Regardless of whether you love Kanye West, hate Kanye West or constantly fluctuate based on whatever his most recent newsworthy situation is, it’s hard to deny the musical brilliance of Kanye West. Few musicians in the last decade have impacted our cultural consciousness the way that Mr. West has. He’s gone from working at the Gap to talking about running for president and has even had two sitting presidents discuss his antics. But the artistic side of the man can’t be forgotten, despite the headlines. Kanye is, simply put, one of the last iconic musicians of our generation—a man who refuses to be defined by terms as simple as “musician” or “producer,” even if he’s one of the best at both.
With West’s newest album Swish supposedly on the way, let’s take a look back at the man, the musician, and the self-proclaimed god Kanye West by ranking the songs from his six solo albums in anticipation of whatever iteration of Kanye we get next.
Kanye rarely sounds like he has as little to say as he does in “Drunk and Hot Girls,” an ode to picking up intoxicated girls at clubs, having to put up with their “bullshit,” then getting them pregnant. “Drunk and Hot Girls” feels like a waste of good ideas, with Mos Def trying to add a slight bit of romance and a pretty great Can sample, but the combination of these elements in probably Kanye’s worst and simplest song.
“Drive Slow” starts off as a warning to not attempt to rush life, but through verses by Paul Wall and GLC, the track quickly devolves into bragging about cars. Kanye’s verse uses his childhood friend Marley’s car as a metaphor for moving too fast, but Paul Wall and GLC seem to counterbalance that by showing off their rims, paint jobs and disco ball grills, leaving a mixed message by the end.
Another not quite great metaphor, here Kanye compares hip-hop to drugs, which works at first, but falls apart the further “Crack Music” goes on. Kanye says that much the way Reagan attempted to stop the Black Panthers through crack and in return, Kanye and other artists are giving back addictive music. Like what happens so often with Kanye’s ideas, the interesting intent is there, but the delivery of that idea isn’t quite as strong as it should be.
Usually Kanye is a master of using samples, yet in “Champion,” the use of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” overwhelms the song, repeating the hook over and over and dragging it into the ground. “Champion” is saved by Kanye’s lyrics, which goes into the expected cockiness and proclaiming of greatness, but then goes into praising his father’s support and Kanye’s attempts to just make the world better for his kids.
As a whole, 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye at his most vulnerable and destroyed, trying to find some solace after a relationship has ended. “Bad News,” the weakest track off 808s, has Kanye repeating the recently discovered news of a lover cheating on him, almost as he can’t believe it. Yet, it lacks the depth of his loss of love that the rest of the album is able to convey, becoming repetitive instead, even though the instrumental that concludes the track is quite gorgeous.
Kanye famously got his start making beats for other rappers and “Breathe In Breathe Out” sounds like it would belong more on a mid-2000’s era Ludacris album than on Kanye’s debut. In his first verse, Kanye says, “always said if I rapped I’d say something significant, but now I’m rapping about money, hoes and rims again.” The College Dropout is at its best when he talks about the former, but unfortunately “Breathe In Breathe Out” is the rare time Kanye raps about the latter.
“Never Let Me Down” marks the first time that Jay-Z and Kanye collaborated on one of West’s albums, and while it should be a landmark track, at this point it’s just sort of a letdown. On Jay’s verse, he brags in order to stay relevant, and Kanye’s verse shows that he’s already one step closer to taking the throne while he’s still in the process of introducing himself to the world. Also having J. Ivy reciting his own poetry in the middle of the song feels very out of place, as his over-enunciation is more obnoxious than it is powerful. Thankfully, Jay and Kanye’s collaborations would only grow stronger from here.
Graduation might be Kanye’s least interesting album so far in his career. It’s not bad, but it feels like Kanye sort of tired of the college trilogy theme he started. Kanye’s second verse on “The Glory” has him asking what he’s supposed to do now and the song itself does sound like Kanye spinning his wheels, focusing on the most boring of his topics—his clothes and his possessions. “The Glory” is basically Kanye stating he’s rich and that other people are faking, but he does this by almost acting like the rappers he’s trying to take down.”
