To follow up my Beatles project, I held a little Kanye West tournament on my Twitter. And just like I did with The Beatles, I’m going to round up my top 25 Kanye West songs. Watch as I get a little bit “I miss the old Kanye.”
Just a few notes on notable absences: 1. “New Slaves,” which would be #26 easily; 2. “Through The Wire,” an incredible song that I never flipped for; 3. anything from Graduation, a very solid album with low peaks.
25. “Touch The Sky”
(ft. Lupe Fiasco)
Gleefully retooling Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” Casually launching Lupe Fiasco’s career. It all just seemed so easy for Kanye West in 2005. So much so that we’d have misplaced illusions of his infallibility for too many years to come. Listen to Lupe’s giddiness at this opportunity in his effortless verse and Kanye’s beaming gratitude at rocketing to superstardom. It was a better time.
(This was the success story of my (relatively upset-free) aforementioned tournament, heretically taking down “Jesus Walks” and “All Falls Down” on its way to a final four finish. I think “Touch The Sky” is an absolute vibe, but c’mon now.)
(ft. GLC & Consequence)
Kanye’s class consciousness would conveniently erode as he got richer and richer, but it started from a startlingly high point.
23. “Heard ‘Em Say”
(ft. Adam Levine)
Feels quaint to think that Adam Levine’s most recent work was still Songs About Jane, that this was still a time when fans of either artist could hear this and plausibly not know who the other was. The song intentionally induces such nostalgia.
Diagram that sentence: “Nothing’s ever promised tomorrow today.”
22. “Slow Jamz”
by Twista, ft. Kanye West & Jamie Foxx
Twista carries a song by completely trampling on its initial conceit.
Though 808’s & Heartbreak is an underrated, forward-looking album defined by its devastation and vulnerability, its two greatest moments are ugly poses looking outward. In a career defined by excess, “Heartless” is among his simplest compositions and 808’s’ proof-of-concept song, but it’s among his knottiest narratives, which is saying something.
20. “Lost In The World”
(ft. Bon Iver)
This finale was the real moment you knew that Kanye’s 2010 opus had stuck its landing, an explosive sprint through Bon Iver’s “Woods,” snapping the tape with Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1.”
(ft. Mr Hudson)
The greatest song from 808’s & Heartbreak is manipulative and gaslighting. But its red flags are drenched in flashing lights, which can discombobulate.
18. “Family Business”
Bolstered by many of these stories not actually being his own, “Family Business” is a tender (verging on precious!) moment from Kanye before his personality outgrew his music.
by Jay-Z & Kanye West, ft. Otis Redding
It’s rare to find either of these men so focused line after line during the 2010s, and unfortunately just as rare to find them being friendly with each other. But “Otis”! Not a bum line in sight. Just two people living in the moment!
16. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)” (ft. Jay-Z) /
“Diamonds From Sierra Leone”
“Over here, it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs/Over there they die from what we buy from drugs,” but then “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!!!” Jay-Z interrupts deft social commentary with one of his very best verses of braggadocio. The end product isn’t quite as harmonious as a you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter situation, but each part is so considerable on its own.
The original is very worthy but nonetheless plainly inferior to both halves of the remix.
(ft. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver)
Honestly? This song is a bit of a slog. It wouldn’t be here if Nicki didn’t absolutely slaughter everything in sight (which, in case you weren’t keeping track, includes Sasquash, Godzilla, King Kong, Loch Ness, goblin, ghoul, and a zombie with no conscience).
14. “Never Let Me Down”
(ft. Jay-Z & J. Ivy)
Jay-Z does his thing here and he does it quite well, but as with other early Kanye tracks he misses that other, greater things are at hand. J. Ivy’s spoken word poetry is utilized just incredibly, a trick I wish Kanye tried more than once. And Kanye’s verse that covers his family’s history of antiracism before turning an eye to his near death experience is his best. Ever.
13. “We Don’t Care”
That chorus! Can’t resist it.
12. “Gold Digger”
(ft. Jamie Foxx)
The song that turned a star into a superstar sometimes gets remembered as a novelty fueled by a national obsession with Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles impression, which, sorta. But it’s an expert piece of storytelling centered around West’s best-ever rhyme: “Now I ain’t saying she a gold digger/But she ain’t messing with no broke [broke, broke].” It’s another reminder that West was terrifying with a sample in hand back in 2005, this time weaponizing Foxx to make us mishear Charles for the whole rest of the song.
11. “POWER” /
“POWER (Remix)” (ft. Jay-Z & Swizz Beats)
Kanye’s most forceful piece of production, perhaps his best, but he doesn’t exactly leave SNL feeling embarrassed here, does he?
The remix features cheesier production but also features a far more on-point West.
10. “Jesus Walks”
In a career full of self-mythologizing, Kanye chooses to make his first attempt at it alongside Jesus Christ. The clever devil.
