by ethan woodford (@human_dis4ster)
Kanye West is arguably the most famous musician alive today. While this is largely down to his notorious persona and marriage to Kim Kardashian, Kanye would never be where he is today if it wasn’t for his raw talent and ambition. For years Kanye lent his skills in production to countless artists, and while this was, and still is, his specialty, he only ever wanted to be a rapper.
However, perhaps a foreshadowing of how Kanye would push boundaries in his career, the first solo track he ever recorded was done with his jaw wired shut. The resulting track Through the Wire ended up on his debut album The College Dropout which propelled him to stardom and ultimately where he is today.
Kanye West is a unique artist in many ways, and this is what makes his music so special, in that each track has at least something interesting about it; even when he misses the mark, it is never for lack of trying. Since Kanye has so many tracks worthy of discussion and praise, it’s as good an excuse as any to list his ten best tracks and celebrate the genius of Kanye West.
10. All Falls Down
One of the breakout singles from his debut album, All Falls Down remains one of his best songs and also one of his most conventional. Featuring many qualities associated with his music such as gospel and soul influences, layered production and socially aware lyrics, this track was Kanye already at the top of his game.
Accompanied by the luscious vocals of Syleena Johnson covering Lauryn Hills’Mystery of Iniquity, Kanye proves his abilities on the mic with his now signature mixture of wit, observation, and aggression. All Falls Down focuses on the pitfalls of consumerism and more specifically, how the system fails black people. By showing his frustration with hard-hitting lines about racial inequality whilst also landing quips such as “Couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis”, Kanye proved his multifaceted versatility and claimed his place among hip-hop’s elite at the time.
9. Flashing Lights
While Graduation is perhaps Kanye West’s least significant record, it boasts his talent for writing infectious pop-rap bangers, such as Homecoming and this track, Flashing Lights. West’s skill for production is the main attraction here, the beat being one of the best he has produced.
Lyrically, Kanye vents his frustrations with a relationship with a woman, and it is likely there is a parallel between his relationship with the public as well. Talking about how he feels dictated by the other party in the relationship and how his actions are scrutinised, the track explores how this effects Kanye. When the hook changes point of view from second person to first person, it also shows Kanye is able to look at himself critically. Although it is ultimately just a short snappy single, it was widely praised for being a breath of fresh air to mainstream rap at the time and still over a decade later, it still maintains that freshness.
8. Love Lockdown
Three albums into his career and Kanye West was a pop star. However, following the death of his mother in 2007 and the subsequent break-up of his engagement to Alexis Phifer, his public image began to fade as he consistently became the object of scrutiny. However, he proved here that he can let his skills as a musician speak for him. He created 808s and Heartbreak, a completely new direction for Kanye and the new sound is well represented on the lead single Love Lockdown.
Gone were the soul samples and witty remarks synonymous with his work, and in its place was minimal instrumentation, auto-tune vocals and more of a singing delivery. While this song and the album as a whole still divides fans and critics today, Love Lockdown still serves as a breakthrough moment in his career and music in general. The track’s production incorporates a simple drum beat, which then moves into piano chords before the iconic African drums kick in for the chorus. Once again, Kanye’s skills as a producer come to the fore here as he paces the way for a whole new wave of rap and pop music while at the same time turning his grief and pain into the recipe for his own success.
7. Bound 2
Somewhat of an anomaly on Kanye West’s sixth album Yeezus, Bound 2 features the soulful samples and playful lyrics we have come to expect from Kanye but contrasts to the abrasive and dark sound found on the nine tracks that precede the album closer. However, due to the theme of the album, the track fits perfectly. Documenting the rise and fall of “Yeezus”, the album ends with a happy ending, as Kanye accepts his past that he details on the rest of the album and looks to the future, that being with his wife Kim Kardashian.
Bound 2 is a love song in the most Kanye way possible; it oozes his personality and humour and with that shows it’s sincerity. This doesn’t sound like a man convincing himself that he is in love, moreover, Kanye is ready to move on from his past and be a better person and with that, finally enjoy a healthy relationship. Bound 2 is often overlooked for its wacky sound and often hilarious lyrics, but this gives it endless charm and personality and it benefits from that.
