"From a creative standpoint, I can't think of anyone who has been more consistently great from the time they started making music until now," said Rick Rubin of Kanye West when he gave a rare interview to Zane Lowe last year. The hour they spent together was littered with such platitudes about the encyclopaedic range of artists that Rubin's worked with down the years, but that particular statement rang true; on the six records he's released under his own name, West has never so much as countenanced the concept of slipping anywhere south of excellence.

What's interesting, though, is how his catalogue can currently be split neatly down the middle. His first three LPs - The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation - readily invite comparison with one another; they are, set against what came next, relatively straightforward hip hop records. 808s and Heartbreak divided opinion back in 2009, but time has rightly gone on to be kind to West's subversive and largely successful attempt to prove that AutoTune needn't necessarily seem like the work of the devil. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, by anybody's standards, was an avant-garde masterpiece that had West taking the hip hop mould and breaking it exactly to his own specifications. Yeezus, released at the height of both his standing in the music industry and his celebrity status, is by a distance his least commercial effort; by turns paranoid and megalomaniacal, it's sonically abrasive, thematically murky and - above all - thrillingly ambitious.

Lowe opened his 2013 talk with West for Radio 1 - at the time, the first broadcast interview the rapper had given in years - by reminding him of Late Orchestration, the live record he made at Abbey Road backed by a full orchestra. That the only insight West would offer about one of the finest live albums of recent times was that he wished he could have gone back and altered the lapels on his suit jacket just about sums up the man in the present day, and perhaps goes some way to explaining the intensity of the music press' fascination with him. His personal life has now collapsed into the realm of absurdist sideshow. He has a wife with an ego to match his, but with inversely proportional talent. He continues a cringeworthy dalliance with the high fashion world that may or may not be a wind-up. He has made manic rants his signature, talking so much and saying so little. Any other musician in that position would be subsumed by the silliness and see their creativity suffer. West's has flourished.

Whatever the specific point was at which West rubber-stamped his divorce from reality, the cult of personality surrounding him makes it a little difficult to reappraise any of the LPs from what we'll call the College Trilogy, if only because it's tricky to remember just what he was like before his level of media exposure exceeded that afforded to him solely by his career as a musician. Doing so, though, is important, if only to dispel the unfair notion that - because they mostly abided by hip hop's rules, rather than redefine them like his later works - those first three albums don't deserve to be held in similar esteem.

It would be a venture into the realm of wild fantasy to suggest that West's ego wasn't already swollen during the College Trilogy era; he partially plays the enormous collegiate chip on his shoulder with a knowing wink throughout The College Dropout - especially on the skits - but it's obvious that genuinely damaged pride has a part to play in forming the crux of the record's themes, too. The manner in which he blows up ideas of fame, excess and avarice on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is complex on an almost literary level, but for all that album's introspection, the relative simplicity of his emotional approach on Late Registration feels, on many levels, more real - maybe even relatable.

In the absence of an overarching concept, we have West wrestling with the destructive effects of his vices in straightforward terms on 'Addiction', or delivering a poignant critique of the U.S. healthcare system through the prism of his grandmother's illness with 'Roses' ("If Magic Johnson got a cure for AIDS / and all the broke motherfuckers passed away / You telling me if my grandma's in the NBA / right now she'd be OK?") 'Hey Mama' should be a little too saccharine, a little too on-the-nose, but it's laced with an earnestness and warmth that seems all the more powerful in retrospect - Kanye doesn't let his guard down like this any more.

On paper, many of the ideas tackled on Late Registration are standard hip hop fare, which is why the brilliance of the execution becomes all the more important; 'Bring Me Down's rebuke to the haters is delivered with arresting aggression, and the album's final verse on 'Gone' becomes a sprawling, epic paean to both Kanye's ascension to stardom and his ambition to start his own label. The key to the success behind the record's one true radio smash in 'Gold Digger', meanwhile, is that a central idea that could have been so clumsy is carried off in razor-sharp, delightfully witty fashion.

Notable, too, is the fact that the record is scored through with West's politics; perhaps his first flirtation with controversy on an international scale, away from music, came three days after the album hit shelves. Famously, he failed to sugarcoat his feelings about the Bush administration's response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina when, during a charity telethon to raise money for those affected, he delivered the immortal line "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Revisiting the footage, it's clear that the moment was by no means either an irrepressible attack of ego, a la Swiftgate, or a pre-engineered stunt; West looks almost as shocked to have blurted it out as Mike Myers standing beside him. Late Registration offers up plenty more where that came from; throughout, West goes without a filter to present us with a glimpse of his worldview. He's often conspiratorial; he drops "I know the government administer AIDS" during the first thirty seconds of the album proper on "Heard 'Em Say", which also includes the more sensible and incisive line "Before you ask me to go get a job today, can I at least get a raise on the minimum wage?"

'Crack Music', which uses black America's crack cocaine epidemic as a metaphor for its hip hop obsession, offers up such rough diamonds as "who gave Saddam anthrax? George Bush got the answers" and "how we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer." They're clumsy - perhaps even a little gauche - but cutting, too, and totally in line with his Katrina outburst; with hindsight, he seemed a little more genuine back then. Not everything he did outside of the studio was a publicity grab.

If you can pick out a single, clear piece of evidence for West's progression between The College Dropout and Late Registration, it's the feeling of cohesion that runs through the latter; the former, perhaps not surprisingly for a debut, came off a little scattergun, even if - unlike this record - it did have a consistent concept. Jon Brion, behind the desk on Late Registration, deserves huge credit for his contribution; the strings that are prevalent throughout lend it a sense of real drama. They're tastefully distributed, too, underlining the intensity of West's vocal turn on 'Bring Me Down' and complementing his urgency on 'Diamonds from Sierra Leone', smartly capturing the epic scale of Kanye's internal conflict over blood diamonds.

Those arrangements are a crucial part of Late Registration's makeup, but sealing the deal is the use - so much more effectively than on The College Dropout - of the skill West made his trademark on The Blueprint back in 2001; the implementation of classic soul samples. Gil Scott-Heron on 'My Way Home', Etta James' take on 'My Funny Valentine' sped up and repurposed for 'Addiction', and, of course, the interpolation of Ray Charles' 'I Got a Woman' by (who else?) Jamie Foxx on 'Gold Digger' are just three examples of how West can spot in those old soul songs what he needs to anchor his own tracks, and tamper with them accordingly; that by doing so he also creates mood - Late Registration frequently feels oppressive, moody and contemplative - is perhaps the strongest grounds on which to consider whether or not we can reasonably put the word 'genius' beside his name.

That his behaviour has become so much more erratic - and that his level of personal fame has skyrocketed - in the decade since Late Registration was released should take nothing away from the fact that West has risen to another creative level entirely with the likes of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, albums that tore convention asunder and confirmed him as one of the great creative minds of his generation. At the same time, that shouldn't put the College Trilogy - of which Late Registration is the highlight - in the shade, either; they remain terrific - even classic - pieces of work. Plus, with the benefit of ten years' distance, they take on a new significance for the listener; they might feel a touch more formulaic than their successors, but they also - crucially - have a little bit more honesty to them, too.