9. “Crack Music”
(ft. The Game)
“We invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill Lynched/And we been hangin’ from the same tree ever since.” “Who gave Saddam anthrax?/George Bush got the answers.” These lines alongside “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” reveal that Kanye was the greatest critic of American empire among 2005 somebodies.
Gosh, the way the “It’s Your Thing” drum sample violently gallops across this whole thing.
8. “N—-s In Paris”
by Jay-Z & Kanye West
Even Kanye’s “married at the maaaaaaaaaall” bit can’t ruin the greatest fun he’s ever recorded, one where fish filets go supernova, the event horizon thereof these gentlemen’s zone.
(ft. Pusha T)
As a piece of humanizing art, ehhhhhh. This doesn’t do much better than 808’s & Heartbreak there. But “Runaway” really works as a piece of self-mythologizing, proof of a man accomplishing the impossible task of climbing out of his Taylor Swift controversy, instilling fearful doubt (however sometimes faint) in anyone who dared tease his “voice of a generation” proclamations.
And yes, this is a Big Dumb Song. Your mileage will vary. Especially when he doubles its length by feeling himself admittedly far too much.
6. “American Boy”
by Estelle, ft. Kanye West
I think something like this will probably never happen again. Kanye West is so generous here, putting his absolute A-game into Estelle’s greatest moment this side of Steven Universe.
5. “Black Skinhead”
Somehow produced by Daft Punk the same year they made their frictionless comeback album, “Black Skinhead” is what people think of when they overrate Yeezus. The Death Grips level aggression. The obsession with tragic figures (King Kong, Batman, Jesus Christ, Lebron James (who was also crucified then reborn)). The oafish-or-is-that-the-point 300 Romans missed reference.
His SNL premier of it is stupefying. Watch that, too.
4. “All Falls Down”
(ft. Syleena Johnson)
With note-perfect production, this is Kanye’s cleanest landing. But it doesn’t stop there. He begins with an empathetic, relatable scenario before scaling up to hip hop stars in discussing who consumerism really benefits.
The song of his with the most impeccable craft, only toppable at his most ambitious.
3. “Hey Mama”
Even before the song was changed forever, “Hey Mama” was Kanye’s purest-ever vehicle for his affections, a genuinely touching statement that she’s the woman he wants to give the world and an especially captivating wrinkle in the story of the planet’s most notorious College Dropout. People who say they don’t listen to Kanye for lyrics don’t remember the majesty of “My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate/Something to fall back on, you could profit with/But still supported me when I did the opposite.”
Two years after “Hey Mama”‘s release, Donda West passed away. Months later he performed a stirring rendition at the 2008 Grammys.
(ft. Consequence & Cam’ron)
Wielding Otis Redding’s voice and Jon Brion’s string arrangement, Kanye West set out to make his production masterpiece. Kanye himself, Cam’ron, and a best-in-show Consequence all flex before Kanye sprints up the gates. Things would never be entirely the same, and from then on friends trading verses over a Kanye-curated Otis sample would only ever be a blockbuster event.
1. “Ultralight Beam”
When I named “She Loves You” the greatest Beatles song, I warned of conflating greatest and grandest. But here I’ve given Kanye’s Biggest Dumbest Song top honors. Because it is the Big Dumb Song to end all Big Dumb Songs.
How do I even write this?
“Ultralight Beam” came to us mortals not long after my father had passed. It’s not really a song that makes me think of him, but it found me at a time when I was especially vulnerable to the awesomeness of life. Steph Curry would plant an ultralight beam of his own in Oklahoma City and I’d walk my dog at like 1:30 am just listening to this song over and over, paralyzed in awe.
It’s so empty. It breathes. Then it’s empty again. No Kanye West song has ever sounded so physically empty, but actually, few Kanye songs have ever been so stuffed with people. Kanye, The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, Chance The Rapper, and the choir.
This all makes these awesome lines so easy to cling to. “This is my part, nobody else speak.” “I’m trying to keep my faith, but I’m looking for more.” “This is a God dream. This is everything.”
And of course there’s Chance’s verse. Right on time, when the world was so ready to embrace him.
I LAUGH IN MY HEAD CUZ I BET THAT MY EX LOOKING BACK LIKE A PILLAR OF SALT,
Chance is a showstopper for sure, but he can’t steal it. His appearance works so well because he doesn’t try to, he knows he’s part of something larger, even though it wouldn’t last much longer.
Later that year, Kanye West prematurely ended several shows on his tour and eventually withdrew from public life after praising fascistic Presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
“Ultralight Beam” makes you feel appropriately small, at peace with a certain amount of powerlessness and grateful for the fleeting pleasures we find amidst the horror of everyday life.
Nothing’s ever promised tomorrow today.