If I meet someone new, I try to bring up Kanye West as soon as possible for a couple reasons. One, he’s such a divisive figure whom people absolutely abhor because he seems like an asshole. It’s fun to gauge people’s reactions to him. His public behavior could definitely be described as assholeish. What kind of person would typically interrupt an innocent 20-year-old pop country singer during her shining moment at the famed MTV VMA’s? Assholes.
The other reason is because I fall in a different group than the one described above: I LOVE West’s music. He’s the most important rapper and producer of the millennium, and it’s not particularly close. This list is solid proof in and of itself. If you want to use conventional yet admittedly flawed metrics, he’s won 21 Grammys, the eighth most ever, more than Mr. and Mrs. Shawn Carter and Bruce Springsteen; tied with John Williams; and edged by folks like Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and U2. He sonically changed rap and hip-hop with his albums, including his soul-bearing The College Dropout to the emo-robotic creation 808s & Heartbreak, which birthed Drake and KiD CuDi, from the amped-up, produced to-the-fringes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the bareness of Yeezus’ trap horns. Every solo album has been a smash in either one regard (sales; superb quality) or both.
Kanye (we’re on a first name basis, even if he doesn’t know it) has been the artist I’ve listened to the longest since an artist’s debut. Linkin Park lost that vaunted spot by releasing Minutes to Midnight. He’s been the soundtrack to my life since eighth grade, so I’ve got love for him.
So, this is my putting on my Gucci leather analyst cap and giving my top-25 Kanye joints. This was the employed criterion:
If I could listen to one Kanye West song right now, what would it be?
Generally speaking, I would skip a song lower on the list for one higher while not the converse (i.e. go from No. 6 to No. 5). These are my favorite, not necessarily his best, although if I re-did the exercise with that criterion, I imagine the list would look pretty similar.
First, the ones that just missed the cut.
“The Glory” (Graduation; 2007)
Some classic spitting about how great he is with a cool soul beat.
“Say You Will” (808s & Heartbreak; 2008)
Great intro to 808s and sets the mood, but prefer some other cuts off that record.
A monster hit, either his second biggest or his biggest hit ever. But it doesn’t have the lasting power lyrically as the ones on the list. It is one that will be seen in his legacy and his best pop song. Just not one that gets much burn.
“Gold Digger” Featuring Jamie Foxx (Late Registration; 2005)
Literally the exact same thing as above.
“Love Lockdown” (808s)
A tough omission. The first single on 808s completely jarred me. I remember where I was (2008 Jesuit vs. DHS soccer game) and my initial reaction (“THIS IS KANYE?!”) during the first listen. Important for his overall catalogue and would make the “Best” list.
“Gotta Have It” Featuring Jay-Z (Watch The Throne; 2011)
One of my favorites off Watch the Throne. The Neptunes make beats good. Eliminated due to the strength of everything on the list. So tough of a break that I’ll avoid the easy pun.
“New God Flow” (Cruel Summer; 2012)
His 30 bars are pretty great, as are Pusha T and Ghostface Killah’s spots. However, it kind of drags after multiple listens. His lyrics aren’t as on point as they could be, too.
And now, for the list, bereft of any controversy or debate like the man himself, in descending order.
25. “Touch the Sky” Featuring Lupe Fiasco (Late Registration)
A delightful Curtis Mayfield sample allows Kanye to spend four minutes stuntin’. Simultaneously, amidst his self-aggrandizing, he gives Lupe his first big-time feature.
24. “Mercy” Featuring Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz (Cruel Summer)
Gaaaah this beat is filthy. Everyone should be fine for disorderly conduct whenever it’s played as it’s guaranteed to blow out 10 cars’ subs per minute. The only negative is Big Sean, because Big Sean.
23. “All of the Lights” Featuring Rihanna, KiD CuDi, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Elton John, World B. Free, Duke Ellington, Mozart, everyone else in the world (MBDTF)
This is the token “let’s make the biggest song possible and throw it on the album” jam. It’s banger-iest(?) one on Fantasy, although it surprisingly didn’t chart as high as another single from the album. Fergie’s inclusion and lazy bridge don’t detract from a decent Rihanna hook and forceful beat.
