Kanye Omari West. The definitive musical icon of the 21st century. A lot of you reading this will disagree with that sentiment, Kanye is as divisive as any megastar has been in decades. His perceived arrogance, choice of partner and unwillingness to bend to public demands have resulted in West becoming a marmite figure, you either love him or you hate him. One thing that can’t be argued is his ability, whether thats his his bars, his production or his incredible ear for a sample. Without further ado, here are, what I believe to be, his best 20 records, and yes, they have been ranked in order.
20. Black Skinhead [Yeezus — 2013]
The first single from the critically acclaimed Yeezus was released to a stunned world. Kanye’s trademark soul samples had been gradually disappearing from his work but Black Skinhead was raw, industrial and uncompromising. Flicking between racial politics and his own ego the song is the sound of Kanye questioning his place, both in the industry and as a black man in America.
19. Blame Game (ft. John Legend) [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — 2010]
A melancholic vocal from John Legend floats over a delicate piano before Kanye rakes himself over the coals about a failed relationship. He shows a rawness to himself, not only longing for unrequited love, but also showing a dark side to himself, through his treatment of his ex. One of the highlights of the track is the piano loop, sampled from Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th, which is the perfect foil to Kanye’s outpouring of mixed emotions. If it wasn’t for the Chris Rock skit at the end of this track then it would be far higher in my list.
18. Homecoming (ft. Chris Martin) [Graduation — 2007]
I’ll level with you, I don’t like Chris Martin. I find him as vacuous as I find Coldplay’s music boring. That said, his soaring hook on this track is undeniably infectious. The track is a homage to Kanye’s hometown of Chicago, albeit through an extended metaphor about a childhood sweetheart called ‘Windy’. If you can excuse the GCSE level metaphor then you’ll be blessed with a heartfelt track that also references one-time label-mate Common’s ‘I used to love H.E.R.’
17. Ultralight Beam (ft. Chance the Rapper & Kirk Franklin) [The Life of Pablo — 2016]
The opener from his most recent album finds Kanye and Chance in spiritual form, urging us to “pray for Paris, pray for the parents.” The song is nothing but pure positivity and the choir elevate it to something thats empowering to listen to. When Chance reveals that “I met Kanye West, I’m never destined to fail.” you really believe him. Read the story around the songs birth here.
16. Never Let Me Down (ft. Jay-Z & J. Ivy) [The College Dropout — 2004]
Even in his earlier work Kanye was still political, with this cut from his debut album focusing on the link between racism and poverty. Overshadowing this track are the events of the car crash in which West was very close to death, and the bars reflect a man who has renewed vigour for life. It’s also notably the first time that Kanye appears on a track with Jay-Z.
15. New God Flow (ft. Pusha T) [Cruel Summer — 2012]
Taken from Cruel Summer, a compilation promoting West’s imprint GOOD Music, this track is littered with quotable lines, a large number of which are aimed at Birdman, who has previously cussed the label. The breakbeat from Melvin Bliss’ Synthetic Substitutions drives the whole track and gives Push and ‘Ye a platform on which to perform. The same breakbeat is also on Ghostface Killah’s Mighty Healthy which is also sampled on this track.
14. Real Friends (ft. Ty Dolla $ign) [The Life of Pablo — 2016]
The first track to appear from TLOP, it was released as the beginning of 2016’s GOOD Fridays giveaway, in which Kanye would drop a new track on SoundCloud each week. The beat has a dream-like quality, and sees Kanye ruminating about his trust issues. The idea of self reflection isn’t new in his music but it’s heavily featured across TLOP and this song is one of the finer examples of it. When the song initially appeared it ended with an excerpt from No More Parties in LA, another fantastic track taken from TLOP.
13. Slow Jamz (ft. Twista & Jamie Foxx) [The College Dropout — 2004]
Nothing makes you feel as old as realising that this song is over a decade old, it was released as a single in late 2003. On a personal level I remember this track as one of the standouts from a period in which I’d started drinking and going out, so it has that nostalgic house-party vibe to it. However it’s included in this countdown because it is a straight up banger. Jamie Foxx’s voice sounds like pure honey on the hook and the song slow jams its way to a crescendo when Twista responds to calls to “do it faster.” There isn’t anybody alive who hasn’t tried to keep up with Twista on this song, and we have all failed. The production is pure Kanye as is indicative of the music that he was producing in this period.
12. Monster (ft. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver & Nicki Minaj) [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — 2010]
Some songs make this list because of the beat, some because of the production, some because of the samples and some because of the bars. This is very much the latter. One of his few songs without a sample this is ALL about the bars. It’s so packed I don’t even know where to start. Firstly it features Jay-Z doing little more than listing some famous monsters from literature and film, and oddly the Loch Ness Monster, for seemingly no reason besides having monster in its name. Then there’s Kanye, and this features one of my favourite performances of his, who else can reference ancient Egyptian history and oral sex in a couple of lines.
“So mommy, best advice is just to get on top of this
Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?
