8. “Spaceship” featuring GLC & Consequence, The College Dropout
Even at the time of The College Dropout’s release, it had been quite a while since Kanye had to work retail. Yet in “Spaceship” he perfectly encapsulates the hell of retail and the desire to become something greater. Kanye is surprisingly relatable as he discusses his high school job working at the Gap, but through GLC and Consequence’s verses, “Spaceship” delves into the different ways of rising to success. GLC’s path is much more violent, going from Chicago crime to rapper, while Consequence discusses having the opposite of Kanye’s plight—having success, then losing it to a frustrating job.
7. “Touch the Sky” featuring Lupe Fiasco, Late Registration
While The College Dropout was Kanye’s shot to become a hip-hop legend, Late Registration is Kanye reveling in the greatness he’s reached and taking his music to the next, grandiose level. Almost as a celebration of his newfound status, “Touch the Sky” comes in with a bombastic, slowed down version of the horns from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” that demand attention. Kanye has moved up from the “Spaceship” version of himself into being proclaimed a hip-hop legend by his mentor Jay Z. For the first time in his life, Kanye’s career showed no sign of stopping on his way to the top and in “Touch the Sky” we see a grateful Kanye that’ll do anything do stay where he feels he belongs.
6. “Stronger,” Graduation
Kanye never gets enough credit for the amount of various influences he can accrue in just one song. With “Stronger,” he quotes Nietzsche over a beat from Daft Punk, which c’mon, what other rapper is going to do that? “Stronger” ended up being one of Kanye’s most famous songs, largely because of his ability to fuse electronic music and hip-hop in legitimately exciting ways. Despite how great Random Access Memories would become a few years later, it’s hard to imagine Daft Punk would’ve found as much mainstream success in America is Kanye hadn’t sampled “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” as essentially a sex joke in “Stronger.”
5. “Power,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
After the Taylor Swift incident at the VMAs and the public’s growing annoyance of his actions, Kanye took some time off to clear his head and make My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In “Power,” we hear Kanye admit the duality that occurs in his head when he states, “my childlike creativity, purity and honesty is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts. Reality is catching up with me.” He’s incredibly self-aware that he’s causing his own destruction due to his actions, yet throughout “Power,” he can’t help but fight these inner children within. As the first single to MBDTF, Kanye blows away the simplicity of his last album 808s & Heartbreak for the explosive stitching together of samples from Continent Number 6, Cold Grits (sampling “It’s Your Thing,” which he also used in “Crack Music”) and the static interruptions from King Crimson that aptly places Kanye as the “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
4. “Through the Wire,” The College Dropout
Even though it was Kanye’s first single, “Through the Wire” remains one of his most shocking and incredibly songs over a decade later. Recorded two weeks after a serious car accident, Kanye went into the studio with his jaw still wired shut and recorded “Through the Wire.” Already with his debut single, you can hear the determination in making great music, despite what comes his way, plus the signature “chipmunk soul” used on a Chaka Khan sample here, the self-deprecating humor and the proud boasting, all of which would become iconic of who Kanye is and remains to this day.
3. “Monster” featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye has been no stranger to the posse cut over the course of his career, but with “Monster”— easily his best group collaboration—Kanye is able to highlight the strengths of some of the greatest minds in modern music. Justin Vernon starts “Monster” off shooting out all of the lights lit up after “All the Lights” with a growl unfamiliar with his tone. While Rick Ross starts the track off praising Kanye’s penchant for samples, “Monster” is one of only two My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tracks without any samples. Instead Kanye’s dark and unsettling production sets a haunting background. Kanye’s verse is everything you could want from him—self-aware, hilarious and a flow patently his. Jay Z’s verse lets him proclaim his status as one of the greats, bringing fear to those he made monsters as well, trying to take him off the throne. Yet what makes “Monster” a powerhouse is the career-making verse by Nicki Minaj, as she seamlessly transitions between alter egos Roman Zolanski and Barbie, and creating a new monster that the others should be wary of.
2. “Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout
“We at war with ourselves,” Kanye says in the intro to “Jesus Walks,” which couldn’t be a more fitting phrase to describe the hypocrisies and history of Kanye West. “Jesus Walks” is just as much about himself (surprise, surprise) as it is about preaching about Jesus. Kanye knows that he needs to change his way, and his battle between the Devil and God makes him worry that maybe he’s done too much wrong to ever be redeemed. Yet, what makes “Jesus Walks” such an incredible song is Kanye’s determination to not let any topic be unavailable to him. When people told him not to talk about god in one of his first songs, he creates a masterpiece that can’t be denied airplay. “Jesus Walks” was arguably the biggest song from The College Dropout, not only for its powerful message of belief and faith in a world that fights against it, but because it presents so much of what we know of Kanye, from confused sinner to blunt contrarian to self-imposed prophet.
1. “Runaway” featuring Pusha T, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Douchebag. Asshole. Scumbag. Jerk-off. Kanye has been called of these things and more, and often rightfully so. In “Runaway,” Kanye’s nine-minute opus off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye is aware of his awful behavior and recommends to the girl he’s scored to “run away as fast as you can.” It’s no surprise that the first lines in the song are a shouted “look at ya!” shouted from Rick James, which works as both a desire for the spotlight and a introspective plea to reconsider his life choices.
“Runaway” is Kanye at his most conflicted, torn between being himself and being a more toned down version of himself, easier for the public to consume. Yet, unlike the world around him, Kanye revels in who he is, toasting the self-proclaimed monsters like himself that can’t be anything other than who they are. As Kanye said previously, “everything I’m not makes me everything I am.”
“Runaway” begins with a simple staccato piano key pressed over and over, almost as if he’s just gotten home from the VMAs after interrupting Taylor Swift, sat at the piano and started with a simple tone that imbues sadness and hopelessness before the beat kicks in. By the end though, the song has become far less simple, building to Kanye vocodering his voice into minutes of unintelligible, visceral droning.
“Runaway” is a culmination of Kanye’s career. You can hear a near-disappointment of getting the fame he desired for in The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation, his love of great cameos with Pusha T’s even cockier verse, the vocoder usage to hide from his emotions in 808s, the grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and tinged with the anger to come in Yeezus. Along the way you hear a man finding himself, trying to reason the angel and demon on his shoulder and finding a place in between: a college dropout that is finally living his beautiful dark twisted fantasy, which turns out to be brilliant.
Let’s have a toast to this asshole.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.