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.
50) “Bound 2,” Yeezus
Yeah, the video is terrible, but the song is a refreshing reprieve from the rest of Yeezus’s unremitting electronic harshness. Letting his R&B samples do most of the work, Kanye serenades his girl, although his come-ons aren’t always that cheering: “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink/After that, give you something to drink/Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink.” “Bound 2” is funny, but it’s also unnerving, underlining a concern that this distrustful man may never find his happily ever after. But, hey, it’s all baby steps: “We made it to Thanksgiving,” he tells her, “so, hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas.”
49) “Heartless,” 808s & Heartbreak
Before 808s, Kanye hadn’t spent a lot of time focusing on bad-love songs. “Heartless” showed how the rapper could flip a very familiar lyrical trope. Auto-Tuning his voice so that he sounds disassociated from himself, West sticks to a minimalist soundscape — spare percussion, a nagging keyboard figure — to address a woman he can’t live with and most certainly can’t live without.
48) “Spaceship,” The College Dropout
A song like “Spaceship” is fascinating to hear now because it’s not the Kanye West we know anymore. Rolling over a smoothed-out sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover,” West bitches about dead-end jobs and casual racism while working at the Gap, dreaming of flying away to a better life. There’s a winningly low-key, everyman vibe to the song — which is backed by MCs GLC and Consequence — that West would soon leave behind once he became major. Consider: Nine years after releasing The College Dropout, he was in a position to negotiate with the Gap to become a creative director. (The talks fell through.)
47) “Lost in the World”/“Who Will Survive in America,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Riffing on Bon Iver’s “Woods” and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s closer “Lost in the World” stunningly builds from quiet opening to heavenly-chorus finale, Kanye making the search for transcendence analogous to one last blowout party. And in keeping with the album’s unapologetic excess, “Lost in the World” then segues into an epilogue, “Who Will Survive in America,” which adds music to Gil Scott-Heron’s politically pointed “Comment No. 1.” Dark Twisted Fantasy is more about Kanye’s hyperbolic insecurities than his social consciousness, but the Scott-Heron interlude helps restore a little balance to the rapper’s inward-outward dichotomy.
46) “Say You Will,” 808s & Heartbreak
A breakup so fresh that every nerve ending is still raw seems to power 808s & Heartbreak’s opening cut. A sonar-like keyboard figure dominates “Say You Will,” as if the lonely sounds are mimicking a heart that’s just barely beating. Reacting to an unexpected phone call from his ex, Kanye wants her back, but he’s almost too afraid to get his hopes up. “I wish this song would really come true,” he sings, not raps. “I admit I still fantasize about you.” The mournful, fragile tone sets the scene for an album suffused with raw emotional anguish.
45) “New Slaves,” Yeezus
Probably the only song about institutional racism that includes a reference to The Waterboy, this unforgiving Yeezus cut sounds like it’s a rejected soundtrack to an old-school horror movie, the keyboards and samples popping up behind every doorframe to make you jump out of your seat. Tying together race and class, the very rich Yeezy still sees opportunities being denied him because of the color of his skin, connecting his mother’s time (when blacks had to drink at separate water fountains) with his own (when corporations fear him because, in his view, he’s too outspoken).
44) “Love Lockdown,” 808s & Heartbreak
808s & Heartbreak’s first single announced not just the album’s radical musical shift but also West’s new creative direction. Bracingly minimalist, “Love Lockdown” emphasizes the song’s silences, the empty spaces where the exquisite samples or indomitable hooks would have appeared on previous records. Shocking and radical at the time, the song can now be heard as the blueprint for artists like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, who explored a new strain of personal, insular R&B.
43) “Touch the Sky,” Late Registration
Kanye’s sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” for the celebratory “Touch the Sky” may be a bit obvious, but that blaring horn is so ebullient it’s hard to quibble. This Late Registration smash treads familiar early-Kanye thematic terrain — I used to be a struggling MC, but now I made it! — and it’s not as clever or catchy as others in this particular subgenre. Still, when “Touch the Sky” comes on the radio, who turns the dial?
