At this point, how do you accurately assess the career and, to a degree, the artistic essence of Kanye West?
He’s undeniably one of hip-hop’s most mercurial creative forces. He’s also a social pariah who seems genetically predisposed to deliver cringe-worthy soundbites or (until recently) social media posts. That kind of polarizing presence has earned him at least as many detractors as he has fans, leaving his legacy murky to even his most devoted diehards. Despite what you might hear in his lyrics, the Chicago native is still merely human.
Kanye West is more than just one of hip-hop’s most mercurial creative forces and, by that same logic, also more than just a PR ne’er-do-well whose inflammatory antics have earned just as many enemies as he has supporters. Despite what you might hear in his lyrics, the Chicago native is still merely human.
For me, it still always comes back to his musical body of work which, as both a producer and a rapper, ranks among the most pristine in history. Starting with Late Registration, his still-scintillating debut, Ye has been a model of trendsetting consistency for the better part of two decades. His capacity to assimilate different genres, like soul, R&B and even gospel, and weave them into incredibly dense hip-hop records is unparalleled.
Even in 2018, Kanye’s music continues to evolve. ye, his stripped-down summer release, was a quieter, more personal piece of work, especially if you contrast it with his deliberately trashy Lil Pump-assisted single, “I Love It.” The pair’s head-scratcher of an SNL appearance, complete with Perrier and Fiji Water costumes, signaled either the apex of live TV trolling or an icon’s continued descent into madness.
In the face of PR wounds that would kill even the most carefully cultivated show business reputations, Kanye’s trajectory as a hip-hop Hall of Famer remains relatively unscathed. In fact, each time he’s been in his detractor’s crosshairs, he’s bounced back and continued to put out one jaw-dropping project after another. A hip-hop maestro of the highest order, Ye is living proof that, behind every genius, there is more than a little insanity fueling their ultimate vision.
Which brings us to the cream of Kanye West’s crop – 10 songs that showcase his commercial aptitude as well as the singular artistic voice he’s developed along the way. Every beat dropped and every bar spat is unmistakably his at every turn; you’d never mistake his tracks for the work of another (likely lesser) presence. Simply put, there’s no one who dazzles fans on a sonic level quite like Mr. West, which makes narrowing this list down to just 10 a difficult task.
Whatever though, I still did it.
10. N*ggas in Paris
A Hit-Boy beat that Pusha T originally turned down because it sounded too much like “a video game,” this Watch the Throne highlights is one of the most energizing and infectious songs in Kanye’s arsenal. The chemistry between he and Hov is also undeniable, spitting bars in rapid-fire fashion over a behemoth of an instrumental. I mean, the rap duo played this track 12 f*cking times in a row (!) during a gig in the titular city, which tells you all you need to know about the staying power of this song.
9. Devil in a New Dress
One of the most memorable moments from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Devil in a New Dress” soars on the strength of its incredible production. A silky-smooth beat infused with glittering piano work and an arresting guitar solo, the nearly six-minute-long track never overstays its welcome, thanks in part to a Rick Ross guest appearance that was supposedly laid down just hours before the record was to be delivered to the label. With Ye, you expect nothing less from that kind of anecdote.
If you’re looking for one song that fully showcases Kanye West as a meticulous hip-hop craftsman, look no further than 2007’s “Stronger.” Reportedly mixing the track more than 75 times, he handled the majority of the production on this mainstream smash, combining retro electro-synth vibes with a catchy Daft Punk vocal sample and catapulting himself to a new level of fame and bankability in the music industry. Plus, of Ye’s overt attempts at pop stardom, this one may have aged the best.
I remember the post-Taylor-acceptance-speech conversation that surrounded Kanye well. Prior to MBDTF getting its release, lots of people speculated if he could even come back from something like that. Was his career over? Was he still respected? Was he still going to be able to make music that was vital to the culture? When “Power” dropped as the lead single, I remember also being blown away. Seemingly admonishing and reveling in celebrity excess simultaneously, this track took aim at his critics and made a lasting impression. Kanye was, indeed, here to stay.
6. Gold Digger
At one point holding the record as the fastest-selling digital download of all time, “Gold Digger” instantly transports you back to the exact moment when Kanye West crossed over and become a global music phenomenon. Earning multiple Grammy nominations and winning for Best Rap Song, it stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for ten weeks, holding that spot for 10 weeks. Accompanied by a stylish, memorable music video, it showed just how big a hitmaker Kanye could be.
