here, the two balanced meek tales from the ghetto with dispatches from the rich and famous. Together, West and Jay-Z played off each other’s talents while both reaching unfamiliar ground stylistically. 

Throughout West’s career, he’s covered a wide range of topics, but typically the albums themselves include just one or two major themes. From the sports car exhaust-hazed “No Church for the Wild,” to “Otis,” where the duo’s short verses move as fast as the soul sample, listeners couldn’t predict the album’s great turns. Standout Track: “Murder to Excellence”

3. “The College Dropout” (2004)

Mouth wired shut from a near-fatal car accident, West spit the slow, playful verses of surprise hit “Through the Wire” and foreshadowed an important aspect of his career: He’s egotistical but will never forget how fortunate he is.

West’s debut perfectly paired cynicism with hope. Take “All Falls Down,” an acoustic ode to America’s self-obsessed, confused youth. Each section includes characters with faults that impede without destroying them. Standout Track: “Never Let Me Down”

2. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010)

Interrupting Taylor Swift’s award acceptance speech and the backlash that occurred after created such a stir West couldn’t simply drop a hit-packed album to subdue critics. Instead, he had to mesh his personal stories with ambiguous lines any listener could relate to, and that’s the basis of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

The album appeals to listeners on a personal level, but West also reveals emotive stories from his life. These contrasting elements pushed songs like “POWER” and “Runaway” from bold head bangers to vivid portraits of human nature. Standout Track: “Gorgeous”    

1. “Graduation” (2007)   

West’s finest album outsold hip-hop titan 50 Cent’s “Curtis” in the genre’s nuclear arms race, paved the way for the acceptance of alternative MCs like Lupe Fiasco and Kid Cudi, and lamented him as the new millennium’s most vivid musical mind.

“I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven; when I awoke I spent that on a necklace,” West proclaimed in the opening lines of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” That line in particular sums up the lasting impact of the college trilogy and “Graduation” in general. Society erodes, and people make self-destructive choices, but we’re never too far from our final destination. Standout Track: “Flashing Lights”