42) “Slow Jamz,” The College Dropout
The other Jamie Foxx collaboration, “Slow Jamz” succeeds as both a sly satire of slow-jam ballads and as a really good example of the genre. West throws out the jokes — “She got a light skinned friend/Look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark skinned friend/Look like Michael Jackson” — while Foxx plays the smooth lover man and Twista lets his motormouth fly, paying homage to Luther Vandross, Keith Sweat and some sweet-ass weed. (You can find a shorter, less-good version of “Slow Jamz” on Twista’s album Kamikaze.)
41) “Blood on the Leaves,” Yeezus
The worst you can say about “Blood on the Leaves” is that Kanye has made other, better versions of this sort of song before. Nonetheless, this is a Yeezus standout. A mixture of love-gone-bad diatribe and downside-of-materialism cautionary tale, the stark, mournful “Blood on the Leaves” slices and dices Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” turning her voice into a nagging wail that’s forever haunting West’s bitter, regretful lyrics.
40) “Gone,” Late Registration
Before he and Jay Z bit Otis Redding for Watch the Throne’s “Otis,” Yeezy sampled the man’s “It’s Too Late” for this Late Registration closer. It’s funny to think that, when Kanye was starting out, people considered him more a producer than a rapper. “Gone” features guest verses from Consequence and Cam’ron, but Kanye buries them—especially on the extended coda, where he celebrates finally reaching his dreams after years of struggle.
39) “Why I Love You,” Watch the Throne
Grabbing hold of dance duo Cassius’s “I Love You So,” about a one-sided love affair, “Why I Love You” criticizes those who have betrayed Kanye and Jay. This Watch the Throne number is a high point in chutzpah: Are the kings of hip-hop really whining that their humble subjects haven’t shown them enough love? That’s hogwash, but “Why I Love You” is such an adventurous, big-screen track, dabbling with strings and anguished background vocals, that their petty complaints have plenty of power.
38) “Get Em High,” The College Dropout
Teaming up with Common and Talib Kweli, Kanye grooves along with a serpentine beat, recalling how he dropped out of college to pursue his musical ambitions while calling out a disbelieving teacher who called him a loser. “Get Em High” is West’s revenge — really, his whole career has been — and more than a decade later, it’s still stirring to hear him here gaining confidence that he made the right decision. Best Part: When Kanye tries to pick up a girl by telling her that he’s friends with Kweli, and then Talib gets on the mic to express his annoyance with him for dropping his name.
37) “Everything I Am,” Graduation
This lovely, understated Graduation tune catches Kanye in a reflective mood, accepting his limitations and recognizing that the things that separate him from other people aren’t weaknesses but, actually, strengths. Usually, he goes on blast when it comes to haters, but with this piano-driven ballad, he instead tries a shrug and a sense of humor: “People talk so much shit about me at barbershops/They forget to get their hair cut.” But “Everything I Am” is also where he reasserts his refusal to give into industry trends and make gun-toting gangsta rap. This modest, charming song is the gentler side of Yeezy that he works hard never to let us see.
36) “New Day,” Watch the Throne
West doesn’t do poignant — his buddy Jay Z rarely does, either — which made “New Day” such a standout on their collaborative album. Produced by RZA and sporting a Nina Simone sample, the song finds the two rappers imagining what lessons they’d want to pass along to their sons. It’s no time for boasting: Both men give their regrets serious consideration and wonder how their fame will negatively affect their offspring. Within a few years, they’d both have their first children — and it turns out, they both had girls.
35) “Murder to Excellence,” Watch the Throne
Actually a combination of two separates tracks, “Murder to Excellence” looks deeply at black-on-black crime, critiquing the failures of the African-American community but also a government that perpetuates racial biases. This Watch the Throne number turns “luxury rap” on its head, Jay Z and Kanye asserting that their stardom doesn’t restrict them from feeling a connection to so many wasted black lives. Watch the Throne got criticized in some circles for supposedly just flaunting excess. Those critics weren’t listening very closely.