6. Real Friends
In 2016, Kanye finally released his most anticipated album yet. The album’s release was unlike any seen before, as its every final touch was documented via his social media, including its multiple name changes and track additions, and now removals, eventually resulting in the release of The Life Of Pablo, which was still tampered with and added to after it’s release – even at the time of writing, it’s still being tinkered with. Despite all the hype, the album ended up being his most inconsistent, but with the egotistical lows, came the introspective highs, such as Real Friends.
Laid out over a sombre beat, Kanye reflects on how his current life course has affected his friendships and family relationships. Considering his public perception at the time, this track was completely unexpected as many had assumed he was no longer able to look at himself in such a critical manner. The credit goes to the uncertainty of the track, at points Kanye blames his friends, but then blames himself, and instead of being hypocritical, this shows the complexity of human relationships and how no one really knows how to balance everything and please everyone and this results in a stunningly human moment from Kanye even at his most famous status.
5. Hey Mama
Kanye’s close relationship with his late mother, Donda West, has been well documented both in the media and in his music. Nowhere else is his appreciation and admiration for her displayed so explicitly on Hey Mama from his second album Late Registration.
After the success of The College Dropout, Kanye no doubt felt compelled to include this song he wrote a few years earlier in his next project as his mother had always supported his decision to pursue a music career despite originally believing he should complete college. Debuting the song on Oprah with Donda in the audience, Kanye shows his humility in thanking the one person who believed in him. The song tells the story of how his mother provided for him and promises that he will always be thankful and ultimately admits “I just want you to be proud of me.”
Listening to this track over a decade since his mother passed away and knowing how the shock and loss affected Kanye and how is seemingly still suffering, it is an emotional listen but a wholesome moment in his discography.
Undoubtedly his best album, Kanye solidified his status as one of the greats with the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. While this list could have been the tracklist of that album, one stand out track is Gorgeous, a product of Kanye’s frustration with the racism prevalent in America.
Set over one of West’s most inventive beats, the sprawling guitar riff beautifully contrasts Kanye’s hard-hitting lyrics that express his frustration with racism in America. Perfectly executing his skill for mixing anger with humour, Kanye delivers some of his best verses on this track. Referencing everything from South Park beef to the theory that the government created AIDs to eliminate African Americans and featuring a guest verse from Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon, the track personifies the hip-hop masterpiece that the album it comes from is.
3. Jesus Walks
Kanye continued to show his ambition on his fourth single, Jesus Walks. Told by everyone that a track about his belief on God wouldn’t get airplay, Kanye did what he wanted anyway and although this attitude has been hit and miss for him throughout his life, here it paid off and ultimately birthed his career.
The track features gospel samples and a classic Kanye beat as he discusses his own struggle with life and how his faith in God helps him through. From his first single, Kanye proved his ability to consider complex ideas such as redemption whilst still delivering a hit song with a catchy hook. Additionally, looking back at the track it seems to foreshadow his future work such as similar themes and the overlapping falsetto background vocals from Kanye himself that are reminiscent of future projects.
2. New Slaves
Yeezus is the album where Kanye showed that he really could do anything. Again going in a different direction than expected, the album featured jarring beats, violent and sexually explicit lyrics and boldly embraced his own ego.
New Slaves is arguably Kanye at his most creative, aggressive and passionate. Venting his anger at racism, especially in the fashion industry, the track sticks in your mind due to its raw power. Possibly his best verse ever appears in the latter half of the song and it has to be heard to be appreciated for its lyricism and sincerity. Ending the track stretching his vocal ability singing “I’m not dying and I can’t lose” as his vocals lead into a beautiful outro from Frank Ocean, the track claims its place as one of Kanye’s best.
It’s no surprise why Runaway is often considered Kanye’s best track, and if not at least his most important in reflecting upon himself and his past. Looking back on his several failed relationships, Kanye rejects the toxic view that no one is good enough for him, but instead tragically releases it is himself that is the problem and that he needs to work on himself.
Opening with the now famous but still as haunting piano keys, the track has a chilling aura to it that is telling of Kanye’s admiration of Stanley Kubrick and the scores to his films. Kanye admits cleanly, and with no sugar coating, of the pain and hurt he has caused the people he loves and simply tells them to leave because he just is not good enough. The track ends with a long outro of initially indistinguishable lyrics that gradually clear up as Kanye sings the hook to the song once more, clearly full of emotion and sincerity. The distortion represents his own view of relationships and why he messes them up, but as his words eventually become understandable, it is clear that Kanye does have some heart, however, he now knows it’s up to him to find it on his own.