Much of what makes “Send It Up” intriguing is the open and closing samples of Beanie Man’s “Memories,” which points out that living in the past isn’t as important as living in the present. Of course Yeezus is known as the hugest tonal shift in Kanye’s career, one that alienates, yet, allows Kanye to experiment with what’s he’s interested in. “Send It Up” might not be the best track of Yeezus, but it does reiterate that Kanye is going to do basically whatever the hell he feels like.
If you’re Kanye West and you’ve just made an excellent sophomore release, what do you do next? You have a celebration, y’all! “Celebration” is an incredibly simple Kanye song, talking about little more than getting a little drunk and high, hitting on some ladies and maybe having a baby. On an album that discusses everything from death to blood diamonds, it doesn’t hurt to have a little fun, too.
“I Wonder” has Kanye playing around with his song structure in a fascinating way. With the first verses, Kanye is in a difficult relationship, with his lyrics staggered and unnatural. However in the final verse, with the relationship supposedly cut off, Kanye goes back to being himself, with his usual cadence. The sample of “My Song” by Labi Siffre does get a bit insistent, but it’s overpowered by Kanye’s interesting song construction.
Yeezus is an album that takes sharp turns and goes in insane directions, probably no more so than in “I’m In It.” In a Pitchfork interview, even Justin Vernon, who is on “I’m In It,” has stated that he’s even confused as to what is going on in the song, stating he has no idea what Assassin is saying and that he’s not even sure what his lyrics were. But Vernon is right, “I’m In It” is violent and sexual and it’s a crazy awesome combination of strangeness.
While the first two West albums begin with intros featuring a school administrator calling Kanye a disappointment, “Good Morning” starts off Graduation by making Kanye the valedictorian of his own story. “Good Morning” has West graduating to the next level of success, as the cover for Graduation implies, with the College Dropout bear being shot out of college and into the stratosphere. “Good Morning” isn’t West just waking himself up to the next level of his evolution, it’s West waking up the world to its next legend.
Remember when Lil Wayne was still considered one of the greatest rappers in the world? “Barry Bonds” is now a reminder of when Lil Wayne could do nothing but make hits, since this track predates Tha Carter III’s popularity. “Barry Bonds” is little more than Wayne and West going head-to-head, knocking it out of the park with each verse, and of course bragging.
Kanye has always put a strong importance on family, from his clear love for his mother on his first album to “Only One” that’s dedicated to his daughter. With “Family Business,” Kanye shows love for his entire family and the love they had for him even in the darkest of times. Even though he might act like he’s all business, he says that when he gets together with his family, he’s basically just a regular, goofy guy. “Family Business” has a wonderful warmth to it that makes you want to join the West family for a Sunday cookout.
“Bring Me Down” is just a gigantic middle finger to anyone that has tried to keep Kanye from reaching his dreams, and to those who wanted nothing to do with him but now want his help for their own careers. “Bring Me Down” builds to an exciting crescendo, with the entire song beginning and ending with fantastic Brandy verses. “Bring Me Down” also presents a perfect encapsulation of who Kanye is—a man who will speak from his heart, regardless of what that means. At the very least, it gives people an opinion of him, which is more than can be sad about most musicians.
Much of Graduation is Kanye reveling in his newfound status as one of the greatest rappers in the world. More than any of his other albums, Graduation has Kanye talking about how phenomenal his life has become, finally at the top. “Good Life” is the most obvious example of this, with Kanye sampling his hero Michael Jackson and just having a good time and the usage of T-Pain slightly hinting at what would come for Kanye. “Good Life” is Kanye’s victory lap for a job well done and frankly, he deserves it.
“Big Brother” is an interesting look at Kanye and his friendship with Jay-Z, with the song praising Jay as his hero, while also essentially saying that he’s coming for Jay’s crown. “Big Brother” has Kanye bringing up the problems he’s had with Jay, such as having to buy his own tickets to Jay’s Madison Square Garden performance after being invited to a strange argument over who introduced who to Coldplay. “Big Brother” is both Kanye praising the throne, while also telling Jay he’s on his way to stealing it.
“Say You Will” starts off Kanye’s most personal and heartbroken album by presenting him at his most vulnerable. With just a phone call from an old love, Kanye goes from hopeful that the relationship will continue to fantasizing about strangling the caller in a matter of seconds. The auto-tune that make 808s & Heartbreak so controversial plays almost like a barrier between Kanye and the audience, almost as if he needs something to protect himself from being too candid.
