I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about Kanye West. He shows up in my blog posts, he shows up in my short stories, he shows up in my novel. And I listen to his music. I really do. When a Pitt student foolishly asked to hitch a ride with me across the state to Scranton, she was utterly shocked when I spent so much of the drive listening to Kanye West. “Aren’t you being ironic?” people keep asking me. No. I’m really not. I honestly like Kanye West.
On a very base level, I find West to be infinitely relatable. His early work deals with class struggles and intense insecurity masked by a totally false, totally self-aware bravado. But somewhere along the way that false ego–an obvious defense mechanism–gave way to the monstrously real ego that West can’t really shake. This is almost always what his later music about: the realization that he is not a complete or even a good person, the realization that he’s an asshole, and the strive for redemption and how difficult it is to actually be kind in the 21st century. West desperately wants to become a better person, but always comes back to the point that “[he] can’t stop/No, no, oh no/[he] can’t stop”. Who can’t relate to that? Beyond the hyperbole, beyond the techno-fetishism, beyond the outlandish statements, is a quest to become something better than he currently is. That speaks to me and has always spoken to me. With so many other rappers and rock bands, I’ve always felt that there was a shallowness at their core, but with West, I truly believe there is a deeper tension in play that reflects this generation’s complicated relationship with technology and the revelation of self in the public sphere.
And even if you think that’s all bullshit, check out his 35 minute movie “Runaway”. You see that paper mache Michael Jackson head marching down the street? Fuck yeah you did, son.
This post is in honor of the November 22nd release of Kanye West’s latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’m not going to say that Yeezy is the best rapper of my generation, but I will say that Yeezy is the greatest artist/hero/human of all time. So, without further adieu, here’s my favorite 20 Kanye tracks in no particular order.
Oh, and check out my boy Brian Oliu on our boy Kanye West.
Late-era Kanye is noteworthy for Yeezy’s move away from an analysis of class dynamics seen through the prism of his Chicago childhood and toward a Facebook/Twitter style introspection of the self. And what Kanye discovers at his center is not good. He finds that he’s a douchebag, asshole, a scumbag. The hope for redemption is there (“I could have me a good girl/And still be addicted to them hoodrats”), but what Kanye realizes is that the quest for redemption is an illusion, and we (or at least Yeezy) are doomed to repeat past mistakes. In the end he begs unsuspecting women to just leave him alone out of fear he’s going to hurt them. Oh, and that beat. That beat, you guys. That beat.
This was the first time I started to take Kanye West seriously. Before 2007, I lumped West in with all the other rappers I admired from a distance. But something about this song made me stop, take notice, and begin to retroactively dig through his catalog. I’m still not sure what it is about “Flashing Lights” that drew me to West in the first place, but it might be the perfect blend in this song between a totally unchecked ego (“As I recall you know I love to show off/but you never thought that I would take it this far”) and his utter shock that any human female would actually CHOOSE to leave him (“Hey, babe, lately you’ve been all on my brain/And if somebody would told me a month ago/fronting on/yo I wouldn’t want to know/If somebody would’ve told me a year ago/it’d go get this difficult”). Excess combined with emotional immaturity and an inability to deal with normal human pain. Yes please!
“We Don’t Care”
The opening track on Kanye’s first album The College Dropout, “We Don’t Care” stands as a testament to Kanye’s early flirtations with jazz and funk, and “if this is your first time hearing this/you’re about to experience something so cold”. Right from the very first track, Kanye hits on all his major subjects: racism, classism, and the total absence of upward mobility for black males in America. But really, I like this one for the child choir that sings on the chorus. “Drug dealing just to get by/we wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you we still alive”. That’s fucking awesome, bro.
“We Don’t Care” was Kanye’s first album track, but “Jesus Walks” was his first single as headliner, and for many, their introduction to Kanye West at large. Right from the very start, it was clear that West was not going to be your typical rapper, springboarding from guest rhyming on a Jay-Z track to “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means sex, guns, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played?” Although the Black Church and the rap industry have always had close ties, I can’t imagine many executives being excited that a song that references Jesus Christ over 20 times was Kanye’s choice for debut single. But this showed from the very beginning that Kanye had zero interest in being anyone other than Kanye West. He’s not roleplaying like so many rappers. He is image made flesh.
“New Workout Plan”
What people forget is that Kanye West is fucking funny. I’d nominate “New Workout Plan” from his first album as his overall funniest track thanks to the ridiculous amount of self-aware misogyny. “New Workout Plan” has arguably what is the slickest production of all his first album tracks, and it focuses on Kanye’s directions for how women can get thin and land a man (“all the mocha lattes/you gotta do pilates” or “And ladies/if you follow these instructions exactly/you might be able to pull you a rapper/an NBA player/Man, at least a dude with a car”). But the kicker comes at the three minute mark when Kanye carts out three women to deliver their testimonials after following the titular workout plan. The first woman lands the previously mentioned NBA player. The second gets 13′ rims out on her Cavalier. The third? The third. “My name is Alamae from Mobille, Alabama/and I just want to say since listenin’ to Kanye’s workout tape/I been able to date outside the family, I got a double wide/And I rode a plane, rode a plane, rode a plane”. The thrice repeated “rode a plane” that fades into the bass line is so utterly ridiculous, but the humor is actually kind of depressing on account of the fact that we know just how moody and introspective Kanye is going to become within the span of three mere albums.
