Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Kanye West

  • The College Dropout [Roc-A-Fella, 2004] A
  • Late Registration [Roc-A-Fella, 2005] A+
  • Can't Tell Me Nothing [no label, 2007] ***
  • Graduation [Roc-A-Fella, 2007] A-
  • 808s & Heartbreak [Roc-A-Fella, 2008] A-
  • My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Roc-A-Fella, 2010] A
  • Yeezus [Def Jam, 2013] ***
  • The Life of Pablo [Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music, 2016] A-
  • Ye [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The College Dropout [Roc-A-Fella, 2004]
What is the fuss about his contradictions? The main difference between him and most hip hop journalists is his money. They'd buy the Benz--so would I, Volvos don't last as long--and probably the gold too. They'd say anything to get laid. They accept the economic rationale of dealing and dig music of dubious moral value. Yet at the same time they do their bit for racial righteousness and know full well how much they need the "single black female addicted to retail." On Easter Sunday, some of them even believe in Jesus Christ. But none of them are as clever or as funny as Kanye West, and these days I'm not so sure about Eminem either. West came up as a beatmaster, but his Alicia Keys and Talib Kweli hits are pretty bland, and neither his voice nor his flow could lead anyone into sin. So he'd better conceptualize, and he does. Not only does he create a unique role model, that role model is dangerous--his arguments against education are as market-targeted as other rappers' arguments for thug life. Don't do what he says, kids, and don't do what he does, because you can't. Just stay in school. Really. I mean it. A

Late Registration [Roc-A-Fella, 2005]
See: Growing by Degrees. A+

Can't Tell Me Nothing [no label, 2007]
Get this while you can from the mixtape man no matter how much of it is destined for the real album (Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; Bentley Feat. Pimp-C and Lil' Wayne, "C.O.L.O.U.R.S"). ***

Graduation [Roc-A-Fella, 2007]
Rank this minor success with hooky background music like 50 Cent's The Massacre--no deeper than Coldplay when you pull out the measuring stick, but a lot smarter. Compared to 50's, the hooks are pretty pricey. Yeezy loves designer labels and procures for himself the finest fromage--Elton John to Steely Dan to Daft Punk softening us up for gay cult hero Labi Siffre, like that. He self-indulges throughout--not just by expanding at length on his skimpily rationalized fascination with his own fame, but with little stuff like his failure to convert "this"-"crib"-"shit"-"live"-"serious" into a rhyme or "at bay at a distance" into an idiom. Nevertheless, every single track offers up its momentary pleasures--choruses that make you say yeah on songs you've already found wanting, confessional details and emotional aperçus on an album that still reduces to quality product when they're over. A-

808s & Heartbreak [Roc-A-Fella, 2008]
Altogether as slow, sad-ass and self-involved as reported, this is a breakup album there's no reason to like except that it's brilliant. It has its own dark sound and its own engaging tunes, and although West couldn't hit the notes without Auto-Tune, his decision to robotize as well as pitch-correct his voice both undercuts his self-importance and adds physical reality to tales of alienated fame that might otherwise be pure pity parties. The second half the songs start to slip, but they come rushing back with the Lil Wayne ditty and the only track here about what's really bringing him down: not the loss of his girlfriend but the death of his mother, during cosmetic surgery that somewhere not too deep down he's sure traces all too directly to his alienated fame. A-

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Roc-A-Fella, 2010]
Arrogance per se has never been Yeezy's problem--he has every right to think he's more talented than Nas, Taylor Swift, or me. His problem is that he has no gift for it. Not only is he radically insecure, he didn't come up on the get-it-while-you-can fatalism that armors gangstas street, showbiz, and in between. Cannily and candidly, he acknowledges this on "Monster," where he knows perfectly well that his "profit profit" bling-and-sex brag is about to get blown away by padrone Jay-Z's "All I see is these n****z I made millionaires/Millin' about" and pink-haired Nicki Minaj's "bitch from Sri Lanka"-"Willy Wonka"-"watch the queen conquer" trifecta. Cataloguing the perks of power he sounds as geeky as Mark Zuckerberg, and because grandiosity doesn't suit him deep down, the sonic luxuries of this world-beating return to form have no shot at the grace of The Collede Dropout or Late Registration. But because he's shrewd and large, he knows how to use his profits profits to induce Jay-Z, Pusha T, the RZA, Swizz Beats, and his boy Prince CyHi to admit and indeed complain that the whole deal is "f***in' ridiculous." "Power" doesn't establish his potency and "Gorgeous" isn't quite. But "Hell of a Life"? "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most"? That's his heart, his message, the reason he's so major. It's also why he goes out on a righteous, wacked-out 90-second diatribe by a Gil Scott-Heron so young he hasn't gotten into cocaine--hasn't even signed to a major label. A

Yeezus [Def Jam, 2013]
Sign spotted on church in the wild: Death Grips--Be Like Them ("New Slaves," "Hold My Liquor") ***

The Life of Pablo [Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music, 2016]
In this ever-changing world in which we live in, I can't swear my 18-track DL is the same as yours, and should there materialize a CD with a pretty cover and a credits booklet, I will buy one with my own money. But for all the chatter about this hypefest's mutability, I doubt any "final" will be different enough to merit a second review. I just don't have time to untangle West's "creative process" with so many lesser artists' creative products ready to go, and neither do you. C'mon--his genius isn't about his famous fame or his stalled fashion sideline. His genius is musical--production chops above all, plus the flow fools once mocked. And musically, The Life of Pablo is a backslid Christian's anti-Yeezus. Dark Twisted Fantasy's synesthetic layering subsumed 808s's electropop miniaturism enabled Watch the Throne's coronation boomeranged to the sacriligeous provocation my man Big Ghost summed up as "I KNOW YALL LOVE TURKEY BUT YALL EVER TRIED MONGOOSE?" The Life of Pablo is turkey--West's latest course correction, wittingly casual and easy on the ears. Unlike Yeezus, it won't top many 2016 lists--it's too blatantly imperfect, too flagrantly unfocused. But that's also its charm, and I prefer it. The opening parlay of "I'm tryna keep my faith" and "Same problem my father had" hints at contrition. Hedged hedges distance-or-don't the porn boasts he can't kick. His kids breach the narrative like that uppity Blue. His sweetest hook tops Bajan superstar with Jamaican sister. Kendrick gets his chance to bookend Chance and all but falls down. The pseudo-freestyle meta-wink "I Love Kanye" is a narcissist's "We Don't Care" and almost as funny. The sour-grapes self-examination morphs into a pseudo-outlet track. So right, there's a lot here. But right, it's no masterpiece. Get over it. It'll do you good. A-

Ye [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018]
The assiest moment in his half-assed attempt to make asshattery germane again is when he claims #MeToo for his foggy fat self, and if it's also the catchiest, fuck you if you can't take a joke--her too ("All Mine," "Yikes") *

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