(With his recently canceled tour and admission into a hospital, things seem to be spiraling for the self-proclaimed genius known as Kanye West. I think now’s a good time to revisit the good ole days, right before his Makaveli-like transition. While Yeezus figures his life out, let’s celebrate his retrospective career. And before you ask: No, no “Life of Pablo”. Why? Because it wasn’t good enough to make the list. Duh. Enjoy!)
By Shayne Paladin
One thing that you might not be aware of (and I don’t know why you would) is that I consider Kanye West as one of my favorite artists of all time.
While it’s been difficult to continue supporting Kanye as a person….or even a sane human being, the single constant throughout his career has been the undeniable quality of his music.
Kanye West was always a great producer, but it wasn’t until he combined his beat-making skills with his untapped talent as a lyricist that “Yeezy” was born. His ability to creatively incorporate samples and feature other top artists to boost his music’s strength has been unparalleled for the past decade…at least.
Sure, he says some outlandish things every now and then, but we need to keep in mind that he’s only making up for lost time. After all, Kanye West as an artist only represents the latter half of his entire career. He spent a lot of time behind the scenes as a producer (he appears at the end of the 2001 Jay-Z “Izzo” video), and waited patiently for his turn.
Now that he’s finally gotten the limelight, he’s making the most of it. It’s hard to get that mad at him, even though he might be a borderline megalomaniac.
Anyway, at this juncture, West has put together quite an impressive catalogue of music. With so many different phases of his career, it’s not uncommon for fans to differ over which songs they consider to be his best.
I’m well aware of this, and so instead of my usual self-ranking of these things, I reached out for help. I got an overwhelmingly helpful response from my peers on Facebook, and they had a lot more to do with the construction of this list than I did.
I did exercise some veto power with the specific rankings, but this is only because I tried to balance the personal tastes of those who contributed with overall quality.
All controversial videos aside—this is a great song.
Yeezy comes out in a full satirical fury with this one, as he parodies the ridiculous climate that modern dating has reached. West takes the brutal honesty and narcissism which dominate the modern realm of romance, and puts them into over drive in order to prove a point.
The “Uh-huh, honey” is timed to interrupt the song whenever the vibe gets too romantic, usually while cutting off Charlie Wilson’s larger-than-life chorus.
With some of the most ridiculously snarky lyrics he’s come up with, (“She asked me what I wished for on my wish list/ Have you ever asked your b*tch for other b*tches?”) West created an experience that’s as relevant as it is side-bursting.
Drive Slow—Late Registration
This track off the Late Registration album gives us a rare glimpse at the low hat-wearing, hyper-urbanized side of West’s musical ability.
However, in true Kanye fashion, the first verse of this slow-crawling street piece serves as a warning flag to younger people from overstepping their britches.
Along for the ride are Paul Wall and GLC, both of which give the song a completing fullness through their silky-smooth baritone delivery.
A hidden gem in the Kanye collection, this track is often overlooked in favor of more socially-conscious tracks.
The New Workout Plan—The College Dropout
Now, if I had things my way, this song would have made the Top 20. But, again, this was a collaborative effort, so I had to withhold my ego and keep this track as an honorable mention.
With what originally starts as a “How To” guide for women to find the perfect Sugar Daddy, the track quickly dissolves into a frenzy of nonsense that’s as fantastically frantic as Miri Ben-Ari’s violin playing.
There isn’t much more to this song other than a strong “fun factor”. I’m sure it was a blast to record, and we have just as much fun experiencing it.
It also gave us an auto-tuned ramble towards the end that would eventually be used as a sample for J Cole’s “Work Out”.
Never Let Me Down—The College Dropout
Clearly not one of the more popular songs during Kanye’s tenure, I nevertheless think that it deserves a listen.
The main reason for this, of course, is what I think to be one of the most humbly excellent verses that West has ever delivered:
“I can’t complain what the accident did to my left eye, ‘cause look what an accident did to Left Eye”.
