Kanye West is the greatest musical artist of the 21st century. For many, that statement is obvious — while for plenty of others, it will inspire an eye roll or a snarky response about proof of the fall of Western civilization. But facts are facts. Four of his albums have topped The Village Voice’s influential annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, he’s won 21 Grammys, and he has 15 singles (including guest spots) that have gone at least double-platinum. Recoil at his oversized ego and awards-show antics all you want: The man is major.
That rare musician who’s both critically acclaimed and wildly popular, Yeezy started out as a producer crafting hits for others, like Jay Z and Alicia Keys. But he’d always wanted to be a recording artist in his own right, a dream he saw realized with 2004’s The College Dropout, a dazzling combination of hip-hop, R&B, gospel, humor, bluster, candor, vulnerability and a bevy of stellar samples that resulted in one of the finest debuts in any genre. West has only gotten bigger and bolder in subsequent years, ranging from 2007’s glittery Graduation to 2008’s distraught 808s & Heartbreak to 2013’s abrasive, nightmarish Yeezus. Such is his power and cultural impact that whatever he does — whether it’s recording a duet with Paul McCartney or famously declaring on live television in 2005 that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — immediately becomes news.
As we wait for the release of his new album, So Help Me God, it seems like a good time to reflect on an extraordinary career that’s now stretched more than a decade. I’ve gone back through his seven previous albums — the six solo discs and 2011’s collaboration with Jay Z, Watch the Throne — and ranked every single song. I always knew there would be an embarrassment of riches, but I had no idea just how hard a process it would be to separate the pretty-good from the really-good from the incredibly-good. Of the 91 tracks on this list, astonishingly few are subpar or ho-hum. To paraphrase a line from West’s “Gone,” even his superficial raps is super-official.
Before we dive into this, though, a couple caveats. I don’t include any skits, instrumental interludes or The College Dropout’s quickie cover of the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away.” Also, none of his many collaborations or guest spots was considered. (The 10 best of these are spotlighted in a separate sidebar.)
So, now that the ground rules are established, let’s get on with it. Whether you loathe or love the guy, ‘Ye has already left a gigantic mark on popular music in a short amount of time. May he continue to be his irrepressible, unpredictable, infuriating, brilliant self for a good long while.
91) “Bring Me Down,” Late Registration
The goopiest, most flat-out boring track to appear on a Yeezy album, “Bring Me Down” has its pretty moments, but the song as a whole lacks the gusto and inventiveness that made the man a legend. Brandy’s anonymous guest vocals don’t do much to help, and the strings feel beamed in from a forgettable Nicholas Sparks movie. “Most you rappers don’t even deserve a track from me,” West declares at one point. Hey, what did the rest of us to do to deserve this dreck?
90) “Barry Bonds,” Graduation
Bragging about his pink Polo, Kanye spends most of this forgettable Graduation tune reminding us how massive he is, which would be easier to believe if the backing track wasn’t an indigestible mixture of keyboard bleeps and bloops. Lil Wayne’s also on this song, but you’ll hardly notice.
89) “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” Graduation
Graduation has some magnificent numbers, but the problem with the album’s bottom-rung material is that it merely repeats familiar lyrical tropes without the benefit of majestic music. Take “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” which is an undistinguished “I’m the top dog”-type tune that rants, taunts and postures but barely leaves an impression.
88) “H.A.M.,” Watch the Throne
As in, “Hard as a motherfucker.” But I prefer to think of it as “Huh, alright, maybe.” The first song to be released off Watch the Throne ended up being relegated to a bonus track on the album’s deluxe edition, and part of me wonders if Jay and ‘Ye realized it just wasn’t sterling enough to be included on the album proper. Swirling choral vocals, Hova and West letting everybody know how great they are, some intense strings: “H.A.M.” is ho-hum pomposity pumped up to bloated operatic proportions.
87) “Drunk and Hot Girls,” Graduation
The sort of song ‘Ye would perfect on later albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Drunk and Hot Girls” is meant to illustrate the scary/alluring sensation of being really famous, really horny and surrounded by beautiful, willing young women. Over a slow beat and gaudy keyboards, West gives us an umpteenth lesson in how celebrity isn’t always as wonderful as it seems. Nothing surprising there. Still, he and Mos Def give this Graduation track a house-of-horrors feel that’s hard to shake.
