I had a weird moment the other day – I forgot how good Kanye West is. I’m sure where Kanye was at the time, he shuddered slightly, realizing that someone was tacitly denying his talent. Either way, I felt bad, and I proceeded to blast through the 350+ Kanye West songs that populate my iTunes like tiny gems.
And in all seriousness, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Maybe it’s that his celebrity status has somewhat eclipsed his status as a musician, or that his personality is so large and inexorably linked to his music, but it is easy to forget that the guy can be completely brilliant at times. No matter what you thought of “Cruel Summer” (disappointed) or “808s & Heartbreak” (love it), or his now frequent features or his hilarious-in-retrospect early stuff, it can be fun to look over and try to determine the 50 Shades Of Ye.
So without much further ado, here are my 10 favorite Kanye songs. Some ground rules: it had to be a Kanye song – no features, although he’s got some great ones. He had to deliver at least two verses – that eliminates a lot of excellent songs, but simplifies the selection process. I tried to represent his whole career as best as I could, so maximum two songs per album/mixtape. If you disagree that’s totally fine because this is as subjective as it gets. But, here we go.
“Through The Wire”
The first Kanye song I ever heard, and I imagine the first introduction to West for most folks. It’s definitely strange to listen to this and relate it to the Kanye we know now – the shouts and ad-libs in the beginning are so incongruous to current Kanye, but this song gets pushed over the top by the circumstances – he had just been in a car crash, so I guess I can forgive the fact that he sounds a little like Don Corleone in “The Godfather.” I heard this song in the computer lab of my high school, and pictured a puffy-cheeked West recumbent in a hospital bed, with a neck brace and a microphone and nothing else. His first great song.
“They Can’t Tell”
This is an early West song, off “Freshman Adjustment 2,” and definitely one of my favorites. I still have an old mp3 of this, probably ripped off Limewire or Kazaa eight years ago, replete with DJ shouts and bad sound quality. But I’ve listened to this song 1,000 times or more, because it weirdly set the stage for the rest of Kanye’s career. It’s braggadocios, it’s slightly absurd, and it has some of Kanye’s best lines – “People talk so much shit about me in barber shops/they forget to get they hair cut” is as enduring as anything Kanye has ever spit.
Of course, it’s also fairly ridiculous. “OK fair enough/The streets is flarin’ up/cause they want gun talk/and I don’t go there enough/But don’t get it f*cked up/you can still get your head bust.” Really, Ye? I’m fairly sure Kanye has never even seen a gun, let alone shot anyone. Thank goodness he weaned most of the gangster posturing from his music – it sounded inauthentic back them, and would be even more ridiculous now given his frequent appearances on “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
Another “Freshman Adjustment” track, another track that sounds like it was written by somewhat completely different. At some point, Kanye just stopped rapping about rims and cars and started autotuning his love poems, but there was a time when he would literally run out of breath at the end of a verse. “Little West a little beast/that make the middle West blow like the Middle East, PEACE” is just terrific. Also, it’s fun to go back to the earliest Kanye tracks and pick out lines that he reused and recycled on his later albums and features. Similar to how about six versions of “Love Lockdown” leaked before the album, each one with a completely different sound and style. It’s just fun to observe Kanye’s process and find the spots where he figured out that “Mayonnaise color Benz I push Miracle Whips” was a good enough line to use, like, ten times.
Soulful samples, playful flow, just Kanye at his early best. “Roc-a-Fella chain, yeah that’s my rapper style/Rosary beads, yeah that’s my Catholic style.” Kanye used to make a living off rhyming homonyms and punch lines that took an extra few seconds until they clicked in your brain. There are SO many excellent songs on “College Dropout” that it feels wrong to leave them out – “Breath In, Breath Out,” “New Workout Plan,” “Jesus Walks,” “All Falls Down,” basically the whole album. But I love how simple “School Spirit” is, and how it fits best into the story of the first album – West’s journey through, and eventual disenchantment with, higher education.
“Diamonds Are Forever”
I resisted putting this on the list because I think I remember how completely sick of this song I was by the time “Late Registration” dropped. In a way, my favorite song from this album is “Heard ‘Em Say,” but Adam Levine’s ill falsetto disqualifies it since it has a feature. But this is a really good song, with an even better video. “Diamonds” is another angry, angry song, and shows Kanye trying to break away from his earlier jewelry obsession in some way, at least lyrically. I’m sure he still has the chains. “I realize that I’ve arrived cause/It take more than a magazine to kill my VIBE does” — hey, that’s us!!
Maybe my favorite ever – definitely an apex in Kanye’s career, with a fantastic video, and lyrics that explore Kanye’s increasing fixation on his isolation and unlucky love life. It took me three years to figure out the lyric “You can’t Rome without Caesar,” but that may be because I am an idiot.
An awesome song, and one that signaled a big change in Kanye’s music. In a way, you can split Kanye’s career into halves at two points: “Stronger,” or “808s & Heartbreak.” Maybe “808s” was a bigger departure artistically, but the seeds of the paradigm shift in Kanye’s production, lyrics, and general aesthetic can definitely be traced to “Stronger.” This was Kanye allowing wider influence into his style: more electronic music, more alternative music, and honestly, less hip hop. “Since OJ had isotoners” is also a great line, and reminds me of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” which is a great movie. Wins all around.
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
“Let up the suicide doors/this is my life homie you decide yours.” Maybe that’s the fundamental problem with Kanye West, at least from a public perception standpoint – you can’t tell him anything, and it makes him seem abrasive and aloof and crazy. Honestly, I subscribe to more of a “South Park” view of Kanye West – that he’s actually hyper aware of what people tell him, and that it influences him more than he’d like to admit. But boy, is Ye ANGRY on this track.
In some ways, the signature track off of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is the one song that doesn’t exactly fit with the theme of the rest of the album. But this is the ultimate ‘Kanye’s Ego’ song that isn’t actually called “Ego.” The only points against it? The remix is probably better – even Kanye’s verse on the remix is better. “Chill Ye, chill! The shit’s burnt up already. It’s over.” Oh man, have you ever listened to the remix while working out? You will straight-up run through a wall by the end.
Yeah, it breaks the rules because Mr. Hudson is on it. Honestly, I don’t think Mr. Hudson is a real person – I think he’s a Swedish cyborg Kanye invented to make this album more awesome. So I’m including it. I just plain love this song, auto-tune and all. “You wan’t to check into the Heartbreak Hotel but sorry we’re closed,” — WHO HURT YOU SO BAD KANYE? This whole album is great and it makes me mad that some people didn’t like it at the time.
Just missing the cut:
Gone – Easily one of the best, but Consequence probably has the best verse on this track.
Christian Dior Denim Flow – this is too chock full of features, plus this song really belongs to Lloyd Banks and Pusha-T.
Stay Up! (Viagra) – this is an 88-Keys song, but it still needs to be mentioned.
So many others. Wow. Remind me what I’ve missed in the comments.