34) “All of the Lights,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
For most of Kanye’s career, he hasn’t dabbled much in storytelling songs, preferring to vent from his own skewed perspective rather than creating fictional narratives. That’s just one of the things that makes “All of the Lights” stand out: It’s told from the vantage point of someone who’s definitely not ‘Ye. The song’s luckless antihero is a guy who hit his girl, went to prison for domestic abuse, and is now struggling to regain custody of his daughter. Buttressed by frantic drums, blaring horns and Rihanna’s urgent chorus hook, “All of the Lights” is a cacophony of rising anxiety. Also: Has anyone ever been able to ID Elton John’s voice amongst the myriad background vocals?
33) “I’m in It,” Yeezus
A track that went through several iterations, going from a six-minute stadium rocker to a nightmarish mood piece, “I’m in It” is Yeezus’s most sexually explicit tune, West unloading about fisting, cunnilingus, afternoon quickies, and getting blowjobs from nuns. There’s nothing PG about the track, which has no time for romance. Instead, “I’m in It” plunges headfirst into fucking with horror-movie music that makes lust sound both enticing and utterly frightening.
32) “Lift Off,” Watch the Throne
Beyoncé kills her chorus hook in “Lift Off,” a song about interstellar-sized ambitions: “Now we gon’ take it to the moon/Take it to the stars/You don’t know what we been through to make it this far.” Synthesizers meant to mimic a full orchestra herald an imminent momentous event, resulting in an arena-ready track with a cinematic sense of drama. Full of choice little production morsels—I love the tapped hand drum that appears near the finale—“Lift Off” sounds like it cost as much as NASA’s annual budget.
31) “All Falls Down,” The College Dropout
One of the earliest examples of West’s laser-like thematic focus, “All Falls Down” takes on materialism, the pitfalls of higher education, a racist legal system, the allure of the drug trade and the rapper’s own massive insecurities all within four minutes. Syleena Johnson’s soaring backup vocals underline the track’s searching, struggling spirit.
30) “We Don’t Care,” The College Dropout
The first song on Kanye’s first album, “We Don’t Care” lays down Mr. West’s nose-thumbing attitude toward other people’s racist expectations: “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you/We still alive.” Couched as a tongue-in-cheek “positive” song for the kids, this College Dropout track mockingly pays tribute to drug dealers, bootleggers and welfare. The lovable, striving Kanye went away after he blew up, but this song still contains one of his best punch lines/insults: “Some of ‘em dyslexic/They favorite 50 Cent song ‘12 Questions.’”
29) “Drive Slow,” Late Registration
In the studio, Kanye talks about his upbringing mostly by remembering the racism he’s witnessed or by recounting those who didn’t believe in his dreams. “Drive Slow” is something entirely different: a jazzy, impressionistic take on West’s Chicago upbringing, recalling old friends and lessons learned. For all of the rapper’s rampant materialism, cars have never been a focal point of his obsession, but he and guest stars Paul Wall and GLC paint a moody portrait of boss rims and wicked sound systems. “Drive Slow” is the closest Kanye has ever gotten to sonic noir.
28) “The Glory,” Graduation
“The Glory” wasn’t a single, but it’s a Graduation highlight, Kanye riding a celebratory beat to detail all the ways his life is awesome. And even when he has a very public fashion faux pas, he rises above: “So, yeah, at the Grammys I went ultra-Travolta/Yeah, that tuxedo might have been a little Guido/But with my ego/I can stand there in a Speedo/And be looked at like a fucking hero.��� Also, “The Glory” is part of a small selection of Kanye songs in which he reminds us how much he gets turned on by lesbians making out.