“Welcome to Heartbreak”
After the death of his mother and breakup with his fiance, Kanye retreated to Hawaii with his TR-808 drum machine, emerging months later with his fourth studio album 808s & Heartbreak. Right from this, the second track, we know we’re in for a much more subdued affair (“My friend shows me pictures of his kids/And all I can show him is pictures of my crib/He says his daughter’s got a new report card/and all I got is a brand new sports car”). Here we find a Yeezy that has discovered that money and class mobility have not magically solved all his problems, that in fact, “chas[ing] the good life my whole life long” has only made things worse. His mother is dead. His fiance has left him. And all he has to turn to are his sports cars. It’s this quest for happiness and meaning in a post-stardom world that defines late-era Kanye West.
“Never Let Me Down”
“I told you I wouldn’t let this rap game change me, right?” Six years later and I wonder how Kanye feels about this. This one’s another early exploration of class and racism, but also touches upon Kanye’s car crash, a subject of particular interest to Kanye scholars (that’s fucking right, son). “I can’t complain what the accident to my left eye/’Cuz look what a accident did to Left Eye”. Kanye has stated many times that he’s often wondered whether or not he really did die in that accident, that everything that’s happened to him since (his meteoric rise and subsequent clashes with the media) has been so absurd as to only be possible in some type of afterlife. Let me repeat that. Sometimes Kanye West legitimately worries that he’s living in a Matrix-styled afterlife.
“Drunk and Hot Girls”
Essentially, this track is an attempt to one up “New Workout Plan” from two albums earlier. In most ways it succeeds (although it never has a section as funny as Alamae’s plane), culminating with the impersonation of a drunken girl trying to prove she can sing when Kanye is only looking for sex. Look. This is Kanye West, folks. He’s a self-admitted douche bag. You gotta take the asshole sometimes if you want the witty examinations of technology and excess in a post-human world. You can’t have one without the other here. It’s not that easy.
“Diamonds Are Forever (Remix ft. Jay-Z)”
This song sums up Kanye’s entire repertoire. “It’s in a black person’s soul to rock that gold/Spend your whole life trying to get that ice/On a polo rugby it look so nice/How can something so wrong make me feel so right?” From Late Registration, the “Diamonds Are Forever” remix is Kanye’s attempt to balance the fact that diamonds are a necessary component to the rap game with the reality that the diamond trade is exploiting, and murdering, poor people in third world countries. Everything that makes Kanye feel good about himself does harm to someone else around the globe. How perfect, right? How perfectly that symbolizes globalization, capitalism, and pretty much every system and structure of power governing our lives. Kanye done do it again!
“Touch the Sky”
Everybody needs one of those pump yourself up tracks. This is mine. “I gotta testify/come up in the spot looking extra fly/’Fore the day I die/I’mma touch the sky”. This is unbridled positivity from Kanye’s second studio release, and possibly the last time we see such optimism from Yeezy without a healthy dose of skepticism and alpha male strutting. Dare I go so far as to say that “Touch the Sky” reminds me a lot of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? I dare. “Take ’em back to the plan/Me and my momma hopped in the U-Haul van/Any pessimists I ain’t talk to them”. This song mostly focuses on Kanye’s early days in the rap game, coming up among a sea of non-believers. Isn’t that what it’s like to be a writer? Haven’t so many of us needed to close ourselves off from the non-believers, the haters even? Come on. COME ON. Jump on the Kanye bandwagon.
The morose synth beat of “Love Lockdown” is representative of the majority of 808’s & Heartbreak. The lyrics, like the beat, are sparse. There’s no rhyming pyrotechnics ala “Gold Digger” to be found here. Instead, Kanye funnels his pain over his failed engagement through autotune. Look at that previous sentence. He takes the most relatable and oldest of song topics–heartbreak–and runs it through a fucking machine. I know this isn’t new, that autotune and similar effects have been used a million times before, but Kanye’s entire focus on this album is the human as viewed through the digital. It’s about what feelings look like when encoded by the machine. The fact that these songs are catchy enough to actually warrant radio play on top of the digital theory masturbation is just ridiculous.
