So, before I say anything else, let’s just get this out of the way: it’s been a weird few years for Kanye West. People smarter than myself have spent decades arguing whether it’s possible to separate the artists from their work, but in this case, I’m going to do what I can to forget about his recent presidential run, his personal life, and his penchant for designing clothes that look like stuff homeless people will wear in the future.
This is about the music of Kanye West, full stop.
Last month, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy celebrated its tenth anniversary. The album represented something of a demarcation point for West. He’d kicked off his career with three records that are easily the most “fun” installments in his library—lively and wild and full of funk and soul samples—before releasing 808s & Heartbreak, a departure that saw him go all-in on the autotune that was all the rage at the time (a move that was initially met with skepticism but has benefited from some revisionist history).
As far as I’m concerned, MBDTF is easily Kanye’s high watermark. It’s the artist at the peak of his power; an album where he showcases his full potential and provides a look into his life at the time while also dropping a few prescient hints about the pitfalls he’d eventually encounter in its wake.
After doing a bit of reflecting, I made my way back through his discography before taking the time to throw together a ranking of the 50 best songs he’s ever put out (in addition to assembling a Spotify playlist for your listening pleasure). You might disagree, but at the end of the day, this is my list and you can’t tell me nothing.
50. “I Love Kanye” (2016)
You could definitely make the case that West lacks self-awareness, but “I Love Kanye” is a pretty solid counterpoint to that argument and possibly the most self-aware song ever written. No joke. Kanye West was a much different person and in a much different place when he dropped The Life Of Pablo.
Some people missed the Old Kanye who dramatically changed his tune(s) since his debut album, and this track is the rapper hearing your concerns, receiving your feedback, and wanting you to know that all of the comments placed in the Suggestion Box have been read.
49. “Two Words” feat. Mos Def, Freeway (2004)
Early in his career, Kanye had a tendency to roll with more low-key rappers like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and fellow Chicagoan Common. Of course, he also kicked it with Jay-Z, the man who’s largely responsible for his come-up and someone that the “low-key” label doesn’t really apply to. It can be hard being friends with different groups of people—crews sitting at different tables in the cafeteria—but there’s nothing better than figuring out ways to bring folks from both camps together.
Kanye’s talent and impressive networking always made it possible for him bridge the gap, as his fluid and genre-bending production allowed him to easily hang out with both camps—which is exactly what he does on “Two Words,” which features Mos Def and Freeway, the latter of whom got a co-sign from Hova when he landed a deal with Roc-A-Fella Records in the early 2000s.
48. “Ultralight Beam” feat. Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream (2016)
Kanye constantly tinkered with the order of the songs on The Life Of Pablo before ultimately deciding the best way to greet listeners was with “Ultralight Beam,” which was absolutely the right call because it is a fantastic opener.
While the track’s gospel influences give it a somewhat peaceful feel, there are definitely times when I’m not sure what I’m listening to. Chance is dropping references to Arthur and his claim that he “was never going to fail” after meeting Kanye did not age well. I also still don’t really know what the hell an “ultralight beam is”; it kind of sounds like the name of a hard seltzer.
With that said, it’s still one hell of a way to kick things off.
47. “Amazing” feat. Young Jeezy (2008)
Again, we can knock West for his lack of self-awareness, but you can also once again counter such accusations with a song like “Amazing,” which is refreshingly honest; Kanye is baring it all on the track, even at times admitting that he’s the monster he’d come to embrace on MBDTF.
The autotune that was so in vogue during this era might weaken the song a bit, but at the same time, you have to respect how he harnessed it when it came to creating what would become one of his most interesting albums.
46. “Last Call” (2004)
When an artist finishes that first album, there is cause for celebration. They’ve likely spent years thinking and dreaming of the moment. It’s a beautiful thing. There are few thrills more exciting than hearing the finished product of your music bumping through a studio’s speakers.
Following the success of The College Dropout, Kanye was understandably in a celebratory mood on Late Registration and opens the album’s closing track with a simple declaration: “I would like to propose a toast. I said toast motherfucker!”
From there, we get over ten minutes of Kanye going off; giving you a damn near play-by-play of his life and career up until that point. There’s a bit of an airing of grievances and a series of boasts, but for the most part, it’s Kanye just telling like it is at a moment when no one could tell him otherwise.
45. “Wolves” feat. Sia, Vic Mensa (2016)
There was plenty of anticipation and speculation surrounding The Life of Pablo leading up to its release in February of 2016, most of which centered around one major question: would it actually be released? It was a fair thing to ask, as just a few days before it was supposed to come out, he was constantly tweeting out updates about various tweaks that led many people to think it might not roll out as scheduled.