Put the pussy in a sarcophagus
Now she claiming that I bruised her esophagus.”
It’s also the first introduction of Bon Iver, who has gone on to work with West on a number of incredible pieces. However, this song is all about one person, Nicki Minaj. This feature introduced her to a wider audience and it’s still the best thing she’s ever done. Her delivery is furious, bipolar and stunningly captivating.
11. Spaceship (ft. GLC & Consequence) [The College Dropout — 2004]
That smooth Marvin Gaye sample is the archetypal sound of Kanye’s early work. The inclusion of soul makes his productions from this period instantly recognisable. ‘Ye compares the struggle of young black men to find work with his own work as a ghostwriter, struggling to make ends meet and find recognition.
10. Can’t Tell Me Nothing [Graduation — 2007]
One of the defining images of The Hangover is when the wolfpack arrive in Sin City and the camera pans the iconic landscape whilst Can’t Tell Me Nothing plays. It’s a song about spurning advice, saying no to convention and doing things your way. It somehow lost out to another Kanye joint, Good Life, at the Grammy Awards in the Best Rap Song category. I’m pretty certain it’s also impossible to listen to this track without joining in the “la, la, la, laa” chorus.
9. New Slaves (ft. Frank Ocean) [Yeezus — 2013]
This track, the highlight of the political Yeezus, sees Kanye tackling the state of race relations in the US and perceived oppression from government and major business. Another smart sample, this from obscure Hungarian rock band Omega, gives Frank Ocean the platform to close out the track. Yeezus was a huge development in Kanye’s sound, and this track in particular, with it’s mixture of familiar hip hop mechanisms, soaring melodies and the inclusion of an industrial, almost heavy metal aesthetic, shows the evolution in his sound.
8. FML (ft. The Weeknd) [The Life of Pablo — 2016]
With it’s multitude of writers and huge production credits including Hudson Mohawke and Metro Boomin, sees a completive Kanye, with help from The Weeknd, focus on his relationship with Kim, and his determination to stay loyal. I’m of the opinion that Kanye is at his best, and most gripping, when he is honest about his life, and this track is refreshingly open as it chronicles the difficulty he had trying to leave his party lifestyle. He is very forward, mentioning arguments, the revelation that they don’t have a pre-nup and an admission that he had chased Kim for a long time. The track ends with ‘Ye praying that he can stay on track and keep his family together in the face of people (the media) wanting them to fail.
7. Hey Mama [Late Registration — 2005]
Rappers aren’t meant to be penning tributes to their mothers, at least they weren’t, after years of hip-hop tinged with bravado and misogyny, Kanye took a step towards another direction, something which has influenced he scene today. The track, released in 2005 is said to have originated in the early 2000s, before he became famous, it later gained even more significance after Donda West died in 2007. The track is a touching tribute, to how he was raised and the sacrifices that his mother went through for him, it became even more poignant after her untimely passing.
“My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate.
Somethin’ to fall back on, you could profit with,
But still supported me when I did the opposite.”
Across every bar you can hear the high regard that Kanye held her in, and the fact she was supportive of his dream of succeeding in the music industry. A touching record, both catchy and unapologetic in its theme.
6. Only One (ft Paul McCartney) [Released as a single — 2014]
I have a feeling that this may be the most controversial choice in this list but I fell in love with this track the second I first heard it when it was released on NYE 2014. Only One marks a development in Kanye’s sound, with the heavy autotune dissimilar from that on 808s and no rapping. A tribute to his new daughter North, it is a heartfelt and emotive song, written from the perspective of his mother Donda. He has even claimed that he didn’t remember singing the song but concluded that the words must have come from his late mother. I’ve already explained my theory that Kanye is at his best when he is at his most open and reflective and this song is the centrepiece of that theory. With minimal instrumental and only a little autotune, it’s so raw, so intimate, that is leaves Kanye naked musically. You can hear the emotion as his voice cracks on certain words, such is the intensity of the track. Kanye steers clear of his usual storytelling and sings purely on thoughts and emotions, which makes Only One both intensely personal and also incredibly universal. It is both celebratory in its tone and also incredibly positive, pointing toward an even brighter theory. Is it Kanye’s best track? No, but it is his most honest, passionate and well written work, it is a true masterpiece of 21st century music.
5. POWER [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — 2010]
Undoubtedly epic, it’s been hijacked and seemingly found its way into endless Hollywood trailers. It’s strong, confident and sounds like it would be the perfect soundtrack to a boxing montage. This was the first single off MBDTF and was a stylistic return after his previous album 808’s & heartbreak. The track was originally intended for Rhymefest but after hearing it Kanye decided that he wanted S1’s beat for himself.
The delivery is urgent and almost schizophrenic as it showcases all of the many facets to Kanye’s different personalities. In the same way that Jesus Walks centred around a chant, so does this, giving the track a militaristic feel, as Kanye affirms that “no one man should have this much power.” Part-protest song, hitting back at criticism, part bravado and egotism, it’s a chest thumping record that, as West himself says, is “superhero theme music.”