22. “Power” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; 2010)
It’s basically “Stronger” on steroids while excluding inanities about the lengths he would go to for the company of a golden haired lesbian. While the verses feature above Kanye-isms and wordplay, Dwele’s outro changes the mood. It’s haunting and tragic. Plus, how can one not enjoy a song with a line such as, “I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick?”
21. “Otis” Featuring Jay-Z (Watch the Throne; 2011)
Thank you, Otis.
20. “Black Skinhead” (Yeezus; 2013)
There’s only one way to describe this song: menacingly insistent. Or sports anthem. Its beginning drumbeat is the industrial bastard of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll.” Sure enough, the song is being played in sports stadia and movie trailers. The aggressive production masks some choice strife-filled lyrics: “I’m aware I’m a wolf, as soon as the moon hits/I’m aware I’m a king, back to the tomb, bitch.” It energizes me and I feel like I need to go out and run or hit something.
19. “Gone” Featuring Consequence & Cam’ron (Late Registration)
Thank you, Otis, Pt. 2.
18. “Spaceship” Featuring GLC & Consequence (The College Dropout; 2004)
Thought this would be a lot higher, but it kept moving down and down. Kanye kills his verse, describing his work ethic and frustration before breaking big (“Taking my hits, writing my hits/Writing my rhymes, playing my mind…Y’all don’t know my struggle/Y’all can’t match my hustle/Y’all can’t catch my hustle/Y’all can’t fathom my love”) but his guests ultimately don’t do much. Love the chorus and the message, but start to finish it doesn’t hold up to its competitors.
17. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone [Remix]” Featuring Jay-Z (Late Registration)
Prefer this to the original for the message and Jay’s song-stealing verse. He nixes a great line from the original (“He writes his own rhymes, well sort of, I think ‘em/That mean I forgot better shit than you ever thought up”). Whether he’s sincerely passionate about the blood diamond issue is secondary – he brings it up in conversation. Plus, Shirley Bassey never sounded so good.
16. “Amazing” Featuring Young Jeezy (808s)
15. “Gorgeous” Featuring KiD CuDi & Raekwon (MBDTF)
This seems like the most Kanye raps on any one song: three long verses with a half-singing CuDi on the chorus and a Raekwon coda. The fuzzy guitar-led track allows Yeezy to flex his rhyming prowess and trademark joking raunchiness.
14. “Through the Wire” (The College Dropout)
A sentimental favorite with some vintage silly lines with a dash of macabre (“There’s been an accident like GEICO/They thought I was burnt up like Pepsi did Michael”) that downplay his nearly fatal car accident. This, with perhaps the exception of “Family Business” and a song further down, is the most genuine sounding track in his discography. Sometimes it’s nice to just relax and listen to something without any animosity, a currency the man is rich in.
13. “White Dress” (The Man with the Iron Fists Soundtrack; 2012)
Mixes older West sounding lyrics with newer production habits. Wish it had found its way somewhere else besides the soundtrack to that terrible looking RZA kung-fu movie. It’s over-qualified for that train wreck.
12. “Jesus Walks” (The College Dropout)
11. “Niggas in Paris” Featuring Jay-Z (Watch the Throne)
Hit Boy plus “What she order – fish filet?” times “That shit cray” equals a hit amongst the club and critical scene. That snare… Throne can wear thin because it almost exclusively consists of HOV and ‘Ye talking about how rich they are — like, more than usual. Somehow this one doesn’t fall into that trap.
10. “Coldest Winter” (808s)
Some people aren’t big fans of 808s. It took me a while to really get into it — just happened within the last year. Bomani Jones sums it up really well, that you may need to be in a certain emotional and life state to latch onto the auditory representation of West’s intimate life imploding following the cancellation of his engagement with longtime girlfriend Alexis Phifer and death of his mother Donda. It’s an elegy about both women but perhaps more so for Phifer. The singing isn’t great by any standard, but it drips conflict and (dare I say) heartbreak: “Goodbye my friend, will I ever love again?/Memories made in the coldest winter” he painfully croons. Speaking of moms…
9. “Hey Mama” (Late Registration)
This is typically the first song I share with a Kanye neophyte as it tends to catch them off guard as it counters what one perceives his music to be. As someone with an awesome mom in their life, this song resonates more than his other songs. It’s the 2000s version of Pac’s “Dear Mama” both in message and quality.