The version of “Wolves” that ended up on the album featured verses by Sia and Vic Mensa. Frank Ocean had initially appeared on the track, but Kanye decided to make his contribution its own song, creatively titled”Frank’s Track.”
“Wolves” is delightfully weird, and even though it sounds a bit messy at times, it somehow all works in the end.
44. “Never Let Me Down” feat. Jay-Z, J. Ivy (2004)
As soon as Hov calls out “Oh baby” at the start of “Never Let Me Down,” it never takes it foot off the gas. Kanye’s production—especially the driving backbeat—is the perfect job site for him and Jay to get some work done.
In a way, it’s Kanye’s coming out party as a rapper. It appears deep into The College Dropout, but context comes into play here. He and Jay had worked together before, but the former was always something of an understudy until “Never Let Me Down,” where the two finally come off as equals.
43. “Drive Slow” feat. Paul Wall, GLC (2005)
If “Never Let Me Down” moves and cooks, “Drive Slow” is polar the opposite; it’s not in a hurry but rather taking its sweet damn time.
The laid-back vibe was Kanye’s nod to the Houston scene (which was having a moment in 2005) and this was a fantastic way to pull from the zeitgeist. He also manages to do so without seeming opportunistic or coming off as a “culture vulture”; it’s clear he’s a fan of the sound and executed this tribute in a spectacular fashion.
42. “Homecoming” feat. Chris Martin (2007)
Kanye tapped Coldplay’s Chris Martin to handle the hook for Graduation’s “Homecoming,” which was recorded during sessions at Abbey Road Studios in England. It was an updated version of “Home,” which appeared on Kanye’s 2003 Get Well Soon mixtape.
In the earlier version, a young, scrappy up and comer named John Stephens sang the hook. Who is John Stephens, you ask? Well, he eventually changed his name to “John Legend”—yes, the same John Legend known best for constantly popping up on Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram.
41. “Bound 2” (2013)
Yeezus mostly sounds like metal banging against metal, but on “Bound 2,” Kanye attempted to remind people of the Old Kanye they originally fell for; the man known for harnessing old school soul samples to create genuinely fun tracks as opposed to a sense of doom and gloom and ugly clothes.
For the most part, it works. “Bound 2” isn’t nearly as smooth as anything on those first three albums and Kanye’s 2013 experimental production style sometimes gets in the way, but the vibe is ultimately welcome and fairly refreshing.
We also can’t forget that video—just like we can’t forget James Franco’s and Seth Rogan’s reinterpretation.
40. “Flashing Lights” feat. Dwele (2007)
Creators across the entertainment spectrum have always been told to “Write what you know,” which is exactly what Kanye does on “Flashing Lights.”
Here, he heeds that advice, penning lyrics that revolve around the seizure-inducing bulbs of the paparazzi who hounded him relentlessly after his rise to fame in addition to a life filled with hitting the club and eating while gazing out at the ocean during trips to Florida without taking the time to inform his lady at home before departing.
Beyond the boasts and romantic entanglements, the production is also sleek as hell thanks to its pounding beat, cascading strings, and the robotic synths that complement each other as opposed to clashing.
39. “FourFiveSeconds” feat. Rihanna, Paul McCartney (2015)
Amidst all the bombast and noise of Kanye’s run throughout the first half of the 2010s, he helped create this tidy little number featuring Rihanna and Paul McCartney on vocals (with the Beatles legend also contributing some acoustic guitar). There’s not much to the song beyond a catchy hook, an easy guitar line, and the occasional organ part, but when you have Rihanna singing the hook and McCartney strumming along, what is an objectively simple tune still somehow sounds larger than life.
To be honest, this song is more of a Rihanna showcase piece than a Kanye track. Her voice is really the star here, as it sounds so fresh and unlike anything else she had done up to that point. At the same time, that’s just what Kanye does, isn’t it? He is a rapper, but he first made his bones as a producer, a role that’s led to some of his best work.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to my daughter about how it’s not cool to laugh at her father when he’s singing, which I can’t help but do whenever I hear this song.
38. “Waves” (2016)
Roughly eighteen people had a hand in writing “Waves” and another five had a hand in the production in addition to Kanye. When there are that many cooks in the kitchen, there’s a chance that whatever they serve up could be an absolute mess, but thankfully, they ultimately brought a pretty solid offering to the table.
