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The following is dedicated to Graham Coxon, David Crosby and Keith Richards.
As announced on our recent, joyous ‘Straight Outta Kanye’ podcast, we’re proud to present our highly scientific Kanye West Listening Guide, or, as she says above, his best 20 songs. In our opinion? Sure, but selecting the finest cuts from The Greatest Rock Star On The Planet proved a strenuous, mathematical process.
How we did it:
Quite simple, really. Four Kanye-loving gents combined and put forward their Top 20. #20 received one point, while the #1 pick received 20 points. For the record, the #20 track on this list garnered 13 points overall while the #1 received a whopping 75 points from a possible 80.
Paying homage to the man:
Joshua Hughes – Dirtiest player in the game.
Dave Hanratty – HeadStuff music editor. Beatles truther. Prince of Cats.
Wait, no ‘Niggas In Paris’ ?
In a bid to avoid both pedantry and bloodshed, we opted to exclude anything released as part of a special collaboration and/or featured appearances and production credits. It’s a monster of a song, though.
Wait, no ‘Monster’ ?!
It didn’t receive a single vote. We blame Jay Z’s amazingly pedestrian verse.
So the Top 20 looks like…
20 | ‘Heartless’
808s & Heartbreak seems to be an album that heavily divides opinions of Kanye West fans to this day. Rather than complete the much-discussed ‘bear’ quadrilogy of The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation and the never-again-heard-of Good Ass Job, he chose to build an album, as the title suggests, around the Roland TR-808 drum machine and his experiences during the breakdown of his long term relationship and the tragic death of his mother. The result is a cacophony of tribal beats, lonely, heartache-induced lyrics and the isolation he felt during the period of his life just prior to recording. ‘Heartless’ is a perfect electro pop song. It’s honest, relatable and incredibly catchy. The synth that comes in every couple bars is also one of my favourite little embellishments West has ever put down on record. – Steven Gannon
19 | ‘Slow Jamz’
“I knew,” Kanye has affirmed, “when I wrote the line ‘light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson’, I was going to be a big star.” It’s a line that always elicits a chuckle (“got a dark-skinned friend look like… Michael Jackson!”) but it’s safe to say the rest of the music world didn’t see anything too prescient in the tongue-in-cheek rap. But then he was always thinking big. More evidence of that from Jamie Foxx below at 18.45…
Sure, ‘Gold Digger’ was the bigger worldwide smash for the pair, but this is the greater West/Foxx jam. Where ‘Gold Digger’ is fairly mean-spirited (Kanye has admitted to not caring for it himself), ‘Slow Jamz’ is friendly and carefree. An ode to seduction through the R&B classics and as catchy as the clap, one of ‘Ye’s finest singalong choruses combines with a prime slice of his College Dropout-era sped-up sampling. That’s a chipmunkified Luther Vandross, by the way, rather than a lady excited by how fast Twista can “do it”. So good Kanye gifted it to Twista but simply had to steal it back for his solo debut. – Craig Fitzpatrick
18 | ‘Drive Slow’
‘Drive Slow’s chilled out jazz beat is accompanied by a teasing clarinet line that swims into your ear just when you need it to. Add to the mix a very subtle synth that more so guides than pushes the song along and you’ve got the basic elements of the song. As the name suggests car culture is the main topic of this cut from Late Registration, with Kanye, Paul Wall and GLC effortlessly oozing out verses as if they were having a casual conversation among friends. The icing on the cake of this track is the beautiful dizzying slow down for the last 20 seconds as the song melts away, leaving the listener in a serene state. [SG]
17 | ‘Mercy’
One of Kanye’s greatest strengths is to poke fun at himself and be genuinely funny. It’s odd, because as a fan I keep finding some lines that make me giggle in songs that I’ve known for years (the most recent being “Any pessimists I ain’t talk to them/Plys I ain’t have no phone in my apart-a-ment” in ‘Touch the Sky’). ‘Mercy’ is a wonderful example of that as his verse at the end here is absolutely killer (the “Yo plus my bitch makes yo bitch look like Precious” line is insane), but also shows that he’s willing to allow other people to shine as well. This was something of a coming out party for the likes of Big Sean and 2Chainz while also being an opportunity to allow the brilliant Pusha T to shine as well. They all take their opportunity with gusto (it’s arguably the best 2Chainz, in particular, has sounded in his entire career) and when thinking about simply the best beats that Kanye has produced, this definitely belongs in the conversation. – Joshua Hughes
16 | ‘Blame Game’
“Baby, you done took this shit to another mother fuckin’ level!”. ‘Blame Game’ is one of the most reserved, subtle songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which is saying something given that it’s nearly 8 minutes long and features an extended comedy skit by Chris Rock at the end. The beat is rich and atmospheric, featuring a lovely reworking of Aphex Twin’s ‘Avril 14th’ and a gorgeous, melancholy cello on top of that. The always pitch-perfect John Legend destroys the hook, Kanye delivers his relatively simple verses with conviction and Chris Rock is laugh out loud funny at the end. What’s not to love? [JH]