The hard-hitting verse, coupled with an evangelical poem delivered mid-song and a church choir section, really pushes the limits on the song’s “cheesiness” levels. However, the content is sincere enough to keep the track grounded throughout the phases it goes through.
Alrighty, let’s get this party started with 20-16:
20. Hey Mama—Late Registration
The reason why many (like me) prefer Kanye’s earlier work is because of the way every track was bursting at the seams with genuine soul.
You’ll perhaps never find a better example than this particular effort, which is an ode to West’s own mother. It’s hard not to hear Kanye open himself up about his mom without getting choked up while thinking of your own.
It’s this sort of “happy sadness”, created in-part by fabulous production and a sweet-as-candy beat, which helped West gain momentum early on in his career.
Tragically, this song’s weight was duplicated by the death of Kanye’s beloved mother only two years later.
For you true-blue Kanye aficionados, it’s no secret that fellow rapper Common has had quite the influence on West and his career.
Perhaps more well-hidden is the fact this romantic love song for Kanye’s hometown of Chicago is a revival of Common’s classic “I Used To Love H.E.R.”.
From the opening lines to the metaphor of Chicago as a woman, Kanye masterfully took Common’s criticism of the rap industry and turned it into a celebration of the city who made him who he is today.
It’s also a song that I’m sure we’ve all blasted on the way home at least once.
18. Black Skinhead—Yeezus
That’s what my literal reaction was when I first heard this song, which is probably the same way that a few of you reacted to this raw five-knuckle assault of a track.
If there’s any upside to Kanye’s later works, it’s that he began to operate with zero fear of how his music would be received.
Black Skinhead is bold, in-your-face, experimental, and unapologetically relevant.
It also displays the best aspect of the Yeezus album as a whole: the pinnacle of a Hip-Hop producing talent that we may very well never see again.
17. We Don’t Care—The College Dropout
Since it’s the very first actual track listed in West’s discography, this ode to the beautiful struggle has been disappointingly overlooked.
It’s lighthearted, catchy, and—most importantly—a big “f*ck you” to the oppressive system that we still find a way to overcome.
The lead track of College Dropout is also one of the funniest songs in the West catalogue, with hilarious lines like “Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition/ And ain’t no loans for sittin’ your ass at home” sprinkled around some hard-hitting content like “Look what was handed us/ Fathers abandoned us”
This is one of my personal favorites, for its ability to have us looking at our own struggles with a triumphant smile.
16. Slow Jamz—The College Dropout
This track undoubtedly is deserving of the “fan favorite” label above all others.
Regardless of how high Kanye’s career has climbed, and how complex his content has become, there’s something about this song’s innocence that finds itself in the hearts of fans around the world.
I give a lot of credit to a chorus that has become immortal through the power of drunken sing-alongs. It was also an experience that gave most of us a big “Welcome” to Jaime Foxx’s singing abilities.
…and then there’s the oddly tolerable frenzy of a verse by Twista. Attempts to recite the man’s delivery rate is always a fun exercise in futility.
15. Gorgeous—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I’m going to go ahead and say that Twisted Fantasy was the pinnacle of Kanye’s career. Though it’s not my personal favorite (that distinction belongs to College Dropout), the top-to-bottom strength of the album is almost untouchable.
In fact, some—like my good College Friend and Hip-Hop advisor, Chijioke Orijakor—are confident in labeling Twisted Fantasy as one of the greatest Hip Hop albums of all time.
The reason for the heavy praise is due to West’s ego being more present within this music than ever before. This would eventually go a bit too far in Yeezus, but tracks like Gorgeous are a good example of West at his best (rhyme!).
There’s nothing really fancy about this track, besides the Kid Cudi (who I hate) chorus. This track is all bars—some of the best of his life. Here’s an example:
“I treat the cash the way the government treats AIDS/ I won’t be satisfied ‘til all my n*ggas get it, get it?”
14. Monster—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Another thing that Chijioke had to say about Twisted Fantasy was how every artist who was featured on a track practically performed out of their minds.