86) “Primetime,” Watch the Throne
The very definition of the bonus track, “Primetime” sports a fetching groove but doesn’t add much to Watch the Throne, hence its being assigned to the deluxe edition of the record. But props to Jay Z for these great lines about his unrivaled longevity in the hip-hop game: “Mo’ money, 40-year-old phenom/My 15 minutes of fame has stretched beyond.”
85) “Hey Mama,” Late Registration
A staple of hip-hop songwriting is the sentimental ballad dedicated to the artist’s hardworking, loyal mother. For such a trendsetter, Kanye doesn’t exactly reinvent the subgenre with “Hey Mama,” a sappy, simplistic ode to his mom, Donda. Sadly, West revealed the true depth of his love a few years later when she died in 2007 from complications after cosmetic surgery: It’s impossible to hear the following year’s despondent 808s & Heartbreak and forget that part of the hole in his heart is because of her untimely passing.
84) “The Joy,” Watch the Throne
Rapping over a live Curtis Mayfield cut and a little bit of Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes,” West and Hova slow things down, saluting the artists who never made it, the women they want to bed, and the streets that shaped them. The final cut on the deluxe edition of Watch the Throne, “The Joy” is more epilogue than blowout summation, our two heroes sitting on the stoop reflecting back on their life and times.
83) “Breathe In Breathe Out,” The College Dropout
An example of the kind of song that Kanye would quickly outgrow, “Breathe In Breathe Out” finds him pairing up with Ludacris, who was the more famous of the two at the time, to rap some faintly clever lines about rims, girls and broke-ass suckers. (West’s explanation about his Ph.D. is still really funny, though.) Catchy but also disposable, this College Dropout also-ran tends to be a track you’ll skip over to get to something better.
82) “See You in My Nightmares,” 808s & Heartbreak
Despite both being hip-hop titans, Yeezy and Lil Wayne have failed to find much success collaborating on West’s albums. On 808s & Heartbreak, they duet on the melodramatic, repetitive, mildly interesting “See You in My Nightmares,” which finds the rappers acting out about an ex who’s done them wrong. It’s not a highlight in either artist’s catalog, nor is it a standout on 808s.
81) “Hold My Liquor,” Yeezus
Of all of Kanye’s albums, Yeezus is the one that feels the most like a piece of modern art rather than a traditional record with songs, singles and hooks. A perfect encapsulation of the pluses and minuses of that approach is “Hold My Liquor,” which sonically and conceptually is stunning. Mixing together industrial guitars, ambient keyboards and Frankenstein-scary distorted vocals, the track shifts in mood and texture over its five-and-a-half minutes, ebbing and building and slithering until it reaches its anxious, unresolved conclusion. But it’s hard to grasp onto anything within the song, Chief Keef’s disillusioned chorus more a hint of the lyrics’ general direction than a definitive statement. Meanwhile, Kanye recycles his “I’m addicted to bad girls” routine without much novelty. I want to hang “Hold My Liquor” in a museum, but I rarely want to hear it.
80) “Otis,” Watch the Throne
This single dropped in advance of Watch the Throne, instantly curbing fans’ expectations for this purported once-in-a-lifetime collaboration between Jay Z and Kanye. Other than featuring the first use of “luxury rap” in rhyme, “Otis” is basically an Otis Redding sample masquerading as a full song. But, hey, it’s great that Kanye pal Aziz Ansari got to be in the video.
79) “RoboCop,” 808s & Heartbreak
Presumably targeting Kanye’s ex-fiancée Alexis Phifer, this 808s cut provocatively marries robotic percussion and soaring strings for an unusual kiss-off track. “RoboCop” tells off a “spoiled little L.A. girl,” but West’s voice sounds more disappointed than bilious, as if he’s still not quite over the breakup. In keeping with this risk-taking album, “RoboCop” is more conceptually intriguing than it is viscerally undeniable. But, its shifting structure keeps you on your toes.
78) “That’s My Bitch,” Watch the Throne
“Hey, what if we do a song where we salute the women in our lives?” “Cool, let’s call it ‘That’s My Bitch.’”