37. “Spaceship” feat. GLC, Consequence (2004)
At times, Kanye West doesn’t feel like a real person. This isn’t exclusive to him, as it happens with a lot of celebrities; they become larger-than-life, and in turn, it becomes almost impossible to think about what they must have been like before they blew up.
“Spaceship” doesn’t just have a cool groove to it but also provides a compelling and amazingly honest look at what Kanye West life was like before he became the Kanye West we came to know and love (and then sort of hate):
“Let’s go back, back to the Gap / Look at my check, wasn’t no scratch / So if I stole, wasn’t my fault / Yeah I stole, never got caught / They take me to the back and pat me / Askin’ me about some khakis / But let some black people walk in / I bet they show off their token blackie.”
For better or worse, Kanye’s honesty is one of his most fascinating traits and “Spaceship” certainly falls on the “better” side of the specturm
36. “All Day” feat. Paul McCartney, Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom (2015)
“All Day” is one of three songs that West worked on with McCartney (the other two being “FourFiveSeconds” and “Only One”). It was recorded in the summer of 2014, and after leaking that August, it was eventually officially released in March of 2015.
McCartney helped out with the melody, messing around with the Wings’ song “When The Wind Is Blowing” while in the studio. Musically, it feels like something that would’ve fit on Yeezus as opposed to what Kanye would do on The Life Of Pablo, as it’s very industrial and features that aforementioned sense of impending doom.
35. “Otis” with Jay-Z (2011)
I love Otis Redding. I can’t get enough of him, and under normal circumstances, I would be opposed to someone attempting to sample the soul legend on sheer principle.
However, Watch The Throne, the long-awaited collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye, was anything but normal. They not only get a pass here but a nod of approval from this Otis fanatic because of how well they sample Redding’s voice and music from his version “Try A Little Tenderness.”
I wish Kanye had tinkered with Watch the Throne the same way he did with Pablo, as “Otis” undoubtedly should’ve been the first track. Unfortunately, it was preceded by “H.A.M.,” which is fine but not nearly as much fun this is.
34. “Devil In A New Dress” feat. Rick Ross (2010)
This song is sleazy as hell, man. Between the production, the sultry female vocal track that snakes its way throughout, and the strings that never stop, it has a vibe that calls to mind a dive bar that reeks of rail liquor and cigarettes.
“Devil In A New Dress” was originally released as part of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Friday series and it was so well-received that it earned a spot on MBDTF, where we’re treated to the addition of a slick guitar solo and a verse from Rick Ross (he also appears on “Monster” but gets more time to shine here and takes full advantage).
33. “Pt. 2” feat. Desiigner, Caroline Shaw (2016)
On The Life Of Pablo, Kanye elected to split Father Stretch My Hands into two parts, the first of which may be the only gospel-inspired song you’ll ever hear that features someone talking about bleached assholes.
“Pt. 2” is more hammer and nails; less cordial and not really focused on pleasantries (or whitened buttholes). It starts out innocently enough before the handclaps and autotuned Kanye comes in. It’s frantic, manic, unrelenting, and almost punishing at times. While Kid Cudi gets to shine on the first part, Desiigner does a lot of the heavy lifting here, and his deep voice adds to the sense of menace the song has.
32. “Through The Wire” (2003)
After Kanye nearly lost his life in a car crash, he quickly found himself out of the hospital and in the studio to record a song about what his life was like at that moment and what led up to it. “Through The Wire” is the track that really put him on the map, and in hindsight, we should’ve known it was the start of something special.
West is literally rapping through the wire holding his jaw together, addressing his liquid diet and making references to everything from Vanilla Sky to Geico while a soaring Chaka Khan sample plays in the background. In a way, it was a teaser trailer for the epic his life would soon become and that’s still playing out 17 years later.
31. “We Major” feat. Nas, Really Doe (2005)
Here’s a question for you: do think Kanye West could be a good friend? To be honest, I’m not sure. He seems like he’d be one of those casual acquaintances that are occasionally a blast to hang out with at times but also just straight-up sucks to be around at others.
However, you could point to “We Major” as a counterpoint, as that Really Doe fella is a childhood friend of Kanye who was tapped to hop on the same track as the legendary Nas. With that said, the Queens native wasn’t exactly on the best of terms with Jay-Z at the time, so the fact that Kanye decided to have him contribute here firmly falls in the “Bad Friend” column.
As a result, I have no choice but to answer that first question with another one: Who the hell knows?
