Words: Dylan Murphy
Buckle yourself in, we’ve tackled the catalogue of the most controversial artist of the modern era, in order to crown his greatest song. Heading from 50 to 1 we’ve ranked the essential tracks in Kanye West’s discography.
Traitor, genius or provocateur, whatever your view is on Kanye West his influence on popular culture and music as we know it is undeniable.
Yeezy’s catalogue is the envy of just about any living artist. He’s maintained the rare status of being both a mainstream icon and experimental musician and more impressively he has done it on his own terms.
Moving from obsessive beatmaker to avant-guard polymath, Ye’s penchant for exploring unchartered waters has broken ground not only in the world of hip hop but music more generally.
Putting together a comprehensive list of the top 50 songs by Kanye is no easy feat. His discography spans decades, his various albums represent distinct moments in time and introduce different eras in the Chicago artist’s career. It’s difficult to compare songs in a vacuum and each entry is there on its own merit, whether that be its wider influence, technical prowess or quite often how hard it goes. Countless hours went into compiling this list and like any piece of this nature it’s likely to divide opinion, especially given the time and memories people associate with his most powerful works.
And really, that’s the essence of what makes people gravitate towards Ye. He’s one of music’s great disrupters.
The irony of the hook from a song about addiction burying its way in my head is not lost on me. Another example of Ye’s expert sample selection, using a part from Etta James’ version of ‘My Funny Valentine’ feels especially apt given James’ struggle to overcome various addictions, including cocaine and heroin.
A hugely cinematic opening to a collaborative album of gigantic proportions. A fresh-faced Frank Ocean holds it down on the hook on a track that explores life’s biggest questions.
Drawing parallels between the rise in popularity of hip hop music in America and the crack cocaine epidemic Kanye makes a slew of incredibly striking observations and clever play on words, using the song as the glue to hold together his family’s history and that of black America.
Part of the later scraped So Help Me God, Kanye debuted ‘All Day’ at the BRIT Awards back in 2015 and simultaneously co-signed the remerging grime scene, with a huge cohort of MCs lined up behind him as fire sprayed across the contours of the shot.
The otherworldly bass is something to behold, a must add to any gym playlist.
A love letter to Chicago and a collaboration with one of the world’s biggest pop stars, ‘Homecoming’ was conceived after a chance encounter on a plane betweenn Ye and Chris Martin. The anthemic hook and uplifting keys hit different.
Evoking pseudo-religious imagery of Mary and Joseph meeting in a club before they conceived Christ is very on brand for Kanye. Bonus points for the gorgeous sample that has a wolf howling at the moon.
Though it’s rare Kanye is upstaged on his own tracks, 070 Shake steals the show with her spellbinding melodies on ‘Ghost Town’ – “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free”.
The emotional peak of the song is genuinely transcendent moment that lands amongst Kid Cudi contributions, gospel and rock samples and highlights Ye’s ability to piece together disparate components into a powerful cut.
Buttery smooth and sensual, Kanye joined forces with fellow Chi Town native Twista and mutli-hypenate Jamie Foxx for one of the most overlooked songs in his huge back catalogue. Twista slices through the bubbly soul samples with more syllables in five minutes than a speed auctioneer on adderall.
‘Real Friends’ speaks to the paranoia of stratospheric superstardom. In typically Kanye fashion he casually lifts a story from his own life, as he details even his own family are willing to sell him out for money.
“I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fucking bitches on”.
Everyone loves a good come-up story. Listening to Kanye’s escapist anthem ‘Spaceship‘ with a retrospective lens makes his journey even more compelling. Going from complaining about his manager at GAP giving him shit to having a collection with GAP is a flex if I ever saw one.
If you’ve ever felt tired, and disillusioned by the grind, ‘Spaceship’ is the kind of track you light one up to after a graveyard shift. Though take it all in, there’s hope in the track’s bigger picture.
Given the serene vocals from John Legend, the subsequent emotionally volatile verse midway through ‘Blame Game’ from Kanye feels extra potent. Panning from left to right it accentuates the disorientating back and forth and captures the ups and downs of a toxic relationship.
The songwriting and composition is so on point that in a matter of seconds we’re pulled into Kanye’s inner psyche before becoming a fly on the wall with the end compromising of a very on-brand skit. All without breaking a sweat.
‘Saint Pablo‘ highlights there’s power in humanity. Like Eminem’s last verse in the 8 Mile rap battle, when you put all your cards on the table there’s not much else that can be pinned against you.