As the opening track for Late Registration, Kanye uses “Heard ‘Em Say” almost to catch people up after The College Dropout, mentioning similar themes like his gratefulness to still be here, his belief in God and as he mentioned in “Bring Me Down,” his brutal honesty. Adam Levine’s verse might be one of the best things the Maroon 5 lead singer has ever done and would later parody himself on this song in The Lonely Island’s great “Iran So Far.” Late Registration starts with Kanye waking up, but “Heard ‘Em Say” plays like a soothing lullaby with some bite to it.
No matter what you think of Kanye West, it’s hard not to admire his ability to walk to the beat of his own drum. Much of The College Dropout focuses on his choice to leave college and to start his career, but “School Spirit” is the most direct about this decision. “School Spirit” mentions and proves the point that success in school doesn’t necessarily mean success in life. The great usage of Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” even excuses the censored lyrics, which was a requirement from Franklin in order to use the sample.
After Jay-Z used Chris Martin in “Beach Chair,” Kanye used him in a more successful way in “Homecoming,” even if it is sort of weird to hear Martin singing about his “home” of Chicago. Originally Kanye recorded parts of “Homecoming” on his pre-The College Dropout mixtape Get Well Soon… with John Legend in Martin’s place and “Homecoming” does reference Common’s similar “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Even though Common and Legend don’t make a cameo (Common does make an appearance in the music video), the combination of Martin and Kanye is undeniably pretty great.
Often Kanye is filled with contradiction, as we see in “Addiction,” where he can’t give up the things that make him feel so good. While he deals with the addiction of money and weed, it’s the girl that he can’t keep his mind off of that truly is his problem. However, the girl in question clearly feels the same way about him, and as the beautiful Etta James samples says, they make each other “smile with my heart.”
We rarely hear Kanye as overjoyed as we do during “Hey Mama,” as you can pretty much hear the smile on his face while getting to praise his mother. “Hey Mama” is a joyous celebration of the mother that was there for him and did anything she could to help her son succeed from the son who now wants to celebrate her in any way he can now that he’s a success.
Released a year after Kanye’s mother’s death, “Coldest Winter” is filled with loss and a fear of never loving again after losing the woman he loved most in the world. Much of 808s is about women he’s loved in former relationships—and this could work as that, as well—but to end the album with a song dedicated to his deepest love, “Coldest Winter” is Kanye at his most fragile and terrified.
Yeezus is by far Kanye’s brashest album so far, so “Guilt Trip” is a bit of lightness in the album’s final act. Even though Kanye originally planned to use “Guilt Trip” on Watch the Throne, it would’ve fit far better on 808s & Heartbreak, as Kanye discusses trying everything he can to keep a women, before eventually giving up. In an album that sounds like it could’ve been made by an angry robot, “Guilt Trip” is one of the album’s finest examples of heart.
“Devil in a New Dress” sounds like a throwback to the soul samples of Kanye’s first three albums, taking Smokey Robinson’s version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and repurposing it with a sparse, great beat. Kanye’s part here is fun and depreciating (“I ordered the jerk, she said “you are what you eat”) as he deals with the duality of his latest romantic interest. But it’s Rick Ross’ phenomenal final verse that could very well be the best verse of his career, even though it’s focus of excess is thematically different than the rest of the song.
Following “Monster” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “So Appalled” continues that haunted sound, while discussing the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde dichotomy of rap and success. Kanye points out that people want him to make fun tracks, but he wants to do something that means something, while Jay-Z contemplates whether it’s better to die young a hero or stay in the game and become a villain. “So Appalled” is both a contemplation of what rap has come to and an exaltation of how great it can be.
The original version of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” is probably one of Kanye’s greatest, most focused tracks. But this remix, largely dominated by Jay-Z, starts with Kanye discussing the eponymous diamonds, then segues into Jay and Kanye getting derailed by getting into the inner workings of their careers and Roc-a-Fella at large. This remix feels like a splicing together of some of the best elements of the original, yet Jay’s verse, while still pretty great, doesn’t hold a candle to the verses on Kanye’s original version.