27) “Last Call,” The College Dropout
At almost 13 minutes, The College Dropout’s finale would seem horribly self-indulgent in the hands of most rappers. But “Last Call” is one of Yeezy’s most revealing, fascinating tunes, a memoir of how he got to make his first album. The first section is a more traditional rap track complete with “I made it”-style boasts. But four minutes in, West starts freestyling, extemporaneously detailing the individuals and incidents that shaped him. Suddenly, “Last Call” becomes a mission statement and a manifesto, West’s own personal Odyssey, an epic tale of ups and downs. For once, we get the sense that we’re just hanging out with ‘Ye as he’s telling stories, speaking directly to us like we’re a close confidante. West has never made a track quite like “Last Call” since — maybe the intimacy and candor of it scared him.
26) “Family Business,” The College Dropout
No family is perfect, but “Family Business” honors the complexities and joys of knowing your kin. The cousin in prison, the aunt whose cooking is terrible, the friends who are so close they might as well be blood: This touching College Dropout ditty welcomes them all with open arms, revealing an empathy and grace that West hasn’t embraced nearly enough later in his illustrious career.
25) “Devil in a New Dress,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Like The College Dropout’s “Slow Jamz,” “Devil in a New Dress” is glorious, sensuous make-out music, just so long as you don’t listen to the words. “You love me for me/Could you be more phony?” Kanye questions his girl at one point, as a plaintive Smokey Robinson sample underscores his misery. And in the spirit of Dark Twisted Fantasy’s more-is-more aesthetic, extended guitar solos and a guest spot from Rick Ross elevate the song from luxurious heartache to epic romantic disillusionment.
24) “Celebration,” Late Registration
“Yeah, you know what this is/It’s a celebration, bitches/Grab a drink, grab a glass/After that I grab your ass.” With those brash, flirty words, Kanye launches the string-centric opulence of “Celebration.” The song’s so Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-extravagant that it’s almost self-mocking, West grinning and joking the whole time, even declaring “I vow that my child/Will be well-endowed/Like his daddy” at one point. Go home, ‘Ye, you’re drunk.
23) “We Major,” Late Registration
What does a seven-and-a-half-minute mic drop sound like? “We Major” is where the young West first starts flexing his orchestral muscle, tapping ace L.A. producer Jon Brion to help add swirling keyboards to this majestic salute to his own greatness. Nas shows up to drop some rhymes at one point. And then later, the music fades out so that Kanye can dramatically declare, “Can I talk my shit again?” He does, ending this glistening cathedral of a track by announcing, “Shorty ask me/‘Why you call it Late Registration, ‘Ye?’/Cuz we takin’ these motherfuckers back to school.”
22) “Made in America,” Watch the Throne
A healthy, mature perspective makes a rare appearance in this potentially taunting “We made it, haters” Watch the Throne ballad. Buoyed by Frank Ocean’s beautiful chorus hook, “Made in America” looks back at the struggles that brought Jay and Kanye to the top of the musical mountain. But the two rappers are more reflective and grateful than arrogant or bitter. West remembers his mother’s early faith in him, Jay toasts his grandmother, and the frosty synths give the track a moving stateliness, as if these hip-hop gods are drawing down the curtain, relieved to have found some peace of mind.
21) “Champion,” Graduation
The story goes that Steely Dan initially balked at letting Yeezy use “Kid Charlemagne” for this Graduation track. (“We thought [the vocal hook] was just too repetitive,” singer Donald Fagen said in 2013.) But a handwritten note from West, explaining that the song was about his father, changed the duo’s mind. “Champion” isn’t really about West’s father — he gets only a brief mention — but it’s a standout song on an album in which the rapper’s endless cataloging of his brilliance risks running on fumes. And a big reason for this song’s success is the maniacally catchy repetition of Fagen singing “their eyes” alongside West’s supersized boasts and pleas to Lauryn Hill to get back into the studio.
