10 Best Kanye West Songs
As the last month has brought most people their fill of Kanye West, some figure there’s nothing left to say about the rapper and producer, long one of music’s more provocative characters. In light of recent controversies, many pine for the “classic Kanye,” the pop sound heard on his early albums. Widely appealing, it was nevertheless expertly produced and defined by his original vision. This list of the 10 Best Kanye West Songs celebrates Yeezy as an innovator, and it focuses on the more lyrically adventurous tunes that still sound fresh long after they’re put to tape. Yes, ‘Gold Digger,’ ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘All Of the Lights’ are special songs, but our picks are more than mere Top 40 masterpieces. And isn’t that one of Kanye West’s greatest traits — that he’s done it all and keeps pushing to new places? Five years from now, this list will undoubtedly look quite a bit different.
It’s not that ‘Gorgeous’ doesn’t have a hook — it has a memorable one from Kid Cudi — but the verses are the song, as Kanye put the lyrics front and center with little musical adornment. He also tapped Raekwon for the closing verse, just to prove that his words stand up with those delivered by one of the best. “Choke a ‘South Park’ writer with a fish stick” is probably the most memorable line,” but “What’s a black Beatle anyway, a f—in’ roach?” is a telling and sadly real depiction of the underlying racism that leads many to view rap as less sophisticated than other forms of music. This one might not make many party playlists, but it has the makeup of a track that will endure, because above all, it has something to say.
At No. 9 on the 10 Best Kanye West Songs list is the closer from his most recent album, ‘Yeezus.’ The song is widely presumed to be the depiction of his romance with Kim Kardashian, and it’s full of allusions to the bible, ‘Martin’ and real life. Most of all, the song feels personal and is delivered with heart. When West says “maybe we’ll make it til Christmas,” it’s hopeful and uncertain, with all of his “I am God”-style confidence not mattering in the slightest. It’s always hard to view Kanye West as the kind of human being we encounter in everyday life, but moments like this prove he is very much mortal.
‘All Falls Down’
Everyone’s early experience with Kanye West was their own, but ‘All Fall Down’ was one of the first that grabbed many, and its mixture of rap and soul still sounds fresh a decade later. While the Syleena Johnson version found on the album is the one most people know, the original, with Lauryn Hill’s hook — unfortunately replaced when they couldn’t get clearance — is superior and worth looking for.
People’s anti-Auto-Tune rage is often misplaced, and of all the albums to feature the pitch-correct technique, Kanye’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ may be the most unfairly criticized. Where people should point the finger at Auto-Tune is when artists try to trick the audience or disguise its use, but on ‘Love Lockdown,’ Ye makes no attempt to fool anyone into thinking he can actually sing like he sounds. It’s a beautiful song, and that moment where the tribal percussion first kicks in is a dramatic highlight in West’s career.
‘Blood On The Leaves’
Auto-Tuned Kanye West amounts to an even more polarizing version of an already polarizing figure, but you can’t Auto-Tune the heart that Kanye displays on ‘Blood On the Leaves.’ West reflects on possible alternate histories or past romances, seemingly paints Jay-Z and Beyonce as the paradigm for healthy family relationships and frames the song with bold, ambitious horns and a Billie Holiday sample. A month after its release, this song holds secrets, and it might never give them all up.
The beginning of an unexpected and fruitful musical friendship, ‘Stronger” saw Kanye West prominently use a Daft Punk sample and nab a No. 1 single and Grammy with it. ‘Stronger’ was a far cry from the classic sound that West had built his first couple of albums around, and fans had no way of knowing how many tricks Kanye still had up his sleeve.
‘Runaway’ uses an Aphex Twin sample and an opening piano riff that is about as classic as hip-hop instrumental moments get. Budweiser built a whole ad-campaign around it. But the song is much more than that creepy, ominous intro, as West confronts the reality of his public image and essentially roasts himself. He doesn’t claim to seek change as much as he admits to knowing who he is and not always liking that person. ‘Runaway’ isn’t an apology, but it is an admission, and that’s probably the best you’ll ever get out of him. But being able to recognize who people see you as and put that into music is an incredible feat.
No. 3 on our list of the 10 Best Kanye West Songs, ‘New Slaves,’ is far and away the most didactic song West has done that isn’t about college. While it may seem hypocritical for a rich man that has sung in depth about material possessions, it’s important to remember that the song is about being controlled, not about the actual objects. And throughout the song, West relates to the rest of us as he says “we the new slaves,” even throwing non-black listeners into the “we.” Besides the message, ‘New Slaves’ is delivered with fire behind the eyes, West going for the neck and locking his jaw. The contrast at the end with Frank Ocean‘s Motown-esque outro is West’s signature. He turns on a dime, mixing beauty and ugliness, smart and silly, everything always complicated.
‘Power,’ the next pick on our 10 Best Kanye West Songs list, was a comeback single, an anthem and a labor of love that West has said took 5,000 hours to complete. It’s a massive track, and every bit of the work that went into it was worth it, as the existential message and hand-clap beat remain iconic to this day. Kanye makes it a point to swing for the fences, and ‘Power’ is a great example of just how far out he can hit it.
On ‘Monster,’ Kanye, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj all flex so hard you hardly remember the bookends from Rick Ross and Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon. The titular theme is played for all it’s worth, with Jay-Z doing a bizarre list of every monster he can think of before revealing his Achilles heal in what’s possibly the funniest, most awkward moment in the history of rap: “Love! I don’t get enough of it.” But the thing about ‘Monster’ is that Jay’s absurdity can be forgiven because West is so ferocious in his lead verse, flinging phrases like “Malibooyah” and “stick the pussy in a sarcophagus” and “my presence is the present.” Just gold. And Nicki basically justifies her entire career with a single verse. It’s fun, it’s weird and it’s got truth and smarts. It’s everything Kanye West’s career has been about wrapped up in one song.