4. Ni**as In Paris (w/ Jay-Z) [Watch The Throne — 2011]
Kanye’s made a career out of bangers but there’s one that stands head and shoulders above any other. No matter where or when Paris is played it will set the room alive. My personal stats alone for this song; 5 years of Watch The Throne in the CD changer in my car, 1 broken nose whilst dancing to it, countless crazy nights. I dread to think of the extent that craziness has been soundtracked by this record. Undoubtedly the high point on 2011’s incredible Watch The Throne, it sees Jay-Z and Kanye combine, over threatening beats and ice cold synths, with some of their most memorable bars.
Anybody who has ever heard this in a club will be more than familiar with one of it’s samples, “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative,” a line which is screamed out whenever it’s played. The sample, lifted from Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory, instantaneously found itself a place in hip-hop history.
3. Wolves (ft. Frank Ocean & Caroline Shaw) [The Life of Pablo — 2016]
Wolves had appeared long before TLOP was released in 2016, having been heard in various forms for over a year previous. There have been so many versions of this record, featuring different artists, from its initial appearance at an Adidas Yeezy Season 1 launch, through the Balmain advertisement above, and multiple interpretations on TLOP, replacing one another on the Tidal service after Kanye had “fixed” them.
The haunting auto-tuned vocals from Sia/Caroline Shaw are reminiscent of his work on 808s & Heartbreak, and give the song its somber and clinical feel. The bars question how people take advantage and the difficulty of modern dating, by asking how Mary and Joseph would have fared today.
2. Coldest Winter [808’s & Heartbreak — 2008]
This could be a very contentious selection given the reception that 808’s & Heartbreak got when it was released in ’08. Time has been kind to 808s and now, almost a decade later, we realise just how far ahead of it’s time that album was.
The album was a huge departure from Kanye’s famous sound and was met with a mixed reaction. This was the record that Kanye, and mainstream hip-hop, first discovered auto-tune as a tool for lead vocals. Auto-tuned vocals over unconventional drum patterns and a minimalist electronic sound paired perfectly with the introspective lyrics, detailing isolation, post-fame alienation and a broken heart.
There’s an argument to be made that despite its initially moderate reviews 808s is Kanye’s most important album. The lyricism, introspective and intimate, gave a framework for artists like Drake, Kid Cudi and The Weeknd, so bypass the bravado. The hallmarks of the production can now be seen across modern hip-hop and R&B with Frank Ocean, amongst others, taking inspiration from the record. For a more in-depth analysis of 808s then look at this article on Pitchfork.
1. Runaway (ft. Pusha T) [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — 2010]
Runaway isn’t just one of Kanye’s best tracks, it’s one of the best songs of all time, period. The album version, all nine minutes of it, sits ninth on the tracklisting for MBDTF and is arguably the cornerstone that the album is built around. Beginning with a single, solitary piano key, before building into a riff that repeats throughout the song, the track explores his history and his mistakes before ultimately raising a “toast to the douchebags.”
West writes an apologetic letter to a partner, exploring his actions, and imploring her to leave him. There are some readings of the lyrics that can be seen to reference the media criticism around his actions, the Taylor Swift stage invasion amongst other things, but to me these are overblown. The lyrics are ambiguous enough to hint at that but I don’t think that interpretation acknowledges the power of the real meaning. On Kanye’s previous album 808s & Heartbreak there are references to the end of relationship with a “stupid L.A. girl” but now West seems to be looking at the relationship with more clarity, realising his own faults that damaged the relationship.
“I just blame everything on you/ At least you know that’s what I’m good at.”
By questioning the reasons behind his behaviour and ultimately warning her away from his destructive nature, we see Kanye displaying a level of introspection that he hadn’t demonstrated before on previous albums.
Pusha T also delivers a killer guest verse, the braggadocio to Kanye’s relection. The juxtaposition of which only enhances the sincerity when Yeezy begins the next verse.
“I know I did damage/ cos the look in your eyes is killing me.”
The bars are so honest that you can’t help but feel moved. It feels like Kanye is opening himself up to you, the listener, and unburdening himself of his past, in an act of pure catharsis.
The beauty in the lyrics is that they are both so deeply personal yet also so relatable to anybody who has ever been in a damaged relationship. The admission of his weaknesses and the fear that he won’t be able to conquer them is harrowing, as is the honest appraisal that she needs to “run away as far as you can.”
Around the six minute mark begins three minutes of unintelligible distortion as Kanye uses the vocoder. If you were ever in doubt of how pioneering he is then ask yourself when was the last time we heard three minutes like this on a hip-hop record.We’ll never know what he’s saying, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s already told us enough. This is without doubt his finest work and one of the most important tracks of the 21st century.
So that’s it. That is my definitive ranking of Kanye’s top 20 tracks, at least until I change my mind the next time I listen to him. Let me know what you think in the comments section or on Twitter. If you’d like to listen to these songs then I’ve been helpful and built you a nice Spotify playlist so you can do so.