30. “No More Parties In LA” feat. Kendrick Lamar (2016)
The Life Of Pablo is an album that goes in a variety of different directions, only some of which feel like they have roots in what many people would consider “traditional” hip hop—a category that you can definitely use to classify “No More Parties In LA.”
Produced by Kanye and Madlib, it was first kicked around way back in 2010 during the MBDTF sessions. It was one of five beats that Madlib reportedly offered up at the time, and a few years later, Kendrick Lamar (who served as an opener on the Yeezus tour) teamed up with that formidable duo.
Lamar had previously co-written “All Day” but “No More Parties in LA” would be their first full-fledged collaboration, and while it’s buried deep within the album, it’s also one of its strongest songs.
29. “Clique” feat. Big Sean, Jay-Z (2012)
“Clique” is the definition of a “Certified Banger” and that’s really all I have to say about that.
28. “New Slaves” (2013)
2013 wasn’t that long ago, but it also feels like it was forty years ago, so it may be hard to remember just what a confusing, uncomfortable, and fascinating experience listening to Yeezus the first time was. It was as if an alien spaceship landed on earth and polo-clad robots marched out.
Kanye was coming off Watch The Throne and G.O.O.D. Summer, both of which were your pretty standard hip hop fare. We knew he was capable of basically anything, but Yeezus was virtually impossible to see coming and almost as hard to process.
“New Slaves” was the first extraterrestrial to emerge from the ship, and based on how ominous it sounds, it’s clear it wasn’t coming in peace. It doesn’t take long for Kanye to explain who the “New Slaves” in question are, saying:
“What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?/All you blacks want all the same things/Used to only be n*ggas now everybody playing/Spending everything on Alexander Wang/New Slaves”
Shit really gets real in the second verse though, where he goes scorched earth while exclaiming, “I’m ’bout to air shit out/Now what the fuck they gon’ say now?” Based on the initial reaction to the album, it didn’t seem like people really knew what to say, which is sort of still the case seven years later.
27. “Champion” (2007)
Three albums in, it was fair to say that Kanye did indeed feel like a champion. By the time Graduation rolled around, he probably felt invincible. Why wouldn’t he? His opening trilogy was about as solid of a three-album run that you could have and he’d absolutely earned the right to boast.
“Champion” might be ranked 27th here but is probably in the top five as far as “Super Fun Kanye Songs” are concerned. The Steely Dan sample is simple but lively, the production is bright and soulful, and the hook is fun to sing along with. As time went on, songs like “Champion” would be few and far between as Kanye started getting more serious and experimental, but if you ever want to question Kanye’s prowess as a pop artist, this song would like to have a word.
26. “Reborn” with Kid Cudi (2018)
Kanye and Kid Cudi first collaborated on a couple of tracks on The Life Of Pablo but the two would have a falling out when the man behind Man on the Moon took shots at both Kanye and Drake for using ghostwriters. This led to West saying he “birthed” Cudi before changing his tune a few days later by dubbing him “the most influential artist of the past ten years.” What a ride.
By this time, Cudi had entered a facility to seek treatment for depression and their beef was effectively squashed. Over the next year or so, the two regularly performed together, and in 2018, Cudi headed to where Kanye had holed up in Wyoming, which led to the collaborative album Kids See Ghosts.
The record is one of the five to come out of the Wyoming sessions, and even though I’d argue Pusha T’s was the cream of that crop, Kids See Ghosts is perhaps the most interesting. Both Cudi and Kanye bluntly address their mental health issues and “Reborn” is a slow-moving, head-bobbing confessional that moves like waves (or, more aptly, the wind across the wide-open spaces of the state where it was recorded).
25. “Heard Em Say” feat. Adam Levine (2005)
Before getting into this, I’d like to take a minute to say I think Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane is a solid album. Is it great? No. Not even close. With that said, it’s fun to listen to and the songs are super catchy, which I can’t say about the rest of the band’s catalog because Songs About Jane is the only entry I’ve listened to.
I bring this up because Maroon 5’s Adam Levine provides some similarly solid vocals on “Heard Em Say,” which is yet another example of West being able to bring out the best in other artists; almost using their voice as an instrument, plugging them it at the right time in the right place. Levine isn’t the best singer the music world has to offer but Kanye really brings out the best of him here.
24. “Ni**as In Paris” with Jay-Z (2011)
I’ve always had some mixed feelings about this song largely thanks to my inability to relate to almost all of it. The closest I’ve come to “going gorilla” in Paris was the time I drove through a town in Maine going seven miles over the speed limit.