No song is a better example of this than “Monster”, which is a titanic clashing of self-praise between some of the biggest names in the game.
A part of me is still suspicious about whether Nicki Minaj wrote her entire verse herself, or if West gave some assistance. Apparently, both Kanye and Ross have attested to the verse being written by Nicki. But, ya know, of course they would say that. What are they gonna do? Sell her out to the public?
Either way, Minaj’s delivery alone is responsible for about 40% of the song’s quality.
Her presence is a present. Kiss her ass.
13. New Slaves—Yeezus
I had a lot of help with putting this list together, so I’m going to call on another friend to help describe this song.
George Jefferson, a fellow UCSB graduate, commended Black Slaves for how it “Connects to his struggle to be transformative while still building his wealth and being wealthy”.
What George means is how West is recognizing how “the Man” has pushed Black society to want wealth, practically in order to buy expensive material items and hand money right back to the system. However, this phenomenon is described from West’s unique perspective, who has escaped this vicious cycle through his sudden fame and is now viewing his people through the lens of the elite–and doesn’t like what he sees.
While a bit brash at first, West’s labeling of this phenomenon as “New Slaves” set to an impossibly ominous beat will hopefully open your eyes by the time “I can’t lose” starts repeating. Which–by the way– is one of the best ending sequences that I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.
12. Touch the Sky—Late Registration
This is a track that has transcended the usual Kanye West fandom by being a song that nearly everyone enjoys listening to.
It’s cheeky, uplifting, and is another romanticized tale of Kanye’s rise to fame.
There’s also two other noteworthy aspects about this song:
- It is the only song on the album not to be at least partially produced by Kanye.
- It marked the radio debut of Lupe Fiasco, kicking off the young man’s phoenix lifespan of a career
This is a track that, despite your opinion on West, is just impossible to dislike. Especially with the masterfully incorporated sample of “Move On Up”.
11. Spaceship—The College Dropout
Blink-182 said it best in the year 2000: “Work sucks, I know”.
In “Spaceship”, Yeezy injects this universal opinion with soul and experience to really make the struggle of the working person come to life.
Told from the perspective of a man on the verge a meltdown, through lines like “Lock yourself in a room doin’ five beats a day for three summers”, Kanye creates the impression of a friend telling us about his work struggles. It’s honest, real, and on the cusp of being too relatable for comfort.
This is the type of “everyman” theme that College Dropout has (literally) written all over it, and a large reason why West’s first album is my favorite.
The kid that made that, deserves that Maybach.
Why aren’t there any songs from Watch the Throne?
I know I’m going to sound like an overly-specific dork here, but Watch the Throne is technically a Kanye West AND Jay-Z album. Given how the official artist isn’t solely Kanye, the entire album was unfortunately disqualified. For good reason, too, because including the album would have made this whole process a lot harder. There are just too many good songs on it. Like this:
No love for 808’s and Heartbreaks?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: The only song that I even considered pulling from 808s was “Heartless”, but it was beat out by every other entry when I got down to actual rankings. The album also wasn’t supported much through my Facebook peers, so it would have been preferential treatment to feature it on the list.
It was an interesting album, that was adventurous and experimental with its sound, but it’s easily the “black sheep” of Kanye albums. Sorry!
Alright, back to business. Things are getting pretty serious now. Here’s numbers 10-6:
10. Power—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The release of this single was the defining moment of when Kanye ascended into who would eventually be known as “Yeezus”.
Kanye supposedly spent over 5,000 hours composing the lead track of his fourth album—and it shows. West’s virtuoso production prowess comes through yet again, with otherworldly chanting that would only be fit for a king.
The track flows as if it were a sermon, delivered by West atop the world’s tallest mountain of self-indulgence. It was among the first of many middle fingers that Kanye would begin giving his critics through his music.
At the pinnacle of this self-awareness journey is what I still consider to be the best lyric in Kanye West history:
“At the end of the day, goddamit I’m killing this shit/ I know damn well y’all feeling this shit/ I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick”
I don’t even think his most adamant detractors knew how to respond to that.
