Kanye West is the greatest hip-hop artist of today. Period. Nobody is as musically gifted and nobody is as personally invested in the lyrics as is Kanye. His producing abilities alone would place him among the field’s best. He rarely makes bad songs (although Theraflu makes my head hurt, but I blame DJ Khaled) and all of West’s studio albums (yes, even 808’s) have been miles ahead of what any else is putting out in terms of complexity, substance, and overall listenability.
It is for that reason that I have selected Kanye West to be the first musician to receive an exclusive column in Late Night Thoughts. There will be more to come and I am already hard at work compiling a top ___ list of songs by the greatest band that has ever lived.
Selecting the top Kanye West songs was a grueling process, taking me literally months to create a top 20 list with which I was happy. I asked friends for their opinions, but that only complicated matters. And that’s when I realized that this should be an entirely personal task. I deliberately did not Google “Top Kanye West Songs” to avoid any type of bias.
When it was absolutely impossible for me to cut the list down to 20, the list became 21 with honorable mentions. Even still, by the time you are reading this, I have probably decided that numbers 18 and 12 should be switched and that songs not even in the honorable mention should be cemented into the top 15. But that is exactly what made this process so fun.
In any case, this is the list that gave me the fewest ulcers, fevers, and panic attacks and in an effort to eliminate those most-unpleasant things, I now present the 21 Greatest Kanye West Studio Album Songs as of 24 June 2012, 9:37 EST.
Honorable Mentions: Family Business (The College Dropout), Good Morning (Graduation), Hey Mama (Late Registration), Power (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), Two Words (The College Dropout), Spaceship (The College Dropout), We Major (Late Registration)
21. School Spirit (+ Skits); The College Dropout
“They say ‘Oh you graduated’/No I decided I was finished”. We begin the top 21 with the song that might have been the one most associated with the album’s title. Want to know the truth? This list changed countless times throughout the course of its formation. I felt like Mel Kiper, sending things up and down the list at whim and based entirely on nothing new. At its highest ranking, “School Spirit” was number eight. Why did it go down? I really can’t say – but that’s the beauty of this list and, in turn, the brilliance of Kanye West. Any one of these songs could legitimately fall within someone’s top five. Moreover, I’m sure there are countless Kanye fans whose personal top five – dare I say ten – doesn’t even have a single representative in my top 20. This was merely my best effort at doing something completely impossible. What separates “School Spirit” from the rest of Kanye’s songs? His over-the-top editing on all his curses – required by Aretha Franklin in exchange for allowing Kanye to sample her song.
20. Hell of a Life; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
With one of West’s funkiest beats ever, “Hell of a Life” poses the central question we always ask ourselves: “How can you say they live their life wrong/when you never fuck with the lights on?” I listened to the edited version the first time I heard this song– a clear mistake. I spent the entire time thinking the line was, “fucking and religion is all I need,” and was stunned to learn that “pussy” was the actual curse of choice.
19. Last Call; The College Dropout
Part rap, part spoken word, “Last Call” is more than just an autobiographical song. It wraps up his debut album (“I’m Kan the Louis Vuitton Don/Bought my mom a purse, now she Louis Vuitton Mom”), bashes all his haters (“every motherfucker told me that I couldn’t rhyme”), and features some of the very best lyrics of the entire album, something for which “Last Call” often fails to see due credit (“I went to the malls and I balled too hard/'Oh my god, is that a Black Card?'/I turned around and replied, why yes but I prefer the term/African American Express”).
18. Get 'em High (ft. Talib Kweli & Common); The College Dropout
A song whose collaborative aspect is deserving of a spot on Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Get ‘em High” was an early example of why being a producer is useful in a rap career. At the end of “Last Call,” Kanye calls his relationship with Kweli one of the best of his career. It really shines in this song as Kweli squares off with Yeezy throughout the first three versus. But, a la Nicki Minaj in “Monster”, the best contribution comes from Common at the end, who succinctly proclaims, “Real rappers is hard to find/like a remote.” Apparently it’s “no more drugs” for Kanye (see “Hell of a Life”), which is a shame cause he excelled at rapping about pot.
17. Flashing Lights; Graduation
Flashing, lights, lights, lights, lights… It’s as catchy an opening as any Kanye has created. Maybe that’s why the song was inescapable shortly after its release, appearing on everything from video games, to Vodka, to Nip/Tuck. If this didn’t make you grow tired of “Flashing Lights”, you’re fortunate; it’s an outstanding song.
16. Never Let Me Down (ft. Jay-Z & J-Ivy); The College Dropout
Smart and snappy; it’s what makes The College Dropout one of the all time great rap albums. If you’re looking for the song that best embodies those two defining words, it may be this one. The short chorus and numerous, lengthy rap verses makes this one of West’s best “rap” songs. It was also the beginning of a reoccurring Kanye trend: he brings out the best of his featured artists. I guess all that producing paid off in more ways than one. Jay-Z’s contribution was nice, but it was J-Ivy whose verse elevated “Never Let Me Down” to elite status. For his remarkable performance, J-Ivy earned a Grammy and it was much deserved. “If I were on the highest cliff, on the highest riff/And if you slipped off the side and clinched on to your life/In my grip I would never ever let you down!” might be the high point of the entire sensational album.