Of course, there’s also the title of the song, which, and as a decidedly Caucasian person, I’ve never really known what to call it. I’m well aware I’m in no position to second-guess what they went with, but I think “Ball So Hard” (which Jay-Z initially lobbied for) would’ve been an objectively better choice simply because “Ball So Hard” is a dope title
This song is also the source of one of my favorite Kanye stories ever. During the Watch the Throne tour, the duo frequently performed it multiple times, but during a show in Paris, they played it 11 times in a row over the course of 50 minutes.
I still don’t really know what “going gorilla” means but I assume it looks something like that.
23. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” feat. Jay-Z (2005)
It is 2005. Jay-Z is retired. Damon Dash had been booted from Roc-A-Fella and people were choosing sides. At the time, Kanye was still riding high on the success of Late Registration, which included the bonus track “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” (it was accompanied by a video inspired by children forced into mines in Africa even though the lyrics didn’t really address that particular plight).
That changed a bit when Kanye sided with his mentor and coaxed him out of retirement for a remix, where he used his verse to address the topic that inspired the title, discussing the moral quandary that came with his love of the jewelry he was so fond of rocking (although he’d ultimately declare he’d never “give his chain back”).
While Jay strayed away from that particular aspect, he announced his return by arguably stealing the show with a verse containing slick lines like “How could you falter?/When you’re the Rock of Gibraltar” and the iconic bar “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man.” It was not only a compelling contrast but a way for Hov to announce he was back in an incredibly impressive manner.
22. “Blood On The Leaves” (2013)
As I’ve mentioned several times now, Yeezus frequently feels like an overwhelming cacophony of noise, but “Blood On The Leaves” is a very notable exception. The combination of the Billie Holiday and Nina Simone samples, the massive horns stomping throughout, and the thundering drums make “Blood On The Leaves” almost sounds like a declaration of war.
Who’s the target? Who’s to say? With that said, whoever he’s actually taking aim at is in for a bad time.
21. “Love Lockdown” (2008)
808s & Heartbreak sounds better and better with every year that passes. I don’t know why, but I do know it’s aged like a fine wine, and *HOT TAKE ALERT* by the time everything said and done, I honestly feel there’s a chance the album could be viewed as the best project of his career
If you only listen to the first 54 seconds of “Love Lockdown,” you’d probably feel like there’s something missing—because something is missing until the drums kick in just before the one-minute mark, where you finally realize, “Oh, we’re onto something here.”
From that point on, it’s impossible not to be hooked. Yes, it requires some patience, but that also makes it the perfect encapsulation of the attention you have to devote if you want to appreciate the entire LP.
20. “Everything I Am” feat. DJ Premier (2007)
“Everything I Am” is so simple and laid back. There’s piano, an easy beat, and the sporadic scratching you’d expect from DJ Premier while Kanye is basically just ruminating about life. There’s nothing super complicated about it and as far as his songs go, it’s sort of like a nice little summer afternoon.
It’s hard to imagine Kanye doing something like “Everything I Am” in 2020, and the mere thought of the trainwreck it would probably be is enough to give me a headache that sucks as much as “Everything I Am” doesn’t.
19. “All Falls Down” feat. Syleena Johnson (2004)
I’m not super familiar with Syleena Johnson, but on “All Falls Down,” she is essentially playing the part of Lauryn Hill. Kanye wanted to sample Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity,” and while he got her to sign off on the music, she wasn’t down with him using the vocals, which resulted in Johnson entering (that’s what she said).
One of the most notable things about “All Falls Down” is that it was the second single off of The College Dropout, which was a bold move when you consider it tackles topics like the obsession with material objects and wealth and the emotional pitfalls that come with it. It’s basically the opposite of the kind of single you’d expect from someone trying to drum up hype for their debut album, but as we’d come to learn, you should always expect the unexpected as far as West is concerned.
18. “Gorgeous” feat. Kid Cudi, Raekwon (2010)
If you’ll allow me to go on a slight (and admittedly weird) tangent, a lot of the music Eminem has put out over the years has invoked the same feeling I have when I throw on some good jazz. I know it’s an odd comparison, but they both make you stop and really pay attention to what’s going on; you feel like you’re going to miss something, which almost defeats the point of listening to it in the first place.
I feel the same way about “Gorgeous,” which manages to lull you into a trance with the help of a hypnotic guitar that draws you in until it takes you prisoner without you even realizing it.
Kanye also sounds like a man possessed on the song, albeit in a different way than other tracks where he comes off as more of a man on a mission. It’s one of the rare instances where it feels like he’s actually showing some restraint, which is one hell of an achievement when you consider most of the other music he’s pumped out over the years.