9. Good Life—Graduation
A slogan that I love to advocate is that something doesn’t always have to be grimly serious in order to be considered as “good”.
Catching this wave of good vibes (pun actually intended) is Good Life, a rare occasion in which West celebrates his terrific fortune without having the lyrics flow from his ass…figuratively, of course.
The beat is infectiously catchy, and the rare glimpse of a genuinely happy West has cemented this song in the hearts of those lucky enough to be around when the track was released.
Along for the ride aboard the Happy Train is T-Pain, whose trademarked auto tuned voice has a knack for invading our nervous system and forcing us to smile.
Yes—even Kanye, who’s all smiles in the video.
8. Can’t Tell Me Nothing—Graduation
Okay, back to being serious.
From the very first line of the track “I had a dream I could buy my way to Heaven, when I awoke I spent that on a necklace”, Kanye puts his foot on a gas pedal of defiance and refuses to lay off.
The song is the culmination of West’s self-reported effort to create a “theme song for the people”. The song’s chorus, which consists of “wait til I get my money right” is a perfect way to get into the minds of the public and remain in their heats.
The line itself hit immediately because of its eerie familiarity, since it’s something we’ve all told ourselves at one point or another.
Can’t Tell Me Nothing has become a “street anthem”, as it tells audiences that unapologetic ambition isn’t only acceptable for success: it’s required.
7. Runaway—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
This is the biggest example of my executive power thus far on the list. A lot of my Facebook peers neglected to mention this song at all, but I’ll confidently state that I find this as one of the very best efforts that West has ever produced.
The reason is because Runaway is a rare glimpse of the megalomaniacal West as a vulnerable, normal human being. I always find it especially commendable when an artist drops their guard and allows us to examine personal flaws and pains. This is the primary reason why Eminem is my all-time favorite music artist.
There might be some of my own personal experience mixed in with this song’s high ranking, but it’s mostly because of West’s own romantic failures that are so nakedly injected into this track. Without sounding too dramatic, I’ll go ahead and say that this song seems a bit more “alive” than others in his catalogue.
There’s just a bit more pain, history, self-pity, and apprehension that this track emits, and I’m amazed that Kanye was brave enough to do this while his brash antics still dominated his image.
6. All Falls Down—The College Dropout
Social commentary songs are like the “anti-food industry people” of music. The intentions are usually pure, and the content is sound, but artists can sometimes walk the line between educational and condemning a little too closely.
Given this eggshell walk of a song type, Kanye perfectly handles the topic of materialism without sounding pious.
He talks about the self-consciousness that the media helps create, and the subsequent obsession over fancy possessions that we’re told will help us appear successful.
I’m sure this kind of song has been done both before and since the release of “All Falls Down”, but it’s West’s admittance of his own self-consciousness and attempts to mask it with wealth that really makes this track special.
Nearly every line of this song (“Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga, in a coup) is gold, and carries a sense of candidness that makes us feel more pensive than guilty.
“I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific/ I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific/ I got a problem with spending before I get it/ We all self conscious I’m just the first to admit it”.
Let me start by saying that this is the best beat Kanye West has ever constructed in his entire career. Given all of the songs that we’ve already visited on this list, that’s saying something.
Using a sample of a popular song is tricky: it can go over as passable, or it’ll blow up in your face…typically the second one.
In a great example of West flexing his confidence muscles, he decided to take on the masters of beat-making themselves: Daft Punk. Was Kanye’s sampling of the classic “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” passable?
Hell no. It was downright better.
There’s a certain heaviness to West’s reworking of the beat, which almost makes it seem as though Kanye’s incarnation is the perfected version of the original.
I haven’t even gotten to the content yet. But in the interest of space, let’s just agree that the lyrics to this song are just as impressive as the beat is.
Bow in the presence of greatness.
4. Through the Wire—The College Dropout
We now find ourselves at square one—where it all began for Kanye and his rapping career.
