Is there an artist from the 2000’s who is bigger than Kanye West? If not, he’s at least somewhere in the top 5…and regardless of whether or not you love him or hate him – whether you find his antics annoying or endearing – the man can sure as hell write music. Kanye’s rise to stardom coincided with the growth of internet culture, and as such, his footprint is all over Sputnik. Our staff grew up listening to his music, so we’ve decided to take his his entire body of work into consideration for the construction of a Top 10 Songs list. There are sure to be predictable entries as well as some surprises. Check out our carefully curated list, and be sure to comment with your own!
Both parts of “Father Stretch My Hands” are a ridiculous fucking mess. I mean they’re like a quickfire montage of unfinished songs dating anywhere from 808s through to Yeezus, featuring not one but two of West’s greatest choruses that could easily grace chart-topping stadium hits, but in very Life of Pablo fashion instead wrap around the famous bleached asshole, a West rap that lasts about 20 seconds in total but manages to cut deep all the same (“market crash/hurt him bad/people get divorced for that”) and a diversion into just straight up being “Panda” by Desiigner for like a fourth of the overall runtime. There’s no cohesion or unifying purpose to any of this. In the album proper that becomes obvious and grating, but for four pulse-pounding minutes it’s a thing to be glad of, even if I’m just pretending to like the Desiigner bit because “Real Friends” somehow didn’t make our list. –Rowan
“Devil in a New Dress” is the greatest Kanye West beat that wasn’t actually made by Kanye West. The molasses-slow soul vamp is credited to Bink!, by all accounts one of the main inspirations to the man rapping over that gorgeous sample and noodly prog guitar. I’ve always assumed Bink! cooked up the beat as a modern update on “Slow Jamz”, ready to receive some filthy sex bars and not much more. “Devil in a New Dress” does have those, but this was Kanye at his most self-conscious and deliberately complex, and what constantly astounds me about this song is the depths it just casually reveals. Say, how Kanye somehow drew blood like the “jaw shattered”/”Lord’s ladder” rhyme from the stone that is Rick Ross, or the tragicomic second verse that traces a relationship breakdown with a wry smile on its face, or how Kanye follows a trifling line like “your crib’s Scarface, could it be more Tony?” with a soul-wrencher that’s more brutally honest than maybe the entire rest of the album – “you love me for me, could you be more phony?” –Rowan
Superflat, the art style founded by Graduation cover artist Takeshi Murakami, is, in reductive terms, generally motivated by the shallowness, or “flatness,” of consumer culture and popular media. Essentially, superflat pieces both reflect and push back against imagery prevalent in the mainstream, imbuing that imagery with more complexity and ambiguity than it receives in its original form. That’s “Flashing Lights” in a nutshell, where chintzy cinematic strings meet aughts-era “futuristic” synth sounds in a morose anticlimax of disenchanted introspection. It’s not the, er, flashiest beat Kanye’s produced, but it’s nonetheless the best of his career: though he captures this gray, isolated mood on other tracks, nowhere else does he do it so understatedly. Taken to epic extremes, you get “Runaway” on one end and “Wolves” on the other; taken to its most middling, the most appropriate way to capture the ennui of love lost and consumerism gone disappointing, you get this. –Brostep
It’s like some Walter White type chemistry shit when Justin Vernon and Chief Keef come together on this song (cue Jesse Pinkman: magnets bitch! etc). While Kanye’s verse is great and all in its Spartan (wait, you mean Roman?) simplicity – the best line is “soul mates become soulless” – he really flexes as a producer and song director here, running a liquid smooth guitar solo straight into that glorious bridge. Chief Keef mumbles something about a girl’s ‘rents not being home while Vernon echoes him without a hint of irony, the effect being similar to a golden-voiced ghost doing backup on a sex tape playing at half speed. Then it comes back around to that perfect hook one last time: “I can’t handle no liquor, but these bitches can’t handle me” is on the surface a brag that also sounds oddly sad and dissociated from reality, if that isn’t the Yeezus era in a flawless little nutshell then I dunno what is. –Rowan