This Watch the Throne tune won’t win any points for enlightened feminism, but the real shame is that the song isn’t very memorable, its rumbling drums and fuzzy synths not adding up to much. Still, give Jay Z points for this dead-on observation: “I mean, Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice/But why all the pretty icons always all white?”
77) “Gotta Have It,” Watch the Throne
Unlike rappers a generation earlier, Kanye didn’t build his sound atop James Brown samples. This Watch the Throne tune, produced by the Neptunes, stitches together a few JB tracks for one of the album’s lesser moments. Also, did you know Jay and Kanye throw big parties and are stupid rich? Yeah, you probably did already, but they’re here to tell you again.
76) “Bad News,” 808s & Heartbreak
As musically bold as 808s & Heartbreak is, the album’s second half starts to lose momentum around the time this track comes on. There’s nothing inherently bad about “Bad News,” but its stripped-down beat, Auto-Tuned vocals and sad-sack lyrics feel like a conceptual rehash of several better, earlier tracks on the album. Still, those strings near the end really are lovely.
75) “School Spirit,” The College Dropout
A snapshot of the Early Kanye Era, “School Spirit” features lots of his production tricks of the time: a sped-up R&B sample, a gospel/soul feel, a mixture of humor and underdog grit in the lyrics. If this College Dropout track comes across as a little dated now, the intensity of West’s message about reaching for your dreams remains urgent, even inspiring.
74) “I Am a God,” Yeezus
The so-serious-he-must-be-sorta-kidding “I Am a God” inspired plenty of online debate. (Was the “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” line West’s acknowledgment of his own ridiculously overblown ego? Or was he just really tired of waiting for his damn croissants?) Regardless, “I Am a God” is a towering, imposing object that’s easier to admire than love. Impenetrable bass, distorted background vocals, erratic sound effects: Startlingly constructed and full of little headphone goodies, this Yeezus number is unmovable, almost unpleasant, Kanye forcing you to genuflect before his monstrous self-regard.
73) “Good Morning,” Graduation
“Good Morning” is a straightforward seize-the-day celebration of the rapper’s worldwide acclaim and popularity. Biting “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and enhanced by Jay Z’s background vocals, this Graduation opener is all calm-before-the-storm sunniness, setting us up for the jubilant excess and jarring self-exorcism to come. But it’s also a hint of Graduation’s nagging lyrical limitations: Three years after The College Dropout, he’s still taunting people who graduated college?
72) “Welcome to the Jungle,” Watch the Throne
Jay and ‘Ye know they���re lucky, having sidestepped the tragedies that felled the likes of Michael Jackson and the Notorious B.I.G. But on “Welcome to the Jungle,” a nervous rhythm and jabbing keyboards buttress the rappers’ still-lingering anxieties, reaching its apex by Jay Z’s candid admission, “I’m losing myself/I’m stuck in the moment/I look in the mirror/My only opponent.”
71) “Guilt Trip,” Yeezus The sound of a dark night of the soul, “Guilt Trip” rides blurry keyboards and jumpy beats as West tears down a woman who ripped his heart apart. The rapper can brag about being the Chief Rocka, but Kid Cudi’s plaintive coda gets the final word: “If you love me so much, then why’d you let me go?”
70) “My Way Home,” Late Registration
Technically, “My Way Home” is probably just an interlude, clocking in at less than two minutes. But it’s a soulful snippet that grabs hold of a Gil Scott-Heron sample to speak of struggle and perseverance. Kanye never gets on the mic: His longtime pal Common handles the vocals, adding a soulful, reflective perspective to Late Registration.
69) “The New Workout Plan,” The College Dropout
“The New Workout Plan” is a clever song conceived around a pretty pigheaded idea: It’s a workout track designed for women so that they can stay fit and please their man. (The shrill fake testimonials from satisfied, dimwitted female customers near the end only up the ick factor.) And yet…West is so on fire creatively — the track seguing from avant-garde strings to Daft Punk-style dance music — that “The New Workout Plan” is great almost despite itself. Label the song a guilty pleasure if it makes you feel better.