I just watched the video for the first time in several years, and I couldn’t help but smile at just how genuinely hard-working Kanye was at the start of it all.
The title “Through the Wire” refers to how West rapped the entire song with his mouth wired shut—the immediate result of a car accident that nearly took his life. The fact that Yeezy recorded this song only two weeks after his hospital visit help shows exactly how much he was willing to put on the line to get his rapping career off the ground.
And it’s this Kanye that we should never forget. Despite the crazy antics at award shows, and the Kim-K nonsense, he was—at one point—a guy who literally cheated death and made a name for himself by striking a relatable nerve in people across the nation.
West always looks back to his car accident as the beginning of a metaphorical “second life”. Given his recent self-proclamation as a musical deity—he wasn’t too far off.
3. Family Business— The College Dropout
It’s a bit difficult to describe this song without getting a little bit emotional.
The penultimate track of College Dropout is a heartfelt walk down memory lane, and a tear-jerking celebration of the dysfunction, timeless experiences, and idiosyncrasies that come with family.
I’ve said it perhaps a million times, but what turns music from good to “great” is the innate ability to connect to the innermost feelings of the listener.
This isn’t just a song that’s listened to: it’s experienced, digested, felt, and pondered. It’s nearly impossible to listen to this entire track without finding a line that whiplashes you back in time to a specific family gathering.
Whether the memories are joyful reflected upon or agonizingly longed for, the point is that the song will transport you there. I think that’s very powerful, and the main reason why “Family Business” is one of my favorite songs of all-time.
Okay, I’m going to stop now before I start crying.
2. Gold Digger—Late Registration
Just getting edged out for the top spot is Kanye’s biggest hit to-date, as well as the 9th most successful US single of the 2000s.
The 2003 track, which displayed West’s collaborative prowess at the highest level through the inclusion of Jamie Foxx’s vocals, captivated audiences through its hilarious subject matter accompanied by a bubblegum tone.
Yeezy was able to take two of the Modern Man’s worst fears—unplanned pregnancies and being hypnotized by a money grubbing she-harpy—and turn them into a laughable tale of relevancy that surprisingly offended very few people.
West was able handle such a dynamic topic through his clever wordplay. After all, he never did accuse women of being gold diggers—he was simply just pointing out some…trends.
The last verse really helps bring the song home. West gives his respects and blessings to both sides of the dating cycle— describing that the man will eventually overcome and move on, while also giving the girl encouragement to continue her ways.
The “don’t hate the player, hate the game” theme of Gold Digger will make the track as timeless and relevant as its most marquee line:
“Holler we want prenup!”
1. Jesus Walks—The College Dropout
(When I first started this list, I had the notion in my head that “Gold Digger” was undoubtedly going to be number one. But after hearing what my peers had to say, and giving both songs several, serious listens, the choice became clear)
Here’s a quote I heard recently that’s really resonated: “To be perceived as better, you must be perceived as different”.
Rappers who are just starting out, trying to make a name for themselves, will bend over backwards to fit the mold of whatever image is currently popular in the industry. That’s why it seems as though music trends occur in waves, with several artists promoting the same style and image.
It’s a simple equation in the eye of record executives: fit in, or get out.
In this track, not only does West articulate that there is faith to be found in all walks of life, but he also questions why the music industry shies away from positive religious content in favor of sex, violence, and drugs.
“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?”
So who would have guessed that a rap artist releasing a song which openly broadcasted his faith would become a legendary hit? Well, Kanye did.
No wonder he calls himself a genius.
Well, thanks for coming along…
I’m actually a pretty sentimental person, and it’s pretty agonizing that I finally have to let this list go.
I had a blast doing it, and I know it’s because of all the input and feedback that I got from you all. I sincerely would like to thank anyone who either made suggestions, tuned in to read every (or any) installation, or those who did both. I really tried to make this series as best as I could, as a way of repaying everyone for your help.
As always, thanks for reading, and Happy Holidays!