Kanye West's Top Tracks: We Break Down The Best Song From Every One Of Kanye's Album
Fresh off the 7th anniversary of Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy", our resident hip-hop expert and all-round king, Genesis Owusu, breaks down his favourite track from each one of Kanye's albums. Check it out!
Kanye West – the self proclaimed “greatest artist of all time.” One of the most prolific architects of sound, fashion and design that modern history has birthed, and one of the most divisive figures of the 21st century. It seems like every person with access to the outside world has an opinion on Kanye West, especially Kanye West himself, as he’s conveyed on tracks such as 2016’s subtly titled, “I Love Kanye”. The spectrum seems to lack much range, with most people either identifying their feelings as a burning hatred, or an endearing love and admiration. I am unashamedly on the side of the latter.
One thing that I undoubtedly believe, is that regardless of your feelings towards Kanye West “the man”, Kanye West “the musician” is one of the most influential, ground-breaking and talented artists of our time, with one of the greatest discographies in hip-hop history. I live in Canberra, Australia; not long ago a friend and I drove to Sydney and back in a day. During our time on the road, we listened to every single solo Kanye album, front to back, top to bottom, from the 2004 breakout, The College Dropout, to 2016’s muddled masterpiece, The Life of Pablo. Now with all that West waviness still afresh in my soul, I present to you my favourite songs from every Kanye West album.
The College Dropout: Spaceship
In an era of hip-hop dominated by du rags and 50 Cents, Kanye, in classic Kanye fashion, decided to break through the seams on his debut release, with a song about disgruntledly working in a clothing store while trying to hustle a music career from scratch. “Y'all can't match my hustle…lock yourself in a room doing 5 beats a day for 3 summers,” he raps. It’s a song that just about every creative can relate to, and probably says some things we all wish we could say in these hard times: “If my manager insults me again, I will be assaulting him.” The track is buttery, guided by a soulful Marvin Gaye sample to swoon the hips and melt the heart.
Honourable mentions to Jesus Walks, one of the most pivotal tracks of West’s early career, in which he stamps his foot down in all caps in the name of his religious beliefs, and Through the Wire, a song that was one of the first glimpses into the oncoming unstoppable force that is Kanye West, as he raps with his jaw completely wired shut.
Late Registration: Touch the Sky
That glowing, triumphant Curtis Mayfield horn flip is enough to get me out of bed any morning, rain or shine. The track tastes like breakfast on your birthday and sounds like when you make a good comeback in an argument and everyone around you goes “OOOHHHH”. Touch the Sky also formally introduced the world to the man who would become the legendary, globally-renowned wordsmith, Lupe Fiasco. And can we talk about the music video real quick? Evel Kanyevel? Amazing. Fun fact: Evel Knievel actually tried to sue Kanye for that depiction, but the case was later settled – Evel Knievel confirmed unwavy. But with a cast consisting of Pamela Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Nia Long, we can’t pay attention to the negatives. As the wise Tracee Ellis Ross once said: “WHAT ABOUT DA ASSS??”
Honourable mentions to Hey Mama, a soul bearing, vulnerable track dedicated to the now late Donda West, and also all four skits just for being hilarious.
Graduation: Can’t Tell Me Nothing
If I had to choose one song that summarises Kanye West, this song would be a strong contender. The complete, relentless defiance oozes from every crevice of this track, stirred in with bleak honesty and a tumultuous self-awareness that had West acknowledging his faults, but wondering if he could ever resurge from them. In 2016, I got to perform at Groovin’ The Moo – now, I usually don’t even perform covers, but when the news spread, this one West hater, knowing of my deep Yeezy fanhood, told me “just don’t do any Kanye songs.” EXCUSE ME, WAS YOU SAYING SOMETHING? UH UH, YOU CAN’T TELL ME NOTHING. Of course I performed it.
Honourable mentions to Stronger and Good Life, two songs that catapulted Kanye into the mainstream, and Good Morning, which has served as my alarm many a time.
808s & Heartbreak: Welcome to Heartbreak
This one was a very close competition between Welcome to Heartbreak and Amazing, but unfortunately Jeezy’s feature verse took Amazing down a notch; “Standing at the podium, ’m trying to watch my sodium”…aight Jeezy.
Welcome to Heartbreak is a song that tragically depicts the unsavoury fruits of Kanye’s hard labour. His journey up until this point had been one of struggle, toiling restlessly to reach the top, only to realise how alone he is once he got there. “Dad cracked a joke, all the kids laughed, but I couldn’t hear him all the way in first class, chased the good life my whole life long, look back on my life and my life gone, where did I go wrong?” Beautifully assisted by Mr Rager himself, Kid Cudi, this song is a devastating showpiece.