“Heard ‘Em Say”
One of the memes of Kanye’s first trio of albums–the college trilogy–is the idea that Yeezy is waking up at the beginning of each album (although, admittedly, this only holds up for Late Registration and Graduation). The version I like best is “Heard ‘Em Say” on LR. What we have here is back to basics Kanye calling out racial/class discrimination. “Before you ask me to get a job today/can I at least get a raise on a minimum wage?/And I know the government administered AIDS/So I guess we just pray like the minister say”. Late Registration dropped just a few months before Hurricane Katrina and the infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” incident. But if you already knew West blames the government for AIDS , I guess you wouldn’t be surprised by the infinitely milder Katrina claim.
Ok. I haven’t been as excited for an album as I am for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy since Weezer’s green album. And we all know how that turned out (not good). My first introduction to Yeezy’s new album, aside from the glorious “Power” and “Runaway”, came in the form of his 35-minute Runaway movie which opens with this video for “Dark Fantasy”. Oh. My. God. That chorus. That fucking chorus. What kind of rap song has a chorus like that? “I got so much head/I woke up in Sleepy Hollow”. Who combines blow job imagery with Sleepy Hollow? “She look like a fat booty Celine Dion”. What? WHAT? While drunk, I often point at people and yell this. “You got too many Urkels on your team/That’s why your wins low”. No. He did not just reference Family Matters. Fuck yeah he did, fuck yeah he did.
I want this song played at my funeral as they shoot my casket into outer space.
Kanye’s G.O.O.D Friday project delivered a lot of memorable tracks (and some duds), but none as overwhelmingly spectacular as “Monster”. “I’m living in the future so the present is my past/my presence is a present so you can kiss my ass”. Kanye’s section on the track is indicative of his post-808s work: obsessed with technology and futurism rivaling Marvel comics hero/villain Tony “Iron Man” Stark. But the real highlight comes from Nicki Minaj who absolutely murders her guest verse, dipping back and forth between her natural voice and that of her alter ego. Seriously, listen to her verse. Oh, and did I mention that the chorus involves a lion roar?
I know I’ll never be able to accurately assess what is arguably Kanye’s most popular hit, because for me, it’ll forever be intertwined with all my memories of college and all that nostalgic bullshit. What I remember most vividly is this: seeing my buddy Ian Nevans drunk out of his mind at a party screaming the lyrics to this song. Nobody else could hear the music. He was playing it on his iPod through his earbuds. There he was, forty in hand, bopping his head, singing a song only he could hear. Welcome to partying in the 21st century. Oh, and “She was supposed to buy your shorty Tyco with your money/She went to the doctor got lipo with your money/She walking around looking like Michael with your money/Should’ve got that insured/Geico for your money” is probably my favorite usage of rhyming ever.
By Graduation, Kanye had begun to consider all the options now permanently out of reach for him in the wake of unimaginable fame and money. One of those is focused on in “Homecoming”, a nostalgic remembering of an old flame from his beloved Chicago. Everybody who’s left their hometown with zero intention of ever coming back can relate to this one (“If you really cared for her/then you would’ve never hit the airport to follow your dreams”). Also, that puffy jacket Kanye wears in the music video is totally badass.
“My Way Home”
Chris Lee will probably complain about this one’s inclusion on the list because it samples Gil Scott-Heron’s ’70s soul track “Home is Where the Hatred is”. Truth is, I know nothing about jazz or soul, but I don’t care. This track is fucking awesome, and although I’ve generally really loved the way Kanye has evolved away from the more mainstream music found on his first three albums, I do miss the jazz flourishes which were so memorable on Late Registration.
On this track, Kanye West and the Game blame Ronald Reagan for killing the Black Panthers by cooking up crack. Then they talk about how George Bush gave Sadaam Hussein anthrax. I don’t think I need to say anything else about this one.
Jay-Z famously discovered Kanye West about ten years back, which made their mid-decade feud so puzzling (“I told Jay I did a song with Coldplay/Next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay/Back in my mind, I’m like damn, no way”). As we’ve all no doubt gathered from Kanye’s recent dealings with the press, Yeezy ain’t too good at apologizing. So it would have been easy to predict that West would have just splintered off from his mentor and Def Jam after their little tiff. But no. Kanye apologized via a track on Graduation. What I love about this song is how sappy it is, how obvious it is that Kanye’s realized his mistake and now knows better than to bite the hand that feeds or those who first believed in him. It’s a sign of humility. It’s a sign that despite all his claims that he’s an irredeemable asshole, there is still hope. Plus, the song starts with Kanye just yelling “Stadium Status”, and I like to do this in my own life during really mundane events like folding laundry or making dinner.
It’s not a music video, it’s a living painting. That’s Yeezy on the utterly insane music video for “Power”, his first single off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ok. Where to begin with this one? The King Crimson “21st Schizoid Man” sample? The superhero references? The haunting end where Yeezy chants “This would be a beautiful death”? No. There’s only one way to end a post about Kanye West. From the man himself:
“At the end of the day/goddamn/I’m killing this shit.”