15. Welcome to Heartbreak (ft. Kid Cudi); 808's And Heartbreaks
The most impressive song from 808’s, “Welcome to Heartbreak” is also one of Kanye’s most influential. In additional to kick-starting Cudi’s musical career and inspiring similar types of songs from Drake, B.O.B., and Lil Wayne, “Welcome to Heartbreak” served as an important learning experience for Kanye. It is the predecessor to future elaborate musical arrangements found in “All of the Lights,” “Hell of a Life,” and, of course, “Runaway.” There is no Dark Twisted Fantasy without “Welcome to Heartbreak.”
14. Ni**as in Paris (ft. Jay-Z); Watch the Throne
The song that made “That Shit Cray” a common phrase (and that has since sparked thousands of banal puns) is the second best of Watch the Throne. It has thrived on the radio despite the fact that the edited version sounds like total s#!$. Watch the Throne was a quickly produced collaboration by the best of today and the best of yesterday. There are loads of songs that offer little more than self-praise and insults to everyone else – and Paris is no exception, I think. What does the song mean? Who knows, but more importantly, who cares? I’m just sayin…
13. Workout Plan; The College Dropout
If there has been a funnier, more insensitive rap song since “Workout Plan” I am yet to hear it. For just “free ninety-nine!” we get to listen to Yeezy’s personal workout plan. He tells women, “your breath is harsh” and urges them to “eat yo salad, no desert” and “get that man you deserve.” We get personal stories from Jill, who “was able to pull an NBA player”, Lasiandra who “most importantly aint gotta fuck with Ray-Ray’s broke ass no more,” and Elemey from Mobile, Alabama who “was finally able to date outside the family.” The song ends with an MBDTF-esque outro and a perfectly placed, autotuned “yo.” After enduring consecutive solo albums detailing dark, twisted heartbreak, it’s nice listening to a more upbeat, earlier side. “Allow myself to introduce… myself.”
12. Stronger; Graduation
Stronger is certainly Kanye’s most famous example of sampling, using Daft Punk’s, “Harder, Faster, Stronger.” It is the father of more recent rap-anthem songs like “Power” and one of Kanye’s first major departures into pop music. His increased celebrity following the success of “Stronger” was certainly the turning point of Kanye’s career and life thus far.
11. Otis (ft. Jay-Z & Otis Redding); Watch the Throne
Any pundits to some of the songs we’ve seen thus far – as well as many still to come – might argue that Kanye is frequently not the one to deliver the best verse on his tracks. I’d say that’s irrelevant; he produced the whole thing and handpicked his contributors to complete the sound. But for anyone who think West is anything other than an outstanding rapper, I offer this 15/10 verse (the best of the best are bolded): “I made Jesus Walks, so I'm never going to hell/Couture level flow is never going on sale/Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses/Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive/I get it custom, you a customer/You ain't accustomed to going through customs/You ain't been nowhere, hah?/And all the ladies in the house got them showing off/I’m done I'll hit you up maña.. nah!”
10. All of the Lights (ft. Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Alicia Keys…); My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I was mesmerized after the opening note of the intro the first time I heard “All of the Lights.” And once the song ended, I listened to it again… and again… and again… Kanye is so noticeably pained but wants nothing more than to get things back to how they were before. He calls upon and manages an A-list orchestra to make a compilation worthy of immense acclaim – which it received, winning the Grammy Awards for Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. It’s a remarkable song.
9. So Appalled (ft. Jay-Z, Pusha T, Prynce Cy Hi, Swizz Beatz & RZA); My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye doesn’t say too much in this chilling production, instead letting his all-star cast fill in. Jay-Z’s angry, boastful part tops anything he did on Blueprint 3 (or Watch the Throne for that matter). “Dark knight feeling, die and be a hero/Or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” (A deliberate shot at Tupac and Biggie) And then, Prynce Cy Hi pulls out this lyrical (and sports-related) triumph: “Plus a Trojan in my pocket, Matt Leinart.” While this epic song lacks the unanimous praise given to nearly every other song on Dark Twisted Fantasy, I place it number three on the album.
8. Gold Digger (ft. Jamie Foxx); Late Registration
In 10th grade, my class asked our Spanish teacher about her husband. When she revealed that he was a doctor, some people remarked that she’s doing well for herself. Her response: “I ain’t saying I’m a gold digger, but I AIN’T GOIN WITH NO BROKE!!!”