15 | ‘White Dress’
If someone tells you Kanye has no flow, play them this track. His most underrated song, ‘White Dress’ was dropped on the soundtrack of RZA’s The Man With The Iron Fists after his dark fantasy had won the world back onside and just before he set about ruffling feathers once more with the politicking, brutal aesthetic of Yeezus. As breathers go, it will take your breath away. The production collab should have made the world spin off its axis alone – with a little assistance, Mr Diggs and Mr West join forces for a soulful backing that combines early Kanye with Wu minimalism. That it plays second fiddle to Kanye’s vocal says it all. As pure a love song as he’s mustered (but it’s complicated, natch), its emotionally-charged, knock-out narrative can make you laugh and bristle (that “candle” pun is bound 2 get on some people’s wicks) before a honeymoon climax leaves you swooning. RZA’s verdict? “Kanye’s a dope lyricist, but what he did on this particular song, it ain’t 16 bars, he’s going like how Ghostface goes. Like, 40 bars, just goin’. He’s goin and he’s killin’ it, yo!” As for me, it’s the Kanye I’d take to a desert island. [CF]
14 | ‘Love Lockdown’
Though it may not spring immediately to mind when pondering the very best of Kanye, there is an argument to be made that ‘Love Lockdown’ represents the man in microcosm. Introspective, extroverted, small, huge, tough and wounded all at once, it finds its author struggling to sit still, battling conforming structures and ideas in a supremely cold space. 808s & Heartbreaks is usually cited as the go-to ‘worst’ Kanye West album and it’s certainly challenging and occasionally opaque, but for those who claim the man is just a weird rent-a-quote with no heart and soul, this is a precision cut that should stop that argument dead in its tracks. – Dave Hanratty
13 | ‘Bound 2’
It’s no great surprise that most commended the astonishingly unfunny James Franco and Seth Rogen for their HILARIOUS parody of the ‘Bound 2’ video, because it’s easier to point and laugh at something that you believe to be ludicrously stupid than appreciate the knowing humour it actually trades on. Seriously, you think Kanye isn’t in on the joke here? That shot of the horses in the sea is meant to be avant-garde, is it? Cool, ok. As for the song, it’s one of Yeezy’s most wry efforts. A tale of sweet and sour love and lust, ‘Bound 2’ coats white picket fences pitch black as samples of Brenda Lee’s ‘Sweet Nothins’ and the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s ‘Bound’ dance off one another and Kanye lampoons the idea of domestic bliss with an acid tongue. And hey, who else is going to get away with a line like, “Start a fight club, Brad reputation” ? BUT LOL THAT VIDEO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [DH]
12 | ‘Stronger’
People will point to Jay Z’s superb nod in the direction of Noel Gallagher’s lame criticism of the former’s Glastonbury headline slot in 2008 as a spectacular display of ownership in the face of ignorance, but Kanye arguably went one better in shockingly subtle (no, really) fashion when he found himself in the same position this year. Met with similar ludicrous bawling following the announcement of his headline status at The Most Precious Festival of All Time and a petition that bordered on naked racism, Yeezy rose above it and though the set proved a bumpy affair, the first 30 minutes (dickhead ‘comedian’ interrupting the best song of the last two years aside) was particularly glorious, not least thanks to the immediate proclamation of “N-now th-that that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger”, a wonderful ‘fuck you’ to the Tarquins and Sophies who didn’t deem him suitable enough for their flower crown and ‘wacky’ suit-speckled weekend. ‘Stronger’, powered by Daft Punk and polished by Timbaland, is a fucking machine. It’s the kind of belter than even those who claim to hate Kanye can’t help but love, and though they’ll note the involvement of the sample-happy French cyborgs, this is yet another example of Yeezy seizing tremendous control. [DH]
11 | ‘Spaceship’
First things first, that bass line is SICK! ‘Spaceship’ covers some familiar ground here as West explores the treatment of black Americans by their employers and his commitment to hip hop and drive to succeed. The subtle vocals throughout feature one John Legend and Famous Tony Williams while the song samples Marvin Gaye’s ‘Distant Lover.’ This section of said song speaks volumes for West’s work ethic and his success over the last 11 years as a hip hop artist:
“Y’all don’t know my struggle
Y’all can’t match my hustle
You can’t catch my hustle
You can’t fathom my love dude
Lock yourself in a room doin’ five beats a day for three summers
That’s a different world like Kree Summers
I deserve to do these numbers” [SG]
10 | ‘Gold Digger’