Recorded the weekend before The College Dropout was released, “Last Call” is an almost 13-minute-long autobiography of Kanye’s life so far. Kanye realizes this could be his one chance at making his own album, yet he’s still cocky enough to know it’s too good for that to be the case. “Last Call” follows Kanye from up-and-coming producer to the rapper who had to fight to get a chance. It’s easily Kanye’s least catchy song, but it’s still a fascinating history of the man who would become an icon.
Many of Kanye’s songs are about falling for the wrong type of girl, knowing that she’s not right for him, but still going for her. “RoboCop” is Kanye realizing this same mistake, but by the end we see him figuring out enough is enough. Collaborator A-Trak has said that Kanye tried to orchestrate “RoboCop” like a TV on the Radio song, which is evident in the way the song constantly changes its direction. This shift is most obvious in the end when Kanye becomes bitter, laughing at the ridiculousness of the girl whose craziness he once found attractive.
The longest song on Late Registration, “We Major,” is a celebration of Kanye finally on his way to becoming one of the greatest rappers in the world. Kanye’s repeating of “we major” in the chorus comes with a sense of disbelief that he actually made it. Even though he’s still on the rise, he still brags that he called the album Late Registration because he’s taking everyone back to school. Yet it’s Nas’ incredible verse that shows that at this point, Kanye still has plenty to learn.
Even though Kanye is often now known first and foremost for his ego, “Two Words” is a perfect example of his willingness to stand aside and let someone else take the spotlight in his own song. Mos Def starts off this cinematic track with a bang, with an incredible verse that perfects the simple conceit of the song. Mos Def paints a powerful portrait with the most basic of phrases, while the use of the Harlem Boys Choir helps create a portrait that sounds like it belongs on a movie screen.
808s & Heartbreak is Kanye at his most minimal, but without his usual samples and exploration into different sounds, Kanye is able to achieve an emotionally raw aspect to his music. “Heartless,” Kanye’s best-selling single ever, gets to the core of Kanye’s heartbreak and resonated hugely with audiences, with artists as varied as The Fray and screamo punk band The Word Alive performing their own versions of the heart-wrenching track.
In an album largely about loss and pain, “Paranoid” starts with almost a sense of relief by beginning with Kanye laughing. “Paranoid” is also the 808s track that feels most like Kanye in his natural habitat, as this is the closest Kanye comes to rapping on the entire album. 808s is mostly about the pain that he’s been given, but “Paranoid” is the album’s finest example of the pain he might have caused in relationships.
With “Gorgeous”’ second verse, Kanye presents My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as “more than just my road to redemption,” clearly trying to get back into the good graces of the public, but also trying to do more than just that bare minimum. “Gorgeous” has Kanye breaking down the public perception of being black in America, but more importantly to him, the public’s perception of who he is. “Gorgeous” has Kanye showing he understands how people see him and has fun with it (“choke a South Park writer with a fishstick”), but also knows that this album could be his final chance before people have had enough of who he is.
Late Registration’s gorgeous sound is in large part thanks to Jon Brion’s production, which hits its pinnacle on the album’s last track “Gone.” Brion waves his orchestra around a sample of Otis Redding’s “It’s Too Late,” building during Consequence’s verse, then turning dark before getting to Kanye’s final verse, where he dreams of leaving it all behind and helping inspire future rappers to greatness.
“Hold My Liquor” is an escalating battle between Kanye’s angel side (portrayed here by Justin Vernon) and his devil side (Chief Keef). The balance between these three and the thumping Arca beat in the background, with the harsh, almost “Block Rockin’ Beats”-style punctuation to the end of every Kanye verse combine to create a dark landscape of love that feels less like a night of debauchery and more like the hangover after.
Kanye’s bouncy backing track works perfectly in “Get Em High,” which allows him to have fun with Talib Kweli and Common—two of his best co-collaborators. Talib’s verse reminds that there was actually a day when Kanye would namedrop someone other than himself to get with girls, while Common’s verse isn’t quite as good as the previous two, it does bookend the entire track nicely.
Prior to “Roses,” Kanye showed the love of his family in “Family Business” in the context of a family get-together, but with “Roses,” we get to hear about the strength of his family in the face almost losing his grandmother. In his first drum-free verse, Kanye shows disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger and depression, yet never gives up hope. “Roses” builds to a crescendo filled with joy when she recovers, with Patti LaBelle bringing the sunshine in Kanye’s most beautiful glimpse at his strong family.