20) “Flashing Lights,” Graduation
Yeezy may have sampled Steely Dan for Graduation’s “Champion,” but this track more embodies that duo’s deceptively luxurious surfaces, hiding a world of depravity and despair underneath. Glowing-neon keyboards and shimmering strings intertwine to create a sense of the good life. But listen to West’s lyrics and you’ll hear a romantic relationship in a death spiral — perfectly in keeping with the empty, hedonistic excess of the Dan’s best ‘70s tunes.
19) “I Wonder,” Graduation
Borrowing the piano and vocals from Labi Siffre’s “My Song,” “I Wonder” embodies the musical shift from Late Registration to Graduation, emphasizing keyboards that sound anime-futuristic and relying less on gospel/soul influences. Not exactly a slow jam, “I Wonder” tweaks West’s usual preoccupations with stardom to offer a more philosophical musing on fate and the dangers of having your dreams come true. But because he’s Kanye, he can’t help coming on to the females: “How many ladies in the house?/How many ladies in the house without a spouse?/Something in your blouse got me feeling so aroused.” And, yeah, he makes “aroused” rhyme with “blouse” like a champ.
18) “Street Lights,” 808s & Heartbreak
An underrated gem off 808s & Heartbreak, “Street Lights” isn’t as radical as many of the other tracks on that decidedly downbeat record. But it’s one of West’s most cinematic tunes, the twinkling keyboards conjuring up a sense of permanent midnight as the singer looks out the window of his taxi with way too much lonely time on his hands. “Let me know/Do I still got time to grow?” he asks at the beginning of “Street Lights,” and it’s not clear if he ever finds a satisfying answer to that question. Awe and envy are the two emotions Kanye feels most comfortable eliciting in his songs. But with “Street Lights,” he succeeds in provoking our sympathy.
17) “Send It Up,” Yeezus
“This the greatest shit in the club/Since ‘In da Club,’” Kanye declares on this Yeezus banger, and even if the point’s debatable, it’s hard to think of a better one for the three minutes that “Send it Up” lays waste to your ears. Are those industrial guitars? A Theremin attached to a distorted amplifier? A keyboard shorting out? Whatever it is making those unholy noises, you can’t stop listening, as West and King L let you know about all the cheap, bad, amazing sex they’re having with random women.
16) “Blame Game,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
In 2008, West devoted a whole album, 808s & Heartbreak, to his romantic misery. Two years later, Dark Twisted Fantasy topped the previous album’s melancholy on “Blame Game,” a gorgeously ugly tale of a relationship undone by bitterness, suspicion and unresolved issues. Sampling Aphex Twin’s piano-driven “Avril 14th” — “He tried to fucking rip me off and claim that he’d written it,” Aphex’s Richard D. James later told Pitchfork — the sad-eyed tune is accented by echoing background noises and swirling disembodied voices bouncing around the speakers. My only complaint: The tacked-on Chris Rock bit at the end is too long, not funny enough and needlessly misogynistic.
15) “Through the Wire,” The College Dropout
A lot of Kanye’s early fans probably mistakenly thought this was how his voice usually sounded. Recently surviving a frightening car crash that left him with his jaw wired shut, West got inspired to record “Through the Wire,” his clenched-jaw delivery projecting a terseness that was juxtaposed with the soaring sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.” Thank god Kanye wasn’t too cool for the safe belt: This single may not be one of his most profound or groundbreaking, but it’s among his most life-affirming, the moment the young man realized he’d been given a second chance.
14) “Hell of a Life,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
In recent times, Kanye has had a habit of making love songs sound like Jekyll-and-Hyde creations, turning sexual desire into something ugly and menacing. This Dark Twisted Fantasy cut imagines seducing and marrying a porn star, and it’s not a pretty picture. Sampling Black Sabbath and turning the dance floor into a druggy, demented honeymoon spot, “Hell of a Life” is gripping in its loveless nihilism.