If you don’t think that ‘Gold Digger’ is one of the best pop songs of the last few decades then you’re probably not reading this article. Even so, get fucked. In 2005-06 practically every Saturday night out was simply a build up to everyone losing their minds when Jamie Foxx’s opening strains hit. Everything about this song is perfect for what it is. The Ray Charles (I supposed you’d call it a) sample is excellently reworked, the beat is utterly infectious and Kanye is in rare form in terms of lyrics and delivery. This is the song that perhaps represents the peak of Yeezy’s popularity as a mainstream artist and is another showcase of his versatility. [JH]
9 | ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)’
The first remix to result from a twinge of conscience? Quite possibly. Kanye originally just made a surface level Roc-a-Fella link with Shirley Bassey’s booming Bond classic but the initial clichéd braggadocio never quite matched the grandeur of the ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ backing. So West, having done some digging on the blood diamond conflict in Sierra Leone, retooled the tune to deal with the consumerist ecstasy and African agony associated with the precious mineral. A masterfully-handled production, a thought-provoking message and a massive hit, it follows in the footsteps of ‘Jesus Walks’ in presenting him as a higher-tier artist. The artist, of course, always knew he belonged at that level – how else would he have the audacity to nonchalantly steal Andre’s “forever-ever?!” hook from 2000 smash ‘Ms. Jackson’ and place it at the centre of his second album’s centrepiece? [CF]
8 | ‘New Slaves’
Number eight on the list could actually be Kanye’s magnum opus. The production, by no less than seven credited producers, is insane. Have individual synth notes ever sounded so huge, so downright ominous? This is scorched earth, Kanye West style, as he takes coruscating aim at prejudice, unambitious ideals, clichés and stereotypes, the uber-rich, corporations, government agencies, vicious racism and the world of fashion, from his own critics to those who flock to big name designers. So, a lot going on here, then. Too much? Possibly, but that’s the beauty part. Having backed himself into a most oppressive corner, Kanye takes flight alongside Frank Ocean and bathes in brilliant light, no care for accusations of contradiction, hypocrisy or anything else, because he knows just how bulletproof these four minutes and sixteen seconds are. [DH]
7 | ‘All Of The Lights’
The ultimate muscle flex in the age of the featured artist, Kanye enlists FOURTEEN of his favourite famous voices and makes them all serve the song. Rihanna’s working with one of her best hooks (shame she couldn’t add the single to her collection of number ones), Fergie has a not-horrible breakdown and Elton John stamps his authority on the fade-out but, really, no one artist dominates despite the star power present. Nor is it all about the opulent production, though it ranks right up there with Kanye’s best (look ma, no samples!). French horns, trombones, flutes, John Legend, whatever… the rapper reins it all in for a character study of wife-beating loser trying to make amends and stay in his daughter’s life, complete with public visitations in book stores. Pop as an examination of the grit under the glitter. Cop lights in the street; shooting stars over Vegas. The final choked non-apology leaves us dangling – “I tried to tell you but all I could say was…” – and the only thing left to do is hit repeat. [CF]
6 | ‘Say You Will’
‘Say You Will’ really stands out as Kanye’s true emergence as an artist who was willing to push boundaries and not necessarily do what is expected of him musically. Many dismissed it out of hand because this new sound was so jarring, missing out on one of the finest “breakup” albums ever made. ‘Say You Will’ sums up one element of that kind of malaise as he calls up an ex-girlfriend and begs her to come over. There’s a desperation to the song’s sound that is both touching and sad as he croons “Don’t say you will, then play you will, I pray you will”. The wistful beat is a perfect accompaniment to these themes. 808s is by far his most underrated work and is streets ahead of the rather pedestrian Graduation. [JH]
5 | ‘Runaway’
A heartbreaker. An epic. A comedy. A tragedy. ‘Runaway’ is worthy of such hyperbole, and more besides. Frankly, it astonishes me that anybody could label Kanye West as ‘talentless’ if they’ve actually sat down and listened to this song. Here, he strips away the gloss, glamour and bullshit that surrounds the opulence that supposedly oozes from his every pore. It’s what The Weeknd tries to do with his own self-loathing but often gets bogged down in the mire along the way (and I fucking love The Weeknd). Here, Kanye holds an unflinching mirror aloft and the results are absolutely devastating. You may not relate to his struggles, you may not get past the genre tropes that dot the surface, you may tune out before a vocoded, barely decipherable West and an incredibly simple, moving arrangement fade out, but you really should respect it. [DH]
4 | ‘Jesus Walks’