As much as Kanye gets criticized for his actions, he’s also the first to admit that he’s a problem or that he’s wrong, as he does in “Amazing.” Even before the infamous Taylor Swift incident, he realized that his ego and his insistence to fight for what he believes in could end up being his downfall. While “Amazing” sounds like it could be the rare narcissistic song on 808s, Kanye never calls himself amazing on the song, but instead he sees his success despite his difficulties and his egocentric actions to be something truly amazing.
Kanye has often said that he usually starts his albums off with something light, but “On Sight” starts Yeezus like a computerized car crash. Kanye begins Yeezus by making it intentionally hard to get into, beginning with anger, then teasing happiness with the interlude’s samples before snatching it back. In his first collaboration with Daft Punk since “Stronger,” Kanye ends “On Sight” with a dark, twisted homage to that song, destroying his past with Yeezus season swiftly approaching. “On Sight”—like much of Yeezus—is Kanye playing around with what people expect from him and twisting it into darkness.
Only a year prior on “Good Life,” Kanye praised a life filled with women, new sports cars, and shopping sprees. The sequel to this, the comedown to this type of living, is “Welcome To Heartbreak,” in which Kanye finally realizes he has the life he’s always wanted and it’s not what he expected. Instead of cars and houses, he’s now envious of his friends who have kids. “Welcome to Heartbreak” is Kanye in introspective mode, trying to figure out who he wants to be going forward, confused by who he’s always wanted to be and who he wants to be in the present.
It’s insane to think that the man who made Yeezus considered making “The New Workout Plan” his first single. “The New Workout Plan” is Kanye’s most intentionally funny song, an incredibly sarcastic look at how women are perceived to be good for nothing other than their bodies by wealthy men and only want money, while he also lambasts those men for being interested in such gold diggers. “The New Workout Plan” is a departure for Kanye, even back then, but is a reminder of the great sense of humor Kanye occasionally has.
Would Kanye be such a big deal today if he didn’t have the attitude that he constantly exudes for better or for worse? Maybe not, but it’s his ability to be himself in pretty much every situation that makes him such a fascinating musician and celebrity. “Everything I Am” points out that he can’t be anyone other than himself and he shouldn’t try to be. Kanye even points out at the beginning of “Everything I Am” that his friend Common passed on the beat, but then he turned it into something positive, rather than a disappointment. For Kanye, the ability to spin the negative into positives has made him everything he is.
If 808s is Kanye going through the steps of loss, “See You In My Nightmares” is absolutely anger. He’s furious at the end of a relationship that he thought could last forever and his fury is filled with pain. Even though he claims that he doesn’t love the girl anymore, there’s still likely a splinter of love still in Kanye’s heart. Yet, no matter how much he rails against the end of the relationship, subconsciously she’ll still be on his mind. Lil Wayne’s contribution in the final verse is haunting and heartfelt, as he sounds like he’s trying to find reason after the relationship has ended, knocked for a loop, confused, and out for blood, all while tears are streaming out.
Already in the second track on The College Dropout, Kanye starts discussing his conflicting relationship with money, to a point that his jeweler Jacob Arabo becomes a recurring character in his songs. Even before Kanye was the superstar he is today he said, “it seems we living the American Dream, but the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem.” Kanye doesn’t want to be held down by his money, but he can’t help wanting the best he can buy, even if he doesn’t have the cash for it, yet. While we see Kanye dealing with his many addictions throughout his albums, his love of money and his hatred of this love remains constant.
Coming right after “Runaway” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Hell of a Life” is equivalent to running full-speed to the strip club immediately after leaving confession. “Hell of a Life” is a distorted dive into the darkest, most depraved regions of Kanye’s desires, one in which sex becomes his religion that makes priests faint. The song puts an entire lifetime into the span of one night, where you can enter the club single, fall in love with a porn star, get married, go on your honeymoon, and get divorced all before you leave. This is Kanye at his most nihilistic, enduring an entire life for the span of an orgasm.
“Blood On the Leaves” is a culmination of all the sides of Kanye so far, thrown into an insane blast of love, loss, and loneliness. The sampling of “Strange Fruit” from Nina Simone is foreboding and reminiscent of the sampling Kanye did in his first three albums. His distorted lyrics, especially near in the outro, are a reminder of his _808_s days. But it’s the blaring TNGHT beat that makes “Blood On the Leaves” feel like modern Kanye, as the announcing trumpets put the pressure on the listener as much as it does the song’s troubled protagonist.