17. “Jesus Walks” (2004)
If “Through The Wire” was Kanye’s way of announcing his arrival, “Jesus Walks” was the song that made it clear he was there to stay. There’s really nothing else to say.
16. “Mercy” with Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz (2012)
If we only remember one thing from the Cruel Summer period, let it be this song. Please let it be this song. Sure, “Clique” is cool, but it can’t hold a candle to “Mercy.”
When you gather an ensemble as impressive as the lineup that appears here, there’s a chance they’ll end up clashing, but everyone on “Mercy” gives each other some room to breathe. It’s rare for all parties to rise to the occasion on posse tracks, but here, each and every person spits fire hot enough to melt your headphones.
15. “Gone” feat. Cam’Ron, Consequence
By now, you’ve probably noticed I have a bit of a sweet spot for songs where Kanye leans on his old-school method of flipping old-school music with amazing results. As a fan of the soul music he is (or at least was) so fond of, I’m an absolute sucker for these particular beats, which have a tendency to make me feel all warm tingly inside.
On “Gone,” Kanye samples “It’s Too Late” by Otis Redding, which he supplements with some killer strings courtesy of the crew of ten violinists, four viola players, and the same number of cellists he assembled to take things to the next level. A less ambitious man would’ve found another sample or turned to a keyboard, but as we know by now, Kanye is nothing if not ambitious.
14. “Heartless” (2008)
A man who sounds like a robot accusing a (presumably human) woman of lacking a heart is an interesting play on Kanye’s part. Then again, 808s & Heartbreak is nothing if not one massively interesting experiment.
On the surface, “Heartless” seems like an appropriate title based on how hollow and mechanical it sounds in addition to the subject matter, but—like an ogre or an onion—it has layers. In actuality, there’s a ton of heart in this song, which is ultimately about a man bearing his soul in the wake of being emotionally blindsided:
“In the night, I hear ’em talk/The coldest story ever told/Somewhere far along this road, he lost his soul to a woman so heartless”
“Hey yo, I did some things but that’s the old me/And now you wanna get me back and you goin’ show me/So you walk around like you don’t know me/You got a new friend, well I got homies/But in the end it’s still so lonely”
Sure, he might sound like a soulless robot, but in the end, it’s one of the most personal songs he’s ever made.
13. “Get Em High” feat. Talib Kweli, Common (2004)
“Get Em High” is Kanye operating with zero fucks left to give. To say he doesn’t give a shit would be an understatement; he’s out here blasting people with weak-ass demos and a woman emailing him at night with her measurements. You want to question whether or not this dude with the colorful polo shirts and the leather backpacks actually knows Talib Kweli? He’s going to make sure you damn well know he does.
It’s interesting to contrast what Kanye does on “Get Em High” with what he did on “Heartless.” The first one is about the meteoric come-up of a seemingly invincible man then who finds himself broken and looking for answers for countless questions four years later (and is still trying to track some down to this day).
12. “Touch The Sky” feat. Lupe Fiasco (2005)
I’ve previously written about the distinct eras that define Kanye’s career and it’s kind of hard to believe the guy behind The Life Of Pablo and was the same one who made “Touch The Sky,” which would easily earn a spot near the top of the “Super Fun Kanye Songs” list I alluded to before.
This is one of the first songs that comes to mind when you’re talking about the Old Kanye. Backed by the horns from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” the track starts at 100 MPH and never really slows down, with both West and Lupe Fiasco absolutely killing it.
This is the kind of song that you want to blare while cruising around with the windows down without a care in the world, which is exactly what I’ve done on multiple occasions.
11. “Black Skinhead” (2013)
These drums, man. These fucking drums; the loud, thundering, belly-rumbling kind that give you the urge to take to the streets and march with a fist in the air just because you can. You never would’ve seen this song coming based on what Kanye had done before it was released, which arguably marked the start of his transition into rap’s biggest wild card.
The percussion was the result of West reuniting with Daft Punk in Paris in 2013. The duo had planned to use the drums on Random Access Memories but handed them off to Kanye after they failed to make the cut (interestingly enough, “Black Skinhead” almost didn’t appear on Yeezus, as someone on his team mentioned it sounded like something you’d hear at a European soccer game, which is kind of a valid point, but I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a bad thing).
However, reason prevailed, as “Black Skinhead” not only made it onto the album but secured a spot on a number of lists from various publications who dubbed it one of the best songs of the year. The way it melded rap, hardcore, and industrial rock was a risky move that could’ve been an unmitigated disaster, but thankfully, it ended up being the polar opposite.
