Today is Kanye West’s 40th birthday and rather than get Kanye a cake or a pair of extremely expensive sneakers, we here at Boss Hunting decided to celebrate Kanye in the only way we know how, by assessing the greatness of his music.
Don’t expect any mention of that weird Nike diss track or whatever “I am a God” was. No we’re gonna be focusing on the greatness of Kanye. Of course this is only one list and we can’t possibly do every great track justice, but here’s what we ended up with.
Honourable Mentions: Famous, Waves, Lost in the World, Stronger, FourFive Seconds, N***as in Paris, Heartless, I Love Kanye.
Lost in the World, FourFive Seconds and N***as in Paris all get disqualified from the list on the basis that they can’t be entirely classified as ‘Kanye’ songs. Although his collab with Jay-Z is still very much in his style, all of the songs in the top ten come from places that are very recognisably Kanye. Famous gets a mention not only for being a good track, but also for the impact it made on the pop-culture world.
Waves is also an underrated banger, although some of us would’ve liked the final version to sound like how it was initially pitched by Chance the Rapper. Heartless and Stronger also get a mention due to it’s noritory amongst more casual fans of Kanye. I Love Kanye is the best skit on any of his albums and is on here for one reason. It’s funny. It’s quirky. It’s so Kanye.
This section alone could warrant it’s own tribute, with Kanye producing great songs far beyond a ten count. However, here is a carefully considered and likely highly controversial list of the top 10 Kanye West tracks of all time.
10 - Gold Digger → Late Registration (2005)
Possibly Kanye’s most widely popular song, ‘Gold Digger’ became a permanent fixture in clubs around the world due to its eccentric vibe and fun flavour. One should be careful however to fully discount the quality of the track. Even the first thirty seconds are packed with sounds that defined an era in music.
Jamie Foxx’s voice in this track is iconic, leading to a hard breakdown and the introduction of one of the most famous hooks in all of hip-hop. “I ain’t sayin she a gold digger/ but she ain’t mess’n with no broke n****s” is one of the most recognisable hooks in the modern era of hip hop.
The beat stays consistently upbeat, forcing even the most fridget of listeners to at least tap a foot or bob a head. The song reaches out of the bounds of just the rap game and has the widespread pop appeal that few rap songs were able to have before that time.
While Kanye brings the lyrical heat, there are songs that are significantly more intriguing in manner senses. While this song has gained international popularity and acclaim due to it’s accessible greatness, it fails in some respects to do justice to the type of work Kanye is capable of. For this reason, a ranking in the top ten is more than enough to recognise Kanye’s most famous track.
9 - Love Lockdown → 808s and Heartbreaks (2008)
Ah so we come to the heartbreaking love ballad. A story about the conflict between fame and love. The lyrics of this song are less of a concern here, as nothing blows you away in this regard. No immaculate or majestic stage is set by anything that the vocals say. What makes this song so great is that it relies entirely on the way that the instrumentals work so beautifully together to provoke such deep feelings on the listener's part.
Rather it’s the slow burn and build that transpires throughout the song. The deep bass drums that belt out from the beginning are so deep it feels like someone is drumming your soul. You can just focus on those drums tapping in your chest. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. It’s the consistent beat that dominates the song and helps define it. Slowly Kanye adds layers of instruments on top, slowly, until one is totally submerged in the very simple message of Kanye’s heartbreak.
Then the outro. No spoken word just a deep forest sounds that build the song to it’s final climax before being striped away to that all too familiar beat from the intro.
8 - Jesus Walks → College Dropout (2004)
Young Kanye lays down some bars in this one. The whole song relies almost entirely on two pillars.
The first, the context to religion and christianity. This shows in the overall tone of the track, with the back up vocals all having a distinct church group style. This juxtaposed with the preaching manner in which Kanye is actually rapping creates a sense that you’re engulfed in a sermon on the Mount of Yeezus.
The second is Kanye coming at everybody trying to make a name for himself.