Honourable mentions to Amazing (even after the Jeezy verse) – a track that details the incredible power that West holds, to the extent that he himself fears it.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Runaway
Ah, MBTDF – in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, Kanye’s magnum opus. It’s hard to think that with an album so perfect, it would be this easy for me to choose a favourite, but Runaway takes the title. This song is a 9-minute journey into the insecurities of the man with an ego of steel. Runaway floats upon heart wrenching piano keys, stabbing orchestral string sections and blaring Rick James samples that can only be visualised through tears, Picasso artworks and ballet dancers in black tutus.
Even the GOOD Music golden child, Pusha T, slides in for a decadent and cold-hearted verse to cool down the emotional firestorm. The last 3 minutes of this song is dominated by cascading strings and a distorted, mainly inaudible Kanye vocal, which evokes the same emotion as a wailing Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. If I’m in the car and I tell you to play Runaway, don’t even THINK about putting on the 4-minute version. We’re playing the WHOLE song, distorted gibberish and all.
Honourable mentions to literally every other song on this album.
Watch The Throne: Murder to Excellence
Note: due to copyright restrictions we can't give ya all the track to listen to, but believe us..it's f*cking tight.
This Jay Z collaboration harshly details the spectrum of the black experience in American society. The song is broken into two parts, “Murder” and “Excellence”; these two sections starkly contrast each other, but also cleverly serve as a flowing sequence of events in the lives of Kanye and Jay Z, as they are raised in the circumstances of Murder and grow to push themselves into Excellence. “And I’m from the murder capital where they murder for capital,” Kanye raps, in reference to his hometown of Chicago – “314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago.” Producer Swizz Beatz twisted a sample from dance-pop track “La La La” by Indiggo Twins and managed to turn it into a bellowing statement of black circumstance.
Honourable mentions to No Church in the Wild, a menacing Frank Ocean-assisted track, and Ni**as in Paris for its sheer brashness in its interjection of the N word into suburban discussion. When I went to the Yeezus Tour in 2013, he performed that song 3 times and Blood on the Leaves twice. Amazing.
Cruel Summer: Mercy
A banger in the most overlooked of Kanye related albums, but a banger nevertheless. We’ve seen countless money and sex fuelled braggadocio anthems in our time, but the thing that drives this song to the highest of pedestals is the sample. That damn sample. It is a weeping and a moaning and a gnashing of teeth. The inclusion of this vocal sample from Super Beagle’s reggae jam “Dust a Sound Boy” turns this song from a typical club hit into a Basquiat painting. Confronting, confusing, unsettling and beautiful in its own unique way. And then of course there’s the unmistakable “2 CHAAAINZ” adlib that obviously skyrockets the track onto another level.
Honourable mentions to Don’t Like for propelling Chief Keef onto another level of stardom, and subsequently influencing a whole new wave of artists.
Yeezus: Black Skinhead
Minimalistic, industrial, frustrated and evocative. The Daft Punk co-produced track is almost neo-tribal with its banging, hollow percussion. Kanye takes aim at the establishment with extremely direct lyricism, and once again notes his defiance to society’s more unsavoury norms. “They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor, they gone come to kill King Kong.” The imagery is purposefully confronting and challenging, with scattered breaths pressed throughout the track to bring out a state of emergency and wariness. The song is a grim, powerful and unapologetic anthem.
Honourable mentions to Blood on the Leaves for the impeccable Nina Simone sample.
The Life of Pablo: Ultralight Beam
We don’t want no devils in the house, God. I wish I could listen to this song for the first time again. I remember when TLOP came out; I went to listen to the whole album and got stuck on this one song for 40 minutes. The production is bare, only existing to give a skeleton to the heart, mind and beautiful soul that that takes form as the performers on the track. This song essentially takes the formula of the Cruel Summer album – it’s presented by Kanye, but its form gives the strongest shine to everyone else; and oh, do they shine.
The power of the choir is ground shaking and mountain moving if we want to get biblical. Kelly Price and The-Dream deliver some gorgeously moving vocals that make me want to scream “YES LAWD” like Anderson .Paak. And the Chance the Rapper verse – good Lord, that verse. That verse is the equivalent of the final scene in every inspirational underdog movie, when they finally realise that the little guy isn’t so useless after all. The type of verse that has me standing up and clapping to no one because I’m listening through earphones. The type of verse to make me yell “that’s my boy,” even though I’ve never met Chance before in my life. Even those with no religious bearing at all should be able to recognise the immense beauty of this song.
Honourable mentions to Siiiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission for making it onto the album despite its only purpose for existing being to spite Wiz Khalifa.