13) “Heard ‘Em Say,” Late Registration
Even if the very idea of Adam Levine makes you queasy, you have to admit that the Maroon 5 frontman nails his vocal hook on this Late Registration opener, a gentle reflection on the many uncontrollable aspects of modern life: the family member who won’t stop smoking, the racist boss, the sneaking suspicion that the U.S government didn’t do enough to attack AIDS in the 1980s. Those are heavy topics, but “Heard ‘Em Say” prays for patience and resolve, an approach that Kanye would abandon on later albums where he’d become more of a firebrand targeting social ills.
12) “On Sight,” Yeezus
“‘On Sight’ sets a new bar,” Yeezus producer Noah Goldstein told Pitchfork about that album’s galvanic opener. “Nobody’s doing that. … [T]here’s only one person who can do that kind of shit.” A flame-throwing mixture of acid house and dance-rock, “On Sight” immediately announced that Yeezus would be the most abrasive, experimental record yet from Kanye. Setting the tone for the album’s unapologetic, id-controlled, sexually-explicit lyrics, the song makes a Parkinson’s joke, brags about sleeping with a white man’s wife and somehow even works in a Judge Joe Brown reference. At only 157 seconds, “On Sight” compels you to hit the repeat button again and again.
11) “Welcome to Heartbreak,” 808s & Heartbreak
One of 808s’ major themes was West turning 30 and realizing that all that glitters isn’t gold. The minimalist, almost New Wave-y “Welcome to Heartbreak” captures the rapper’s sad recognition of stardom’s emptiness, looking on enviously as others get married, have families and find some sense of contentment. Expressing his isolation, he even tweaks the party-hearty tone of his celebratory Graduation hit “Good Life,” lamenting, “Chased the good life my whole life long/Look back on my life and my life gone/Where did I go wrong?”
10) “Power,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Few artists do pissed-off entitled better than ‘Ye. Angry at his critics, especially Saturday Night Live, the rapper dropped this scorched-earth rocker about his undisputed magnificence, threatening to kill himself because he’s so fed up with the haters. “Power” isn’t funny, but lyrically it’s clever as hell, West turning a rant into a poetic diss of anybody anywhere who’s even looked at him funny. At some point in the near future, this Dark Twisted Fantasy cut could replace “Seven Nation Army” as our favorite sporting-event anthem, and certainly it’s the only such contender that contains the lines “At the end of the day, goddamn it, I’m killin’ this shit/I know damn well ya’ll feelin’ this shit/I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick.”
9) “No Church in the Wild,” Watch the Throne
It’s fitting, perhaps, that the opening cut off the Jay Z/Kayne collaboration album starts with a Jay verse. The elder statesman and the mentor in this relationship, Jigga greets the listener with his wonderfully authoritative raps about cocaine seats and “Tears on the mausoleum floor/Blood stains the coliseum doors.” From there, Yeezy lays down rhymes about the morning after a massive party, envisioning a world of strippers and coke. In between, Frank Ocean delivers a pained, ghostly chorus about a godless lifestyle. But the star of “No Church in the Wild” may be the brilliant sample of guitarist Phil Manzanera’s “K-Scope,” transforming a futuristic riff into an ominous bass line.
8) “Gold Digger,” Late Registration
Musically, this multiplatinum smash is unimpeachable. Perfect nick of Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman,” fiendishly catchy chorus hook, a beat that rivaled anything West ever made for his famous friends like Jay Z: “Gold Digger” is basically flawless. Well, except for its lyrics, which, although often pretty funny, bear an unmistakably misogynistic streak that keeps this banger from placing as high as it should on this list.
7) “Paranoid,” 808s & Heartbreak
A bevy of fleet, phat keyboards highlights the most hopeful track on the otherwise despondent 808s & Heartbreak. Channeling New Order’s sleek, stylish dance music, Kanye constructs a paean to a love affair that might not yet be over, reassuring his special lady not to listen to her anxieties and the naysayers: “They don’t know you like I do/They’ll never know you.” Much of 808s was West’s attempt to strip away his music’s gaudy flash, relocating the vulnerable heart underneath. But with “Paranoid,” he proved thrillingly that he could still make you move even when he chiseled away his excesses.