A personal favourite. To this day when I hear it it feels as crisp as anything currently orbiting the hip hop universe. The group chant present throughout the track conjures up a contemporary cousin of the epic Koyaanisqatsi chant created by Philip Glass for the movie of the same name. Kanye spitting in angry mode is a beautiful thing as he touches upon the relationship between hip hop and religion as well as racial issues bubbling under the surface in modern America. At 3:14 in length it could easily be another two minutes long and hold your attention. One listen usually isn’t enough. [SG]
3 | ‘POWER’
Because every super hero needs his theme music. Some will point to the moment he donned his leather black jeans, but ‘POWER’ remains the most important, against-all-odds comeback track from an artist who relishes them. An inspired sonic juxtaposition finds the stirring chant of Continent n° 6 ‘s ‘Afromerica’ colliding with a demented King Crimson vocal as Kanye once again uses race relations and the US political landscape as the backdrop for a confessional about his own “schizoid” personality. This isn’t the ‘Runaway’ sad sack admitting he’s an asshole and atoning for his pop culture sins. This is a defiant “I’M an asshole?!” as everyone from SNL to POTUS makes the haters list. It’s funny as hell and sounds like heaven going to war. A self-coronation before he chops his own crowned head off later on MBDTF, ‘POWER’ is all of ‘Ye’s complexities and contradictions, glorified and gorgeous. [CF]
2 | ‘Through The Wire’
The first track I ever heard by Mr West. As the title indicates, he spit this entire song with his mouth wired shut as a result of a broken jaw suffered in a horrific car accident in October 2002. The percussion is cool as fuck, the epic Chaka Khan sample, Yeezy’s flow, the story behind the track… it all meshes together and manifests itself as one of the finest tracks Ye has ever produced. The first four lines are enough to make you want to shake his hand.
“I drink a boost for breakfast, and ensure for dessert
Somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp
That right there could drive a sane man bizzerk
Not to worry Mr. H 2 the Izzo’s back to wizzerk” [SG]
1 | ‘Black Skinhead’
One of Kanye West’s many charms is his unabashed passion – not only for what he does – but for anything that he likes or believes in. There is a certain amount of innocence, at times, about the man that a lot of people tend to perceive as stupidity. It is hard to believe, however, that someone who could write a song as vivid and insightful as ‘Black Skinhead’ could be lacking when it comes to intelligence. It is ironic, then, that people will immediately point to the “I keep it 300, like the Romans” line as being factually inaccurate. However, it’s actually a quite deep and clever reference. Many people claim to “keep it 100”, as in, 100% because they are so real. During Kanye’s initial performance of the song on Saturday Night Live an image of Cerberus – the Greek and Roman hellhound who protected the entrance to the underworld – flashed up on the screen. Cerberus had three heads and Kanye keeps it so real that he reaches 300%. Sparta was an important city-state in Ancient Greece while the Romans worshipped roughly the same set of gods as the Greeks. The follow up line states that he has 300 bitches, and wonders where the Trojans are. He then flips this line and says that he’s “doing 500, I’m outta control” later on in order to show how out of control he is due to his circumstances. Who’s stupid now, eh?
Similarly, the idea of a “black skinhead” undoubtedly refers to the “skinhead” counter-culture movement in Britain which stood out due to its defiance of middle and upper class lifestyles. Here, Kanye, too stands in defiance of practically everything. In the aftermath of the excesses of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy few people expected to find West in such militant, anti-establishment mood. And yet, here he was, taking everyone to task and releasing a song that is both unbelievably catchy and essentially as radio-unfriendly as possible at the same time. There’s a strong primal element here that really serves to bring everything home. He screams and roars like a wounded animal, such is his frustration with a system that treats him as “possessed…an omen”. This has been a common theme throughout his work since 808s & Heartbreak but it is at its most potent here.
‘Black Skinhead’ is Kanye West at his absolute finest and sums him up in more ways than one. Musically, it is stunning. Lyrically, it is belligerent, funny, touching and honest to a fault. All of these are things that are trademarks of West’s work. The chip on his shoulder pervades almost all of his output, yet he can make you laugh out loud on the bus when you don’t want to. Songs like ‘Roses’, ‘Hey Mama’ and practically all of 808s show a sensitive side that very few other musicians in his position would be willing to show while lines like “Middle-America packed in/Came to see me in my black skin” would be probably better off in than out in terms of his career. Yet, Kanye West is willing to push boundaries and say things that will genuinely get under important people’s skins that he doesn’t need to. Few in recent history are as courageous, creative and brilliant as he is, and it will be to the eternal shame of this generation that he is not appreciated more in his own time. [JH]