68) “Illest Motherfucker Alive,” Watch the Throne
This Watch the Throne bonus track backs up the claim made in its title. “Illest Motherfucker Alive” finds Kanye and Jay enjoying their dominance with the help of a slowly grinding beat and an angelic choir, as if Heaven itself was ready to accept these two hip-hop luminaries. That sly Yeezy wants us to know he wears “Bulletproof condom when I’m in these hoes/Got staples on my dick/Why?/Fuckin’ centerfolds.” Meanwhile, Jay has rock royalty on his mind: “Niggas hear Watch the Throne/Yeah, it’s like the Beatles back.”
67) “Who Gon Stop Me,” Watch the Throne
The empty boasting that marred Graduation received a sharper focus four years later with Watch the Throne. On “Who Gon Stop Me,” West and Jay let you know how rich they are, but it’s for a higher purpose: decrying a racist society that actively tries to keep African-Americans down. Calling the murder and incarceration of thousands of black men “something like the Holocaust,” Kanye turns material success into a political statement of piercing anger.
66) “Two Words,” The College Dropout
When Kanye started out, he straddled the worlds of backpacker consciousness and pop-leaning hitmaker. In “Two Words,” he negotiates between the two superbly, recruiting Mos Def, Freeway and the Harlem Boys Choir to deliver a searching track with a spiritual uplift that worried about the fate of African-Americans in a racist society. Political, thoughtful but also insanely catchy, “Two Words” proved Yeezy was a star with brains and soul.
65) “Roses,” Late Registration
Late Registration continued The College Dropout’s incorporation of R&B and soul influences, and on “Roses,” he dips into the Bill Withers piano ballad “Rosie” for a tale of visiting his grandmother in the hospital. It’s a simple story — confusion and anguish consume West’s family as the nurses provide few concrete answers about her condition — but he elevates it with a gospel chorus and spare percussion, which only emphasize the urgency and uncertainty.
64) “Crack Music,” Late Registration
West has never focused on making particularly “hard” music: His songs are more geared to the radio than to the gangsta crowd. “Crack Music” is a notable exception, Kanye recruiting the Game to dissect the American government’s mistreatment of poor black communities. Where Kanye often uses gospel overtones to suggest uplift, here there’s an ominous tinge to those heavenly voices, making “Crack Music” feel like a funeral for those devastated by drugs, hustlers and systematic racism.
63) “Never Let Me Down,” The College Dropout
Another early example of Kanye’s inner tension between playa and poet, “Never Let Me Down” pairs him up with big-pimpin’ role model Jay Z and poet/songwriter J. Ivy. The song has a gospel undercurrent, with all three vocalists talking about overcoming obstacles, J. Ivy movingly testifying to the power of faith. But it’s telling that West lets Jay’s secular, self-regarding boasts have the final word: “Hov’s a living legend and I tell you why/Everybody wanna be Hov, and Hov still alive.” In Kanye’s mind, big pimpin’ wins this round.
62) “Pinocchio Story,” 808s & Heartbreak
808s & Heartbreak’s closer is probably the one non-skit Kanye West track most fans skip over. Give it another chance. Recorded during a show in Singapore, fans audibly randomly shrieking in the background, “Pinocchio Story” is the rapper laying his heart bare, adlibbing a confession about his endless emptiness. “I just want to be a real boy,” West sings with only a delicate keyboard backing him up. He’s never sounded more alone, the disillusioned man emotionally adrift among an arena of ardent supporters. Plenty of Kanye songs are more brilliant musically, but few are as plainly wrenching.
61) “Coldest Winter,” 808s & Heartbreak
“Goodbye, my friend/I won’t ever love again,” West declares in this 808s & Heartbreak kiss-off, sounding like every other jilted guy determined to get back at his ex-girlfriend. “Coldest Winter” comes across as petty, but the nervous percussion around him undercuts his petulance, adding ambiguity and uncertainty to his claims. The desolate track suggests a man walking off into the snow, leaving behind everything he once knew.
60) “So Appalled,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
You get a verse! You get a verse! All of Kanye’s friends get a verse! One of two posse cuts off Dark Twisted Fantasy, “So Appalled” is highlighted by moaning keyboards and shrieking sound effects. Pusha T’s street-thug demeanor makes his verse one of the song’s best, but I love how Jay Z talks shit about Hammer and drops a sweet Dark Knight reference. Other things getting a shout-out in “So Appalled”: Tiger Woods, Range Rovers, Matt Leinart.