In Kirk Walker Graves’ excellent 33 1/3 book on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he perfectly encapsulates what makes “Blame Game” so phenomenal:
“With manipulated vocals that sonically enact the psychosis of a scorned lover and embody his faltering capacity to think clearly—a mind clouded with rationalizations, shards of memory, second-guesses, and recriminations—Kanye falls apart before our very ears, losing even his sense of where he is in the album when he briefly begins singing the hook of “All of the Lights” in a vocoderized aside.”
We’ve heard Kanye sing about heartbreak before, but we’ve never literally heard him lose his mind over a girl the way we do in “Blame Game.”
While My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was Kanye’s way of winning back the public, Yeezus is his attempt to turn his back on them again. In “I Am A God,” he states, “soon as they like you make ‘em unlike you, cause kissin’ people ass is so unlike you.” Comparing himself to God and his impatience over French baked goods was a quick way to have the masses lose interest in him again. Yet, “I Am A God” isn’t sacrilege as most people were quick to say, with Psalm 82:6 coming the closest to what Kanye is doing here: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” With “I Am A God,” Kanye isn’t saying he IS God per se, instead reveling in the gifts that God has given him.
By the time of Graduation, it was already clear that Kanye was playing to the beat of his own drum. In “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” not even cops, public opinion, nor his own mother can stop him from “acting more stupidly.” Kanye wants to remain himself, even though everyone else believes he should change because he has money and power. Maybe Kanye would be right years later when he said that no one man should have all that power. But even with champagne splashing and pharaoh-like amounts of money, the only person Kanye needs to be true to is himself.
With “Street Lights,” possibly Kanye’s most underrated song, you can almost here the current wave of hip-hop artists getting inspired for their own work. The gorgeous repetition and hazy sounds are reminiscent of Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, and Drake, especially considering the introspective tone of the album. Much of 808s has Kanye hiding behind the auto-tune, yet as “Street Lights” moves forward, the auto-tune slowly starts to fade away until we can hear Kanye’s unaltered voice over massive drums. “Street Lights” is all about Kanye’s motivation to keep moving forward and his stretching for something more and you can hear that all through just the beautiful symphony Kanye creates and this song and 808s’ impact on hip-hop in general.
Within the first minute of Kanye’s first song on The College Dropout, he immediately gives his audience so much information about himself. First off, his “song for the kids” is about drug dealing just to get by, showcasing the great sense of humor Kanye exhibits throughout his discography. In the beginning of his first verse on “We Don’t Care,” he warns his new audience that he’s about to blow them away, then discusses his fight to get to where he is today. But the line “we don’t care what people say” could easily be an encapsulation of who Kanye is, as he states his beliefs and as we hear in the follow up “Graduation Day” that follows, the downright outrage for Kanye sharing his beliefs that continues over a decade after this song war first released.
After Nicki Minaj gives us a skewed version of Roald Dahl’s Cinderella, Kanye gives us his “Dark Fantasy,” a world in which he can restart everyone’s conception of who he is, where his dreams have come true, and he can’t get much greater. As the intro to Kanye’s apology to the world, “Dark Fantasy” sets the stage for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where anything is possible, where the devil is driving around in a land with no parents, and people in malls are summoning the dead. Kanye’s getting ready to give us his dark twisted fantasy—which just happens to be one of the best albums of the decade so far—so now gather round children, zip it. Listen.
With Kanye’s first single off Yeezus, “New Slaves” was a shocking change to the usual Kanye. “New Slaves” put all of Kanye’s rage in once place, with fury over various types of racism, the constant desire for more, the problematic for-profit prison systems and his own problems with the paparazzi. Along the way, Kanye uses everything from Hungarian rock musicians, Frank Ocean, and even repurposing his old songs to help reiterate his point. “New Slaves” is Kanye’s attempt to tear it all down and yet in the end is optimistic that a change will come.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s conclusion comes with Kanye proving his ability as a collaborator and curator of ideas. “Lost in the World” has Kanye taking Bon Iver’s “Woods,” finding common ground in the ideas of loneliness and going deep inside one’s own mind, and turning it into a last-ditch effort for life and love in a plastic city full of empty parties. But by concluding with “Who Will Survive in America,” which samples Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1,” Kanye reiterates the points made throughout this album, a question of what we sacrifice to become who we are, which segues perfectly into the ideas of Kanye’s next album, Yeezus.