"You know what the Midwest is? Young and restless
Where restless (niggas) might snatch your necklace
And next these (niggas) might jack your Lexus
Somebody tell these (niggas) who Kanye West is."
It’s worth noting this is off Kanye’s first album. He’s basically introducing himself to the audience that tells them one very clear message. My name is Kanye, I’m from the city of Chicago and I’m a badass.
7 - Black Skinhead→ Yeezus (2013)
Gritty Kanye is a good Kanye.
This is Kanye’s best gritty song. When the career retrospective is written on Kanye West it’ll say many a thing. It’ll recount a polarising relationship with she who shall not be named, a beef with Taylor Swift and most prominently of all it will mention that Kanye pioneered a style that was adopted by rappers like Chance.
However this is the black box for Kanye’s influence on a harder and more experimental form of rap music.
As he mentions in the song about going 500mph and being out of control. It’s a direct fuck you to everyone on the outside. The public, the media, the scrutiny, all of it.
It’s the Kardashian era Kanye mission statement. I’m going to do whatever I want to do, make whatever music I want and do it whenever I want to do it.
6 - Hey Mama → Late Registration (2005)
This is some great early Kanye. Just simple story telling over a cool beat with some fun lyricism. It’s the kind of song you play when you’re just hanging out with your friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon enjoying the sunshine.
There’s not a lot to hate about this song. It’s an upbeat tribute from a wildly successful son to the mother that helped him on his road to stardom. Even hook is loveable.
"(Hey Mama), I wanna scream so loud for you, cause I'm so proud of you
Let me tell you what I'm about to do, (Hey Mama)
I know I act a fool but, I promise you I'm goin back to school
I appreciate what you allowed for me
I just want you to be proud of me (Hey Mama)"
Deep down inside we all wish we could just straight up shout out our awesome mothers in song and actually pull it off. So for being a fun, well constructed and never boring display by a loud and proud mama’s boy, Hey Mama pulls a sweet sixth spot.
5 - Blood On Leaves → Yeezus (2013)
Blood on Leaves is dark, hard and gritty.
The sample of Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’ over piano keys to intro the song immediately catches attention before Kanye is even able to spit a line. The repetition of the phrase “blood on leaves” is a staple of the track, and if one wants to truly appreciate the depth of this song, they should check out the original song itself.
This is one of Kanye’s more undeniably provocative tracks. From referencing lynchings in the south during the late 1800s to calling out Instagram frauds, Kanye covers a very broad range of sensitive social issues whilst remaining aggressive throughout. The use of the song ‘Strange Fruit’ as a sample holds a lot of weight in this sense politically. It’s not trying to be a party banger, nor is it a song built for the radio. It’s a track that’s meant to make you think about the world. Usually when artists (and Kanye is guilty of this too) try and do this kind of commentary, they can miss the point entirely, seeming to lecture more than provoke.
This is not the case with Blood on Leaves.
4 - Dark Fantasy → My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Doing this list, however you cut it, teaches you something. Kanye has made some really fucking great music in his career.
With that explicitly stated, we have Dark Fantasy. The fact is that this ranking might not do this song justice. It has all the great aspects of an all-time great Kanye track.
The intro feels like a kids story turned dark right at the end. The hook is amazingly done, providing insight into the way Ye sees himself. The top, better yet, the very top. He’s actually asking if it actually gets any higher than where he is. All performed with beautiful vocals that seem more heavenly than arrogant.
Then Kanye spits bars on bars on bars on top of a very old school rap beat. Just Kanye performing some verbal acrobatics in a way that resonates with hip-hop fans of any era. It’s this kind of performing that puts him all-time lists with other great pure rappers like Nas.
The fact is that this track would be number one a lot of lists if it were made by another artist. But alas, Kanye’s discography is a lot like the 2017 Golden State Warriors. Three can only be three in a Big Three. Sorry Klay Thompson, and sorry Dark Fantasy.