59) “Monster,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The other posse cut from Dark Twisted Fantasy features choice rhymes from West pals like Jay Z and Rick Ross. But this track begins and ends with the killer lines delivered by Nicki Minaj that kick in at the 3:35 mark. (“My money’s so tall that my Barbie’s gotta climb it” is so clever that I laugh every time I hear it.) She’s the only guest artist on a Kanye album who straight-up steals a track from him.
58) “Big Brother,” Graduation
The College Dropout ends with the diary entry “Last Call.” Graduation turns the page, West laying bare his jealousy of and admiration for Jay Z, his mentor but also his competitor. “Big Brother” is an open letter, the rapper explaining that Jay’s occasionally condescending attitude toward him only helped fuel his drive. One wonders if the two men ever talked about the track, which offers a voyeuristic thrill for bystanders on one of hip-hop’s most celebrated, complicated friendships.
57) “Amazing,” 808s & Heartbreak
Amazingly, this self-loathing slow-burn track was used in TV ads for the NBA playoffs back in 2009. Didn’t anybody notice that West’s boasts were buried in Auto-Tune and skeletal beats, almost as if the track itself was mocking the emptiness of the rapper’s claims? “I’m a monster/I’m a killer/I know I’m wrong,” West sings dispassionately. “I’m a problem/That’ll never ever be solved.” You could say that’s been the fundamental theme (and fascinating dilemma) of West’s post-College Dropout career.
56) “Gorgeous,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
A rare blues from Kanye, “Gorgeous” is also one of the few ‘Ye songs where the title doesn’t appear in the lyrics. Powered by a slow guitar riff, “Gorgeous” chronicles the bad news West sees around him, including the heavy incarceration rate for young black men. But he also makes some time to pay horny tribute to “that American Apparel girl in just tights” and talk shit about the South Park episode that lampooned him. Raekwon’s guest verse is merely the cherry on top.
55) “Addiction,” Late Registration
So spare and unassuming it practically feels like an interlude, the slinky R&B track “Addiction” tells of an encounter between Kanye and his girl in which it’s impossible to say if it’s real love or merely the alcohol and weed talking. “Why everything that’s supposed to be bad make me feel so good?” isn’t just a repeated question throughout “Addiction” but also a running theme in Yeezy’s music, which often compellingly wrestles with the thin line between lust and love.
54) “Late,” Late Registration
Dear god, even Late Registration’s hidden track is a monster. The utterly dazzling “Late” may be thematically light — mostly, it’s West throwing out some random boss lines — but the silky R&B textures capture the man at his most lighthearted and effortless. Also noteworthy: The song helps pinpoint the era in which everyone had a massive crush on Christina Milian.
53) “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” Late Registration
This ranking applies to both versions of “Diamonds,” which together serve as a handy guide to West’s split personality: The original details his fame, while the remix criticizes the diamond trade. Consequently, “Diamonds” works for you no matter what Kanye mood you’re in: Do you want his political side or his living-large side? The bold incorporation of “Diamonds Are Forever” is the highlight of both versions, but this song is one of those cases where the sample is almost a little too easy and obvious, doing so much of the heavy lifting that the surrounding track isn’t as captivating. Funny how, for most other hip-hop artists, “Diamonds” would be an all-time classic.
52) “Homecoming,” Graduation
Prior to diving headfirst into the romantic disenfranchisement of 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye had never shown much interesting in writing about affairs of the heart. Tellingly, the best of the pre-808s love tunes is dedicated not to a woman but his hometown. Giving props to Chicago, and featuring Coldplay’s Chris Martin, “Homecoming” is a disposable ditty, but its keyboard hook won’t get out of your head.
51) “Dark Fantasy,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
If 808s & Heartbreak was Kanye’s version of a low-budget bedroom demo, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his extravagant rock opera, the genius exploring every creative instinct and not letting anything filter his grand vision. The album-opening “Dark Fantasy” isn’t so much a song as it is an orchestral intro, much like the bombastic overtures that used to open movie musicals. Nicki Minaj’s brash spoken-word prologue and a stirring choral group conspire to set the bar high for a disc that isn’t shy about trying to be Yeezy’s magnum opus. Plus, Kanye’s Sleepy Hollow joke is a good one.