6) “Black Skinhead,” Yeezus
No, that beat isn’t lifted from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.” (By this stage of Kanye’s career, his samples were often far too esoteric to be derived from such an obvious source.) “Black Skinhead” is the most frightening, assertive track on Yeezus, which has a few worthy contenders for that crown. Flaunting his blackness in a white society that fears him, Kanye stomps like King Kong, billows fire from his mouth and demands our eternal loyalty. This may be the closest Yeezy’s ever gotten to head-banging hard rock.
5) “Ni–as in Paris,” Watch the Throne
Those Blades of Glory samples, that pogo rhythm: Before either Jay Z or Kanye get on the mic, Watch the Throne’s best song and biggest hit was already a stomping, taunting, just-fuckin’-around classic. Legend has it that Kayne associate (and former Clipse member) Pusha T passed on producing the track, claiming, “It sounds like a video game. Get that shit out of here!” Yeah, a video game you want to play over and over and over again.
4) “Good Life,” Graduation
Even the weakest hits off Thriller could be spun into gold once Kanye got his hands on ‘em. Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” is beautifully slid into “Good Life,” Yeezy’s greatest articulation of his sweet-smell-of-success boisterousness. Where other times he would look at fame through a dark prism, here he’s all giddy euphoria, not so much bragging as including us all into a universal celebration of good times. Even if none of us have gotten head on a plane while drinking champagne, that doesn’t mean we can’t live vicariously through ‘Ye’s shameless caviar dreams. And he and T-Pain know a basic reality of modern life: “Having money’s not everything/Not having it is.”
3) “Runaway,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The song everybody assumes is about Kanye West’s ill-advised bum-rush of the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, “Runaway” is a mea culpa writ large. Starting with a single, repeated piano note, Dark Twisted Fantasy’s apex catches the maestro in self-critical mode: “Yeah, I always find somethin’ wrong/You been puttin’ up with my shit just way too long.” With majestic strings and epic guitars, West lacerates himself, wondering if he’ll ever grow up and get over the unimportant slights that perpetually wound him. In a song that doesn’t need extra muscle, Kanye doubles down on his confession, letting guest rapper Pusha T express West’s dirtiest thoughts and concocting an extended coda that’s nearly operatic in its scope.
2) “Stronger,” Graduation
For once, Kanye wasn’t full of shit when he declared to Spin of “Stronger,” “I’ve never accomplished that level of musicality.” Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was a pretty astounding electronic dance track. But West’s remake/deconstruction (in which he was assisted by the metal-masked duo) pushed it even higher, creating a futuristic/urgent come-on to a beautiful woman that doubled as the rapper’s manifesto to a world he was ready to conquer. “Don’t act like I never told ya,” Kanye says again and again as the track winds down. How could we forget?
1) ���Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout
Kanye loves bragging about how many music executives initially turned their nose up at “Jesus Walks” but, really, is it that surprising? A song about faith that incorporates Happy Gilmore and Live With Regis and Kathie Lee references? A hip-hop track with heavy gospel overtones? That hardly made “Jesus Walks” a sure thing on the radio in 2004, but West proved everyone wrong. A perfect distillation of Kanye’s many talents, the song has humor, a reporter’s eye for the telling detail, a hook that’s both exotic and immediate, and an unapologetic boldness that’s absolutely exhilarating. What made the young Kanye West such a magnetic, once-in-a-generation talent was that fans felt like they knew this guy, the struggling striver with a ton of flaws who nonetheless aspired to greatness. The battle between the secular and the divine has consumed West ever since, establishing a fascinating tension that has powered so many of his finest songs.
Tim Grierson is a film and music critic who writes for Screen International, Deadspin, Paste, Rolling Stone and The Dissolve. He tweets at @timgrierson.