On Jan. 25, 2016, weeks before the release of Kanye West’s new album, he wrote the first review: “So happy to be finished with the best album of all time,” West tweeted, accompanied by a photo of a track list. A day later, he would add: “This is not album of the year. This is album of the life.” And, with uncharacteristic modesty, he backpedaled—slightly:
Out of respect for Q-Tip, Puff, Hov, Lauren, Pharcyde, Mary, Stevie, Michael, Hendrix, James, Pete Rock, Pac, Marvin….-- KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 3, 2016
this new album is ONE of the greatest albums not the greatest just one of …-- KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 3, 2016
To figure this out, I’ve scoured the Internet to find West’s pre-release assessments of all his solo albums. Below, what he said, and whether he was right.
The College Dropout (released Feb. 10, 2004)
What Yeezy said: “Because I do really good beats, people think the rhymes are not going to be adequate. The combination of the phenomenal beats I have with the subject matter that I talk about, it’s a perfect blend. I feel like I’m gonna give my greatest gift to the hip-hop world by rapping on my own beats.” – Emixshow DJ Magazine, May 2003
What critics said: The College Dropout landed on more critics’ lists of the best albums of 2004 than any other album. It also earned him 10 Grammy nominations, and won two: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song (“Jesus Walks”).
Late Registration (released Aug. 30, 2005)
What Yeezy said: “People say you can’t please everyone all the time. I don't believe that. I think you can. I’m not like, ‘Oh I’m Kanye West.’ I’m like, ‘Oh you don’t like it? Oh wow!’ To the point where I know you have to like it.” – the Guardian, Aug. 4, 2005
What critics said: Late Registration was the most acclaimed album of 2005, topping more year-end lists than any other album, while West began to earn comparisons to Bob Marley, the Beatles, and Johnny Cash. In 2012, Late Registration landed at No. 118 on a revised version of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
Graduation (released Sept. 11, 2007)
What Yeezy said: It’s “the best album of [my] career and one of the top 10 best hip-hop albums of all-time.” –MTV, Aug. 2007
What critics said: It’s not on this list of the 20 best hip-hop albums of all time. Or this one. On the other hand, Complex ranked it No. 2 out of his entire discography, behind My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy … an album that was still a few years away when Kanye made this statement. And yet—and yet—it only ranks at No. 5 on Consequence of Sound’s ranking of Kanye’s best and No. 6 on Stereogum’s. Still, Graduation has since gone on to be named among the most influential albums of the last decade.
Verdict: It depends who you ask.
808s and Heartbreak (released Nov. 24, 2008)
What Yeezy said: “This shit is hard music. Every beat on that album 50 Cent would have took. Every beat on the album the Clipse would have took. Every beat is hardcore shit. And actually it’s talking about love, which is the hardest thing because love has no logic.” –Clash Magazine, April 12, 2008
What critics said: Initial reviews were decidedly mixed—Jody Rosen, writing for Rolling Stone, gave it a 3.5 star review and dubbed it a “noble failure,” and a lot of hip-hop fans found West’s moody, autotuned singing to be the opposite of “hard.” Still, its influence has been impossible to deny, and the album has been credited for kickstarting the rise of emo rap and Drake, while also spreading the use of rappers singing with autotune—for better or for worse, depending upon how you feel about emo rap, Drake, and autotune.
Verdict: Pretty accurate. While it was strange to hype the album for being “hard,” Kanye’s pre-album hype here was way more subdued and modest than usual—in keeping with its subdued and modest reception.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (released Nov. 22, 2010)
What Yeezy said: “I look at [Alexander] McQueen, his collection—two collections before that pivotal collection, I think it was last October—two collections before that he had already started touching on some of those animal patterns and diamond patterns and futuristic patterns. And it was like it was a master plan to finally build this Avatar-level collection, and hopefully this album that I’m doing right now—if not this album, then the next album, will be that masterwork. I’d just like to use the Avatar-level because James Cameron had to work so hard his whole life and know so much about sci-fi and cameras and developing new shit in order to make something like that … When I make albums, I’m trying to make my music compete with that McQueen collection—and I’m not saying that it does, I’m just saying that is the goal, that’s how high I set the bar of creation.” –Ustream, recorded Aug. 6, 2010
“I’m offering so much more, the songs are 7-8 minutes long. How do you even send this in for reviews? Why would people even ... review it? Like how do you review songs where Rick Ross comes in six minutes after a guitar solo—you haven’t even heard that before.” – KDWB 101.3, Nov. 2010
What critics said: “Triumph.” “Life into art.” “Picasso-like, fulfilling the Cubist mandate of rearranging form, texture, color and space.” “… blowing past all the rules of hip-hop and pop, even though, for the past half-decade, he’s been the one inventing the rules.”
Verdict: Bullseye. While it wasn’t as commercially successfully as Avatar, it was even more acclaimed: A perfect 10.0 rating on Pitchfork, winner of the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop in 2010, among many, many other accolades. (We ourselves called it “the best album of the year and the best of his career.”)
Yeezus (released June 18, 2013)
What Yeezy said: “This album is moments that I haven’t done before, like just my voice and drums. What people call a rant—but put it next to just a drumbeat, and it cuts to the level of, like, Run-DMC or KRS-One.” – New York Times, June 11, 2013
What critics said: Most critics rushed to praise Yeezus, and once again West topped more albums-of-the-year lists than anyone else. The reactions of the general public, however, were far more polarized, especially with regard to the album’s abrasive, acid-house–influenced sound and strains of misogyny.
Verdict: Pretty close. If critics’ opinions are to be favored, Yeezus does indeed reach the creative heights of Run-DMC and KRS-one, maybe even surpassing them.
Thanks to Darian Alexander for his research help.
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