7. All Falls Down (ft. Syleena Johnson); The College Dropout
“All Falls Down” finished last in a highly competitive three-way race for the top spot on The College Dropout. Ahead of its time, “All Falls Down” was Kanye’s first major incorporation of female vocals – something that has become a staple of many of the most impressive and popular songs on three of his last four albums. It also handles feelings of inadequacy, wealth, prejudice, and excess – more Kanye currents. And then there is the Kanye classic, “Rollies and Pasha's done drove me crazy/ I can't even pronounce nothing, pass that ver-say-see (Versace)!”
6. Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix) (ft. Jay-Z); Late Registration
Yet another sampling triumph, Kanye sets the tone of the song early when he raps, “Good Morning! This ain't Vietnam still/people lose hands, legs, arms for real.” Ever aware of the public image that rappers focus only on, as he says in “Breathe in Breathe out”, “money, hoes, and rims,” Diamonds certainly handles the material in a unique way. Kanye considers how his love of diamonds relates to the blood diamond industry and tells people to be honest about how they obtain jewelry. Yet, most of the song still focuses on the bling and Kanye admits he won’t be giving any of it back. Conflicted as ever, Kanye asks, “How could something so wrong make me feel so right?”
5. Jesus Walks; The College Dropout
No surprises here. “Jesus Walks” solidified West’s career as a rapper and immediately established his future emphasis on religion and hip-hop hypocrisy. However, it gets a spot in the top five because we were all introduced to the first ever Yeezy “heyhh!” that has since become commonplace.
4. I Wonder; Graduation
Cited by Kanye himself as one of his three favorite tracks on the album, “I Wonder” is Kanye’s crowning sampling achievement. It seems almost impossible that the following sentence could exist: Kanye seamlessly stitches together British jazz folk-artists, Labi Siffre, a synthetic modern-beat, and slow-paced rapping into a garment of complete and utter perfection. You have to be from another planet if chills don’t run down your spine when Kanye says, “You say he get on your FUCK-IN nerves!”
3. Monster (ft. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver); My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
MBDTF might be a pop-influenced album, but “Monster” is the best straight-up rap song of Yeezy’s career and with 28 different appearances of fuck, it is also probably his raunchiest. The funky, reverberating beat sets the stage for three flawless verses by three different artists (plus a comically insignificant contribution from Rick Ross and a nice wrap-up from Bon Iver) and while it’s common knowledge that Nicki Minaj’s verse trumps them all, Kanye deserves major credit for giving her the freedom to create such a triumph. Yeezy’s verse isn’t too shabby either. Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh? He’d tell you, with his greatest rap line OF ALL TIME, he “put the pussy in a sarcophagus.”
2. Intro/We Don’t Care; The College Dropout
The first song of Kanye’s studio album career, it takes all but 22 seconds for the world to learn what they are going to be in store for. After the principle tells Kanye, “Me and the other faculty members was wonderin could you do a lil som/Something beautiful/Somethin that the kids is gon love when they hear it/Thas gon make them start jumpin up and down and sharin candy an' stuff,” he responds with the appropriate lyrics, “Oh yeah, I got the perfect song for the kids to sing/And all my people’s that drug dealing just to get by”. (The chorus is, obviously, sung by children). The rap is one of Kanye’s most honest songs as he plunges into a discussion about the difficulty rappers endure early in their careers. Like most songs on The College Dropout, the song is littered with some classic lines like, “the drug game bulimic/it’s hard to get weight” and one of my personal favorites, “some of them dyslexic, they favorite 50 Cent song is 12 questions.” Without “We Don’t Care” there is no College Dropout.
1. Runaway (ft. Pusha T); My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
“Runaway” is Kanye’s greatest song because it is the culmination of his entire career. He succinctly mixes the pop-autotune feel of 808’s, the layered music of his days as a producer, and the humorous yet pointed rap of College Dropout. Yet, underneath it all, is a honest calling, “I always find something wrong/You been puttin’ up with my shit just way too long.” It is a song that no other artist on the planet has the balls or talent to create. It is Kanye’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, his “Sympathy for the Devil.” In an album littered with excess and gaudy musical interludes, “Runaway” towers over the rest and, as he did for Dark Twisted Fantasy’s entirety, Kanye brings us to the borderline between beautifully complex and distastefully over-the-top, but skillfully never crosses it.
One of the great travesties of Yeezy’s career (strictly musically, that is) is the tendency for radio stations to abort the final three minutes of the epic, grandiose masterpiece. The conclusion to the song is brilliant. After reaching the highest point of Dark Twisted Fantasy (and therefore, his entire career), Kanye cuts the song abruptly, returning to the simplicity of the single, D from the beginning of the piece before entering into “the wailing robot.” Kanye’s voice begins indistinguishable from the beat, but finally becomes clear English words during the final seconds: “So I think it’s time for us to have a toast…” There is simply no doubt; “Runaway” is the greatest song of Kanye West’s career.
Album Appearances (consider this the at-the-present album rankings)
The College Dropout: 8
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: 5
Late Registration: 2
Watch the Throne: 2
808’s and Heartbreak: 1
Let the debating begin.