5. Jesus Walks
A compelling examination of faith and how the media covers music containing explicit references to religious figures, this single from Late Registration starts off as a Jesus praise piece and transforms into a shot at corporate America and its open acceptance of music that glorifies sex, drugs, violence and so on. It only takes a handful of bars for Ye to make his point heard loud and clear: “So here go my single, dog, radio needs this/They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”
4. Flashing Lights
This is still my favorite track off Graduation, despite how it almost wore out its welcome with the general public due to commercialized oversaturation. I mean, Ciroc ads, Grand Theft Auto radio, the list goes on, but I digress. Futuristic Kanye is, at times, the most expressive kind of Kanye and this track is no different. Getting vocal help from a variety of sources including soul singer Dwele, the vibe and under-the-skin feel of this one is undeniable.
3. Blood on the Leaves
The only track from Yeezus to make it on this list is a sprawling, hypnotic tale of love lost that envelopes the listener in atmospheric flourishes and never loosens its grip. With six credited producers on this record, the usage of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is an interesting choice, one that, at first, doesn’t seem to fit with Kanye’s chosen direction lyrically. However, as Hudson Mohawke commented in an interview with Pitchfork, the sum of this song’s parts is an example of Ye’s brilliance as a curator and his ability to attach new meaning to a well-known piece of music history:
“I think Kanye had wanted to use that ‘Strange Fruit’ sample for a while, but it was like, ‘How in the hell are you going to get that to fit?’ But it miraculously came together. Obviously, ‘Strange Fruit’ carries so much political weight, and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is more about past relationships, but you can draw some parallels between the two. There’s not an overtly political message in the final lyrics, but in some ways that would’ve been too easy.”
2. Through the Wire
I’ll come right out and say it: Without this record and the astounding story of how it got made, there would be no Kanye West as we know him today. Most people know the main plot points concerning the car crash that nearly killed him in October of 2003, the extensive surgery that was needed to repair his severely fractured jaw and the original vocal recording that he completed while his jaw was still wired shut (hence the title of the song). That said, the larger narrative and the pivot Kanye made in his approach to making music is perhaps even more compelling when you put it in context alongside his brash, unapologetically egotistical public persona.
“The only thing this accident’s is saying is, ‘I am about to hand you the world, just know at any given time I can take it away from you,'” Ye told Yahoo! Music less than a year after the incident. “To nearly lose your life, to nearly lose your mouth, your voice, your whole face, as a rapper… and I had to be on TV! […] ‘Through The Wire’ is the worst thing that could’ve possibly happened to me, and now it’s obviously the best thing.” That kind of perspective, especially from a man who many consider lacking any semblance of perspective altogether, is nothing if not refreshing.
Oh, and that Chaka Khan sample is still too tasty for words.
PS: For more insight into the greatness that is “Through the Wire,” check out this dope behind the scenes video.
In lesser hands, in any other context, “Runaway” is the kind of track that, on paper, would feel self-indulgent and propped up by nothing more than sheer hubris-driven willpower. It’s more than nine minutes long and packed with the kind of soul-bearing that can make macho types in the rap world at least slightly uncomfortable. This, however, is the crowning jewel of Kanye West’s discography thus far.
As I mentioned before, MBDTF was a defining moment in the rapper’s career and, by all accounts, he exceeded even the wildest of expectations, thanks in no small part to “Runaway,” which acted as the album’s mission statement. Acknowledging the long, hard fall from grace he brought upon himself and the internal comeuppance he endured in its aftermath. He strips away the glamour audiences normally attach to sex, drugs, money, and power, with the resulting imagery painting a picture that is, well, quite powerless.
The opening piano chords. The autotuned vocals that do this weird yet hauntingly exquisite duet with a cello of all things. Pusha T’s remarkable assist. Even the full-length music video, clocking in at nearly 35 minutes – all are beautiful, all are chill-inducing and all showcase Kanye West at the height of his powers. It’s not just his best song, but one of the most impressive hip-hop records of the last 20 years.
Honorable Mentions: Heartless, Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Touch the Sky, Dear Mama, Slow Jamz, All of the Lights, Monster, Black Skinhead, Ultralight Beam, Diamonds from Sierra Leone, The New Workout Plan, Gorgeous
Did I miss your favorite? Is one of the Top 10 entries ranked too low or too high? Let me know in the comments!