3 - Touch the Sky → Late Registration (2005)
Along with the aforementioned Gold Digger and Jesus Walks, this song is among Kanye’s most famous. Like the others, it grabs your attention from the start, giving you only four small beats to prepare for a vibrant experience blossoming with energy and optimism.
The reason this song gets a higher place on this list is the incredible interaction between the orchestra, Kanye’s choice of tone and even a strong Lupe Fiasco feature. Kanye also puts forth one of his stronger performances from a verbal gymnastics perspectives. Some Kanye songs you can kind of keep up with lyrically. Other than the chorus, anything Kanye vocalises on this track is pretty tough to follow for longer than a few seconds.
For being a nice blend between mainstream hit, pure rap skill and that dash of Kanye flavour, Touch The Sky opens up the top three.
2 - Runaway → My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Runaway will certainly be one of Kanye’s greatest career accomplishments. The opening piano keys are hauntingly beautiful, consuming the listener with confusing but real emotions from the very beginning. It’s the anticipation that get’s you, like in a horror film when you're waiting for the jump scare. Then the different note rings in you ear and you feel it. That’s just the first twenty seconds of a nine minute emotional odyssey.
The song sends chills down your spine from the start and is best consumed in a dark room with your eyes closed. It’s what Kanye West does better than many artists in history. Then the song actually starts and it has an effect, a personal one at that.
Kanye is unravelling himself in song. He acknowledges his arrogance, the fact that he is not perfect whilst also admitting himself to be a perfectionist. It’s a raw self reflection where it seems that Ye struggles both with a pursuit of perfection in his life but also knows ultimately that nothing can remain totally without flaw forever.
It’s Kanye’s perception on the fleeting nature of beauty and love. It feels so intimate all the way through, the kind of connection the song makes is the kind you only experience sparingly in life.
Then there’s the outro. An over three minute voyage. Just auto tuned and indecipherable vocals over the haunting but classically beautiful instrumentals. Much in the way one can become entranced with the mystery of a Frank Ocean track, the outro provides and incredible conclusion to a perfect song.
1 - Ultralight Beam → The Life of Pablo (2016)
There are some great tracks that have been discussed in this piece and even more that didn’t even get a honorable mention. Some club bangers. Some heartfelt ballads. Some joyous proclamations of the joy of life. Some angry protests. With the close study of every track and skit on every album Ye has ever released, there is an undeniable truth.
Ultralight Beam is the greatest track Kanye West has ever made.
I understand the opposing argument. The Life of Pablo as an album has many flaws. The Kanye you get in TLOP overall is not the best Kanye we have ever been fortunate to experience. No song on that album had the mainstream acclaim of other songs. Nor did it universally get approved by every diehard hip-hop fan. TLOP is an average Kanye West album, mainly because it has too many songs that feel like filler. Whilst I don’t agree with all these assertions, I do understand them.
But none of those arguments have anything to do with Ultralight Beam.
It feels heavenly, divine, omnipotent and enlightening. I still remember driving around with my sister when I first heard it. My heart melted with the transition from the girl talking about God to those incredible chords and vocals. The instrumentals are insane, undeniably some of Kanye’s best producing work.
Then the choir hits. The choir is beautiful. The choir is exactly what it says it is. A god dream.
A deep beat, soul melting chords and an inspiring choir all collide to touch a very sensitive part of your very being you never knew. Kelly Price’s voice is the definition of musical beauty. All of this all time great Kanye work builds to what clinches the title for best Kanye track. The best verse of 2016 performed by Chance the Rapper. There’s too much about this verse that is great to limit it to one part. The song built perfectly to that voice, with those words over that beat.
If you’re still not totally convinced, listen to the last twenty seconds of that song a few times. Listen to it from beginning to end by yourself and really listen. That build over a song to the incredibly beautiful ending is what Kanye has thrived on his whole career. This is his greatest example of it.
It’s okay to disagree. The denial is expected. I sought out another answer. A great spiritual journey was undertaken. Many a possibility pondered. But in the end, there can only be one.