By virtue of existing on an album often described as polarizing at best (and self absorbed dribble at worst), I’ve wondered how good “Black Skinhead” actually is. Does it seem better in the context of a batch of inconsistent songs or is it really one of Kanye West’s best? Hell if I know, but whatever else it may be, it’s a banger first. There are few pump up cuts as visceral and forceful as this. The beat comes thick and heavy, feel-it-in-your-gut 808s burying you in rubble and smoke before jittery, desperate tribal drums bring you back to your feet. Yeezus may not know that it was the Greeks, not the Romans, at the battle of Thermopylae (or if you believe he was making a deeper, and far more obscure, reference to Roman history), but he’s having fun so it’s a bit much to nitpick. You can’t hear Kanye spit these verses without imagining him bouncing off the studio walls recording them. That transparent energy, in a world of cool-as-ice rappers, really kicks “Black Skinhead” up a notch from bonafide banger to bonafide Kanye West banger. Ya’ll know the difference. –Gameofmetal
A lot of people have said that Trump and Kanye is the biggest farce since Nixon and Elvis. I happen to think that’s a rather flippant comparison. It’s a lot closer to Nixon and Sammy Davis Jr. People resented that Davis acted like a white guy, and a lot of people resent Kanye now for doing the same. Then, as in now, the black entertainer was a strategic placement, a way of relieving racists of the burden of being racist. One was, and one now is, a political foil for those that read culture as something defined by racism.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and I think you should know that I couldn’t write about Kanye West and not talk about Trump. Nobody can. And if you can, and if you don’t, then you’re a bad writer. ‘Make America Great Again,’ and the politics of privilege and race, are inextricably Kanye-related now. They demand our conversation.
Which is why, when I sat down to write about “Power,” all I could thing was that this song is literally in opposition to everything that Kanye West is in 2018. I can put aside the chasm in production quality – the 5,000 hours afforded to this, and the weeks afforded to Ye – but I can’t ignore the Old Kanye. The Old Kanye waxed poetic about Malcolm X. The Old Kanye chopped samples cleanly, with regard to the science of how music works. The Old Kanye sought to be contrite, even if he was a jackass. The New Kanye wouldn’t bother; he’d probably rap about Candace Owens, Superman, Stormy Daniels, or Kim Kardashian’s vagina.
It’s funny; ever since Yeezus, when Kanye had to have Rick Rubin literally destroy his faultlessness, Kanye’s stopped making these sorts of songs with lengthy considerations, dialogues, and nuanced thoughts. Nowadays he’s more interested in what’s happening right here and right now. The idea he might ever want to write something as monumental and pedestrian as “Power” is inconceivable.
Then again, the 21st Century Schizoid Man is literally the man of contradictions. Kanye doesn’t owe anybody a revolution, least of all me. I won’t begrudge him for embracing Trump because it doesn’t affect me. It’s interesting, though. Even as Kanye has changed so much, he hasn’t actually changed at all. He’s the same asshole he ever was, perfecting and slaving over his expression, trying to make meaning for himself. I guess he just isn’t as refined or universal about it anymore. –Arcade
The first few times I heard “Slow Jamz” I thought the vocals in the sample belonged to a woman. I was enlightened years later to the soulful world of Luther Vandross, and my fondness for the sample grew. That’s the beauty of Kanye West’s sped up soul samples, they’re brilliant in the context of West’s songs, but they also provide a gateway to incredible and underappreciated artists. “Slow Jamz” lyrically name-drops more than a dozen soul and R&B artists, many who no doubt inspired West’s early work. “Slow Jamz” is the perfect representation of the joy and upbeat nature that defined early Kanye. Buoyed by strong verses from Jamie Foxx and Twister, “Slow Jamz” is a shining example of mid-2000s mainstream hip-hop. Most importantly, it’s 15 years later and that sample never gets old. –Trebor.