10. “Monster” feat. Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, Jay-Z, Rick Ross (2010)
From the moment Ross makes his fairly brief appearance in the intro of “Monster,” it’s clear Kanye isn’t messing around and everyone who appears alongside him stepped up to the plate looking to knock their part out of the park—especially Nicki Minaj, whose manic verse is easily the highlight of a song filled with them.
As she mentions (and questions), she was viewed as a rookie at the time, but that all changed on November 22, 2010, when she not only released her debut album Pink Friday but unleashed this vicious 32-bar contribution onto an unsuspecting world, vacillating between the various personas that would come to define her work.
The show she puts on here rivals what Kendrick Lamar did when he bodied Big Sean on his own song when “Control” dropped in 2013 and garnered her a ton of the respect she rightfully deserved. Ross would go on to describe it as “a moment in history. I knew then she’s one of the greatest,” and while that statement may not have aged as well as 808s, her verse has stood the test of time.
9. “Famous” feat. Rihanna, Swizz Beatz (2016)
Is the line referencing Taylor Swift a fairly classless low blow? Yes. Yes it is.
Of course, you can’t ignore the fact that it’s included and the drama that ensued, and even if you object to it, I find it hard to do the same when it comes to the assertion “Famous” is an objectively dope song. Rihanna sounds sexy and smooth as ever and the beat—a combination of samples of Sister Nancy’s “Bam” and “Do What You Gotta Do” by Nina Simone—absolutely slaps.
Again, the jab at Swift is the kind of barb that wants to make you send her an Edible Arrangement to cheer her up, but that doesn’t cancel out the fact that “Famous” is a jam.
8. “Runaway” feat. Pusha T (2010)
I still vividly remember the first time I heard “Runaway,” as I had just passed through Baltimore late at night on my way back to Philadelphia on a virtually empty highway. I can also remember the first thought that popped into my head when it initially graced my ears: “What the hell is happening right now?”
When you consider how complex the majority of the songs on MBDTF are up to this point on the album, “Runaway” is almost jarring in its simplicity. It sounds like something you’d hear an eight-year-old playing after their fourth piano lesson, and there’s a point where you almost can’t help but think, “Psssh, I could do that.” Then, the beat drops to usher in a nine-minute long opus that you could absolutely not come close to doing no matter how hard you try.
7. “Stronger” feat. Daft Punk (2007)
While “Stronger” may not have been as dramatic of a departure from West’s usual sound as Yeezus was, it was still one hell of a pivot compared to almost everything he’d done up to that point. There’s almost no one who ever would’ve predicted he’d team up with Daft Punk—just like there’s almost no one who could’ve guessed how impressive the final result would be.
“Stronger” is a song that pounds and hammers in a way that felt sort of resembled the Kanye we knew up until that point, but this one was a different version; a man who’d decided to turn his attention to the future as opposed to dwelling on the past.
The same can’t be said for the lyrics, where Kanye indirectly addressed his haters and the controversies he’d previously found himself at the center of—most notably his comment about George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—in an incredibly unapologetic fashion.
6. “Gold Digger” feat. Jamie Foxx (2006)
“Gold Digger” shouldn’t work. Yes, Jamie Foxx had nailed the part of Ray Charles in the biopic that was released a couple of years before this, but the mere idea of him singing his part from “I Got A Woman” as opposed to sampling the song (as Kanye had been so wont to do) seemed like a musical felony.
Welp, it’s safe to say the duo didn’t just pull it off but did so exceptionally well to a point where it sold three million copies in the United States alone and found itself sitting at the top of the Billboard charts for 10 weeks in a row.
It’s safe to say Kanye is probably pretty glad his original plan for the beat didn’t work out, as he originally whipped it up in Ludacris’ basement in 2003 with the intention of giving it to Shawnna, who planned to rap about becoming a gold digger as opposed to being exploited (and, to a certain degree) extorted by one.
However, those plans never panned out, making her loss our gain. Thanks, Shawnna. We appreciate it.
5. “POWER” (2010)
It would one hell of a stretch to describe “Stronger” as a subdued song—at least until you compare it to “POWER,” where Kanye essentially came out with a rocket launcher over both of his shoulders to fire back at the many critics he caught the ire of after the infamous Taylor Swift Incident at the 2009 VMAs—including Barack Obama, who labeled him a “jackass” following the outburst.