8. “Flashing Lights” Featuring Dwele (Graduation; 2007)
The clean, quick synth barrage gets me every time. It’s just too good. The lyrics also blaze here; West drops some choice lines (“In my past, you on the other side of the glass/Of my memory’s museum/I’m just saying, hey Mona Lisa come home/You know you can’t roam without Caesar” being a personal favorite). All three versions of the music video are trippy. Here’s no. 2):
7. “Hold My Liquor” Featuring Justin Vernon & Chief Keef (Yeezus)
First hearing this song was an experience EEEEEEEEEEEEE His flow is inordinately paced and deliberate EEEEEEEEEEEEE delivering 40 bars with as few words as possible EEEEEEEEEEEEE the polar opposite of Eminem’s “Rap God” EEEEEEEEEEEEE And that’s refreshing to hear from time to time. He focuses on telling the story of venturing back to an old flame’s (Phifer?) place long after their relationship ended and all the shit that went into the failed relationship. By traditional standards, West has it all (well-paying job; a partner he seems to love; a baby girl). On Yeezus, he sounds far from satisfied. It speaks to his personality and internal drive. It’s tragic, but its output is something great: this.
6. “Lost in the World” Featuring Bon Iver (MBDTF)
The indie rock sample in the chorus and saddled with the African drums concludes the epic Dark Fantasy. Kanye cites the eight dualities to begin his verse “devil/angel; heaven/hell” as his favorite that he’s written. Not much to say besides just how cool the song is, relying on the sound, placing his voice secondary in the composition, speaking minimally.
5. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (Graduation)
After we all pledge allegiance to the nation of Kanyerica, this is the anthem we’ll hear. Classic Kanye sound with classic Kanye stubbornness in the lyrics. And the alternate music video is a gem.
4. “All Falls Down” Featuring Syleena Johnson (The College Dropout)
Along with “Jesus Walks” and “Slow Jamz” (imagine a 13-year-old tubby ginger trying to rap Twista’s part, because that happened) this was an initial hit with a young me. Easy punch lines over the song, but West carves out some deep meaning after the first verse, such as the line that should have been my senior quote: “The prettiest people do the ugliest things/On the road to riches and diamond rings.” People probably would have hated me.
3. “Devil in a New Dress” Featuring Rick Ross (MBDTF)
This song does not receive the love it deserves. It sounds great; there are some great, insecure lines from the man himself; and, most of all, throwing Rozay on the track. In between his asthma attacks, he slaughters the song, so much so Ross made a music video with just his verse. Focus on the last part of West’s second verse, though. It’s one of his best moments.
2. “Runaway” Featuring Pusha T (MBDTF)
His masterpiece. A nine-minute song starting with 16 single piano notes? What is he doing? This song was crafted for the post-Swift backlash, acting as a mea culpa. People needed to hear the hook “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags… etc.” Though he ultimately dismissed the full sincerity of the sentiment, he doesn’t seem pathologically methodical in the way to make something to have people believe a falsehood. For all of his idiosyncrasies, dishonesty does not appear to be one of them.
1. “Last Call” (The College Dropout)
This will always be no. 1 in my heart. Everything about this song is great: Jay-Z’s intro, the sound, the nearly 9-minute soliloquy of how West reached the point in which he was able to make a solo album. Plus, the he slips in two top-five lines (“‘Oh my god, is that a black card?’/I turned around and replied, ‘Why yes/But I prefer the term African American Express.’”) and his all-time best one. So good, it deserves its own line.
“Killin y’all n—-s on that lyrical shit/Mayonnaise colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips.”
Majestic. Like a unicorn. Typing that out didn’t make me cry I’m just allergic to genius just get off my back OK?
If there’s one video in here to watch, it’s Jay-Z talking about West as he produces for The Black Album, even showing a snippet of this beat.
Here’s an excerpt from Jay’s voiceover.
One of the joys, for me, of the music business is watching a new artist develop into their own. I mean, that shit brings me joy, to see artists come from nothing … The passion he got for his music, I don’t think it’s gonna stop.
I don’t listen to the monologue every time, so that almost slipped the song down a couple notches. The story sticks with me, though, as it’s hard to otherwise see how today’s Kanye exists without hearing the disrespect he felt and the trials that he endured within the music business. There’s actually some humility in it.
The actual song part never gets a skip. If someone does so in my presence, our relationship is compromised. Possibly irrational.
But in some ways, that’s Kanye. So it makes sense.