There is nothing inherently “special” about “So Appalled”, at least in the context of some of Kanye’s biggest and most controversial songs. It was not a single and did not receive anywhere near the attention that the other songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did. On Spotify, it is the least streamed song on the album other than “Hell of a Life” and the interlude tracks. Yet I would still call it his best work simply because every element of the song comes together to make the platonic ideal of a Kanye track. The beat is dark as hell, moody enough to be mesmerizing, and makes the song’s nearly 7-minute length fly by. Kanye’s first verse is great, but he then disappears from the song to make room for Jay-Z, Pusha T, CyHi the Prynce, and hooks from Swizz Beatz and RZA. That he never comes back is perhaps the most subversive and unique element, but it makes perfect sense when considering the quality of everyone’s verses. Pusha T is predictably excellent, but CyHi steals the show: I met this girl on Valentine’s Day/fucked her in May/she found out about April/so she chose to march. Perfection. –Channing Freeman
Of course, Kanye used a civil rights anthem as his sample to sing and rap vapid, nonsensical bars over. “Blood On The Leaves” is the ultimate conundrum – eardrum shattering autotune crooning, confusing lyrics, chopped up piano chords, chipmunk blues, and blown out synth horns – on paper a cluttered mess; In practice, a masterpiece. ”I don’t give a damn if you used to talk to Jay-Z / He ain’t with you, he’s with Beyonce, you need to stop actin lazy” is no doubt the worst line in Kanye’s discography, but lyrics like these weirdly make sense juxtaposed over the music. Sped up Nina Simone mixed with the bombastic horns, and Kanye’s ferocious performance combine to form the most cathartic song in Ye’s catalog. I shouldn’t work, only Kanye could pull it off. Using Strange Fruit as the backboard for lyrics like “He Instagram his watch like #madritchalert” is perhaps West’s most audacious endeavor. Of course, David Lynch is a big fan of the song and wanted to direct the music video. Of course, it all works, it all comes together. Of course. –Trebor.
“Runaway” isn’t just Kanye’s best song, it’s one of the greatest songs in rap post-2000, which is funny to say because it’s barely skirting the edges of the genre. Kanye opts for his bruised 808s singing voice for the whole song and when rapping finally appears three minutes in it’s Pusha T smugly interrupting, the egocentric and vain character erupting over the delicate and sad one as Kanye has so many times in real life. The implication is pretty clear: the Kanye of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is aware that hip-hop is his enabler, a vortex of endless possibility where he will be praised and adored for the same shit talking that brings him disgust and vitriol in real life. That’s why “Runaway” is rap as Greek tragedy and R&B as the chorus; the extended vocoder coda is musical self-excoriation at its peak because we’ll never know if Kanye scatted nonsense in the booth or spilled the absolute depths of his heart and it doesn’t matter because neither is as powerful as what I imagine when that ending kicks in. Kanye fans have been saying since 808s that his talents extended far beyond just his production or the syllables he could arrange into raps, and “Runaway” is proof positive that words could never paint a picture of the man the way he could capture himself in the booth. –Rowan
Figure A: Kanye West Album Ratings: Per Album, By Year:
It’s interesting, albeit not very surprising, to see such a chasm between Kanye West’s top 3 albums and the rest of his discography. The gap between Fantasy/Dropout/Registration and his other albums has distinctly maintained itself for over a decade, providing new Kanye fans (is there such a thing in 2018?) with an easy visual representation of where their listening priorities should lie. It’s also fun to see nearly every Kanye rating spike during 2018 to coincide with the release of ye, something we can essentially chalk up to new release hype. As it is, though, ye resides alone in the ratings basement…maybe with time more fans will learn appreciate it? See the below chart (Figure B) for each album’s “Trve Fan Rating” – which is basically what each album’s mean rating would be if you were to go exclusively by only those who have rated every LP in the band’s discography.
Figure B: Trve Fan Ratings:
|Kanye West||My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy||4.581||4.529||1|
|Kanye West||The College Dropout||4.164||4.128||2|
|Kanye West||Late Registration||4.163||4.125||3|
|Kanye West||The Life of Pablo||3.581||3.514||5|
|Kanye West||808s and Heartbreak||3.606||3.487||7|
|Kanye West||Watch the Throne||3.336||3.256||8|