“POWER” is also one of the few songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy where Kanye is all by his lonesome, which is pretty appropriate considering he had no one to blame but himself for the backlash he found himself at the receiving end of. However, instead of backing down, he goes into full attack mode and never eases up, harnessing the power of thrash rock and leaving a path of destruction in his wake.
There’s a bit of a shift in direction toward the end, where we’re treated to a moment of introspection, almost as if he’s taking time to reflect on his previous mishaps and whether or not he should’ve responded in the scathing nature that he did. However, if he did indeed have second thoughts, they didn’t ultimately prevail, and we should all be glad that was the case.
4. “No Church In The Wild” with Jay-Z, feat. Frank Ocean (2011)
Let’s take a look at all of the things “No Church In The Wild” has going for it:
- It’s a killer opening track
- “No Church In The Wild” is a sweet song title
- Frank Ocean’s contributions are equal parts smooth and haunting
- “Sunglasses and Advil, last night was mad real” speaks to me, not so much as someone who goes out a lot anymore, but as a dad of two kids. The struggle is real—sorry, “mad real.”
- I’ve always loved the way the music rolls and sounds like it’s storming across a battlefield
Here’s what “No Church In The Wild” doesn’t have going for it:
3. “All Of The Lights” feat. like, so many people (2010)
If you were to ask me who or what I’d currently love to see in concert right now, my answer would be, “Anything. Literally anything.” At this point, I’d watch a tech tuning guitars and a drummer doing a soundcheck and it’d be enough to make me yell out a hearty “Woooo!” That’s saying something, because anyone who has ever been around for a drummer’s soundcheck knows how annoying it is (and I say this as a drummer myself).
However, prior to concerts not being a thing, I wouldn’t have had to think twice before deciding I’d like nothing better than to see Kanye performing “All of the Lights” accompanied by the star-studded lineup it features. In addition to West, you’d have *takes a deep breath* Rihanna, Elton John, Alicia Keys, John Legend, The-Dream, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Drake, and Charlie Wilson. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a full orchestra and a horn section and some wild drummer just bashing away in the background for good measure.
I feel like this isn’t a lot to ask once this whole pandemic is behind us.
“All Of The Lights” is a masterpiece. As is the case with a bunch of these songs, it could’ve been a trainwreck, but instead, it’s a genius work of art; a masterful deployment of resources (with most of those resources being the voices of the artists that were reportedly some of Kanye’s favorite in the world at the time). Each singer serves a purpose and he uses them like a rock band layering guitar parts and percussion; it almost feels like he had dedicated an Alicia Keys and Elton John pad on an MPC. Kanye is in chef mode on “All Of The Lights,” with each of these voices acting like spices in his rack.
2. “Good Life” feat. T-Pain (2007)
Here’s another question for you: Would 808s & Heartbreak exist if “Good Life” had never been made?
“Good Life” features the undisputed King of Autotune in the form of T-Pain, and you have to wonder if he rubbed off on Kanye a bit. I feel like when it was time for West to explore his heartbreak, he thought back to his boy T-Pain and realized that using the distortion was the perfect way to encapsulate the dehumanizing feelings he was dealing with.
Regardless, “Good Life” is the musical equivalent of having the sun shining on your bare shoulders on a warm day with a cold drink in your hand with nothing but easy-living in front of you. When the beat kicks in, it stirs something inside of you, making you instantly lean back and fall into the song.
It’s one thing to rap about the good life, but it’s another to write a song called “Good Life” that creates a sense that the listener is also living it (at least for a few minutes). Your good life might be a bit different than Kanye’s, but it’s good nonetheless.
1. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (2007)
When I sat down and started working on this, I thought “All Of The Lights” would be in the top spot. I had always felt it was not just Kanye’s best song but his most impressive. It seemed like a no-brainer. Then I started thinking about it some more, and while “All Of The Lights” is amazing, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” says much more about Kanye West than any other track, which makes it feel more important in the grand scheme of things.
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” could serve as Kanye’s mission statement, one that defines him more than almost any other he has ever made. It’s both defiant and confident, intriguing and concerning. We want our artists to be confident in their abilities, but is there such a thing as too confident? Does humility matter or is that reserved for others?
Much like MBDTF is a marker for Kanye that separates the first two phases of his career, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is him making a statement about who he is and who he will always be for better or for worse.
You can talk all the shit and fire all the shots you want, but at the end of the day, Kanye couldn’t care less. He’s going to do his Kanye things, write his Kanye songs, and rap his Kanye raps. By now, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything Kanye does, because back in 2007, he made it quite clear that none of it matters.
He’s Kanye West. You can’t tell him nothing