Kanye has always had a sense of humor in his music, but there’s no bigger laugh and middle finger than ending Yeezus with “Bound 2.” After the outraged, brash sound of the first nine tracks, “Bound 2” comes in, reminiscent of Kanye’s older material and a reminder that that version of himself is still there, and he just wants to tease you with it. Instead of the fury that comes out in the rest of the album, “Bound 2” is Kanye’s first song specifically about Kim Kardashian, but he does it in a fun, self-deprecating way. He questions whether they’ll make it another month, tries to get her to forget about his bad reputation and admits he doesn’t even remember when they first met. But what comes out is clearly a song of love towards a person who makes him feel young again, a message that is sweet, despite the weird-ass video it brought upon the world.
“All of the Night” is so gargantuan on every level that the Hype Williams-directed video even comes with an epilepsy warning. “All of the Lights” is Kanye’s ode to the oft-overlooked dark side of celebrity life, surrounded by over a dozen other legendary musicians like Elton John and Rihanna, all of whom have experienced similar difficulties with being thrown into this life of fame. Almost as a funeral dirge for the recently passed Michael Jackson, “All of the Lights” is equally as flamboyant as the King of Pop himself, as Kanye throws orchestra and drum beats among the flashing lights that Kanye and Michael both had a hard time avoiding.
“Gold Digger” might very well be Kanye’s best example of how well the man can tell a story. In the first two verses, Kanye tells a take of a gold digger who deceives a man into playing child support for a child that isn’t even his. But then in the final verse, he takes the side of understanding how that mindset can come about and criticizing the hypocrisies that can ruin a relationship. With Kanye and Jon Brion’s incredible production and Jamie Foxx returning to his Ray Charles impression, “Gold Digger” is one of Kanye’s most fun songs, yet he still finds a way to make the track about something more.
With Graduation, Kanye wanted to make a stadium-ready album, one with gigantic beats and sounds that could fill up the largest of spaces. Because of this, we get one of his greatest beats, the thumping, synthy powerhouse that is “Flashing Lights.” Here Kanye is stuck between two girls, which leads to him being found out by the paparazzi hounding him. In the brilliant “Flashing Lights” video co-directed by Kanye and Spike Jonze, we get the classic “video vixen” burning her clothes and murdering Kanye in slow-motion, a rage against the typical hip-hop video done in a fascinating way.
Kanye’s first number one single is also one of his first great club songs that also plays to Kanye’s strengths. Kanye has always delved into the past of R&B to create stunning samples and with “Slow Jamz,” he’s name checking everyone from Luther Vandross to Jodeci for this ode to the smoother club jams. While this became one of The College Dropout’s biggest songs, “Slow Jamz” also appears on Twista’s Kamikaze album, and rightfully so, as his final verse speeds the song up to insane levels and blows the track into greatness.
808s and Heartbreak is a masterpiece in simplicity and huge emotions, making every sound and shift impactful. The pinnacle of this comes in “Love Lockdown,” 808s and Heartbreak’s biggest single that is iconic of the themes and style of the album. With “Love Lockdown,” it’s all about how these little shifts occur and come together. There’s the basic TR-808 drum machine heartbreak underneath, as Kanye’s distorted voice and basic piano piece go through the first verse before gigantic drums blast in, leading to a conclusion full of animalistic sounds and power. “Love Lockdown” is about the plethora emotions that go through the end of the relationship and Kanye’s embodiment of this idea makes for 808s finest song.
Much like “Love Lockdown” is iconic of what makes 808s so great, “Black Skinhead” does the same with Yeezus. “Black Skinhead” has Kanye ready for a fight, even proclaiming the track as his theme song, before suiting up, waiting for the fists to fly. The strategically placed and always shocking screams throughout the song show Kanye’s frustrations have gone too far and he’s ready to raise hell. Throughout Yeezus, Kanye will rage about consumerism, racism, and even at his own past, but “Black Skinhead” is him entering the ring with fists flying.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.