Say and think what you will about Kanye West — about his ego and politics and mental health and indefensible public statements and all the rest of it — but he actually is a musical genius, at least by the contemporary definition of the term.
As a songwriter, lyricist and rapper, he’s excellent — but as a producer and conceptualist and creator of exciting and emotionally moving music (in both positive and negative ways), he’s brilliant. His flaws are equally deep in all of those categories, like that other controversial and flawed genius, Prince — his most direct precedent.
More from Variety
Both are monumentally creative, but such inspiration doesn’t automatically come with the focus and discipline to execute effectively or coherently — the constant flow of ideas and level of obsession can be too much to keep up with. That’s why Prince would finish some songs in a 24-to-36-hour-long haul and revisit others multiple times over decades; that’s why West released a revised version of his 2016 “Life of Pablo” album three months after its initial release.
And it’s presumably why, like so many of his other promised-but-still-unreleased albums and incomplete ideas, he pulled back the “Donda” album after premiering last week it before thousands at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and millions via an Apple Music livestream. Even more frustrating, based on that one listen, “Donda” includes some of his most inspired work in years. Apparently it’s now coming out on August 6th, but we’ve heard that one before — this is a movie veteran watchers of the West have seen many times.
He obviously places great importance on albums as an art form, but he’s never been bound by them: His countless collaborations, guest features, songs written and/or produced for others, mixtapes, one-off singles, live performances and his G.O.O.D. label provide an outlet for his restless musical creativity (he may be the only artist to have separate Wikipedia entries for his sprawling album, single and production discographies). But he’s never shied away from last-minute revisions: When his 2004 debut, “The College Dropout,” leaked, he cut some songs and added others and actually made an already great album better. And while that habit has only grown stronger in the years since — especially since streaming eliminated the need for physical product — it was only with “Pablo” that he really broke the concept of the album wide open, as if it never had to be finished, was always a work in progress.
Complicating analysis even more, many of West’s greatest musical moments are just that — moments, rather than entire songs, like the gorgeous second half of “Famous” (incorporating Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”) or the wild fade-out of “God Is” from “Jesus Is King,” where he solos a sound that’s like a cross between a whoop and a siren over a heart-rending bass rhythm.
He’s spewed out hundreds of songs over the past 20-odd years, and presumably there’s just as much if not more still sitting on hard drives — not to mention the music he’s cranking out nearly every day. Like Prince’s vault, West’s is a deep rabbit hole and we can’t pretend to have the authority that Zachary Schwartz, who wrote an authoritative overview of the unreleased albums for DJ Booth in 2019, or BVTheEpic, who went into deep and opinionated detail about them, do. So if you want a deep dive, they’ve put in the work — and of course, you can find the albums on YouTube (often in multiple different versions) and reach your own conclusions, although it’s hard to know which of these “albums” were assembled by the artist or an enterprising fan.
With that in mind, we’re skipping the purported Drake collaborative album “Wolves” and “Yeezus 2” as it’s not clear they ever existed as albums; ditto the proposed 2016 G.O.O.D. Music compilation “Cruel Winter.” And “Swish” and “Waves” are apparently early versions of “Life of Pablo” with slightly different tracklists and mixes.
And as for the rumored Jay-Z collaboration “Watch the Throne 2” or, as Jay referenced in the lyrics to “Jail” from “Donda,” “Return of the Throne” — time will tell.
“The College Dropout” alternate versions (2003-2004)
Multiple versions of West’s classic debut album exist and they’re all good, but there’s little argument that the final version is the best. After it leaked (a constant occurrence in the waning years of the CD age), West cut several songs, including tracks with Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Consequence and early takes of later hits “Hey Mama” and “Gold Digger” — and it’s a testament to this album’s greatness that those songs didn’t make the final cut. Dig in!
“Good Ass Job” (2008, 2010, 2018)
This album — actually, possibly two albums — has such a long and convoluted history that it got a full chronology on DJ Booth. Back in 2003, West laid out the thematic plan and titles for his first four albums: “College Dropout” followed by “Late Registration” followed by “Graduation” and then “Good Ass Job.” But after the shattering 2007 death of his mother, he channeled his grief into “808s and Heartbreak,” which is extremely different in tone from his earlier albums. However, various reports after “808s” (possibly using old information) said that West’s next album indeed would be called “Good Ass Job,” although it ended up being the classic “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
West explained the change to MTV News in 2010. “I didn’t want to do the ‘Good Ass Job’ thing and have to stick to the skits [of the previous albums] and everything that went with that,” he said. “’My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and my album cover are just … those things are just awesome. It’s really proper, decadent, soulful, lavishness, and it’s exactly what I wanna say.”
So that was that… until it wasn’t. Eight years later, during a surprise appearance at a Chance the Rapper event in Chicago, West announced that the two were collaborating on an album called “Good Ass Job.” Not surprisingly that’s the last that was heard of it …
“So Help Me God” (2014-15)
At least three versions exist online of “So Help Me God,” which was apparently intended to be the follow-up to “Yeezus,” so who knows which is what. Several of its songs were released either by West (like “All Day”) or given to others as collaborations, like the Rihanna-Paul McCartney team-up “FourFiveSeconds”) and Travis Scott’s take on “Piss on Your Grave.”
“TurboGrafx 16” (2016)
Announced after West finally let go of “Life of Pablo,” this one is widely considered West’s take on trap. Seven songs leaked in 2016, including tag-teams with Young Thug, Migos and other Atlantans.
“Love Everyone” (2018)
This seems to be the album that West played for the TMZ staff during his infamous “Slavery is a choice” interview. One purported version features a ton of guests (Bon Iver, the Weeknd, Travis Scott, the-Dream, Ant Clemons) and has the feel of a completed album. But Schwartz speculates that the backlash to the TMZ interview led West to back off and eventually morph it into “Ye” in a two-week slog before the star-studded May 2018 listening party in Wyoming (but unlike “Donda,” “Ye” actually came out).
Unlike many of the albums listed here, “Yandhi” actually had a release date — at least two, in fact. He originally planned to drop it on Sept. 29, 2018, and visited the New York offices of the Fader earlier that week and played the staffers some songs from the album that were described as “unfinished.” The tracks included contributions Ty Dolla $ign as well as controversial rappers 6ix9ine and the late XXXtentacion, which seem at odds with the positive vibe of an apparently completed version of the album that surfaced online later (only X remained of the above collaborators, along with Young Thug, Kid Cudi, Teyana Taylor and Nicki Minaj). Shortly after the album failed to materialize, he bumped the release date to November 23, then to an unspecified future date, where it remains.
Best of Variety