Adding the track to TLOP after its release and giving a nod to ‘We Don’t Care‘ from The College Dropout in the lyrics “I wasn’t supposed to make it past 25” simultaneously made history in a song that celebrated his own.
The holy grail of braggadocios crew cuts, ‘Mercy’s careful concoction of cars, chains and beautiful women raises itself from the depths of hell (Well, it is a weepin’ and a moanin’ and a gnashin’ of teeth, It is a weepin’ and a mournin’ and a gnashin’ of teeth) before Yeezy rides the crescendo to pearly gates.
Lesser beings would be swallowed by the huge instrumental, but the line up of heavy-hitters do it justice.
Sometimes less is more and the simplicity of the piano chord being played on ‘Go Slow’ is oddly hypnotic. Teeing up ‘My Way Home’ on Late Registration it’s a perfect entrée of familiar and more predictable sounds that is great for putting the breaks on a busy mind.
Misery never sounded so sugar sweet. Trying to fill the void in his life by indulging in consumerism is a common through-line in Ye’s discography and his first official collaboration with Kid Cudi set the wheels in motion fo a beautiful relationship.
The scope of West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can’t be understated. Revolutionising hip hop, it pulls from myriad of genres and invites numerous guests into a seamless composition that somehow manages to feel greater than the sum of its (legendary) parts.
Inviting frequent collaborator Kid Cud and enlisting the help of iconic MC Raekwon on ‘Gorgeous’, it injects a bluesy guitar rift before Kanye in the most Kanye-like fashion compares his ostracisation to that of Malcolm X. The start of his “road to redemption” it’s both an integral part of the album’s narrative arc following the VMA fallout with Taylor Swift and a signpost towards the more ambitious sounds of the album.
A shoe-in for wearing the crown of Kanye’s most controversial track, ‘Famous‘ is provocative, hard and at times uncomfortable.
Through a back and forth and leaked phone call footage it first appeared Kanye had permission to mention Taylor Swift’s name in the song, but following clarification from Taylor she never authorised calling her a “bitch”, a move which was widely condemned.
Sonically-speaking the move between mechanical hard hitting percussion to a gorgeous Sister Nancy sample flip is spell-binding and coupled with Rihanna vocals the track’s quality is inarguable.
At its best, it’s a magnificent piece of art that wrestles with ideas of celebrity and fame, but at its worst it sees Kanye steeping himself in misogyny. It is the song that perhaps best personifies the caveats that punctuate his career.
In ‘On Sight’ Kanye might as well be wearing a massive “I don’t give a fuck sign”.
Always the provocateur, Ye inserts a brief vocal cut from a choir that harks back to his more soulful albums before pulling the rug from underneath our feet and diving headfirst into the glitchy and distorted world of Yeezus. This is Kanye literally and figuratively brushing aside any expectations of what he should be doing, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the music is so good that you have no option but to surrender to it.
“How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up”.
You ever wondering what opening the curtains to the sun splitting the clouds after a cold hard winter sounds like then look no further.
I mean, yeah there subject matter is about reconciliation and feeling on cloud nine with your significant other, but really the reason the song is so widely cherished is the pure euphoria it emits and the iconic lyrics it contains:
Now, if I fuck this model
And she just bleached her asshole
And I get bleach on my T-shirt
I’ma feel like an asshole
Poetry in motion.
An unlikely trifecta, Kanye taps up Chicago drill upstart Chief Keef and Justin Vernon to croon over the intoxicating synths and sirens of ‘Hold My Liquor’. It’s rare synthetic sounds hold such emotive and human qualities.
The like/dislike bar on Youtube is teetering on capsizing on the wrong side for Kanye, but despite the criticism of the video for ‘Bound 2′ it marked a return to his classic soul sampled goodness on an album characterized by industrial noise. Additionally, it is absolutely littered with Kanyisms:
“I wanna fuck you hard on the sink
After that, give you somethin’ to drink
Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink”
“So hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas
She asked me what I wished for on my wishlist
Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?”
Kanye has a knack for making us hear words that aren’t there. If you listen carefully Kanye manipulates the Arthur Russell sample from ‘Answer Me’ so that the words “Where the islands go” sound like “30 hours”. Remarkable stuff. It’s not the first time he’s done it either, as he played with the sounds and phonetics of Chaka Khan’s ‘Through The Fire’ for ‘Through The Wire’ (But more on that later).
Spitting at the casual pace of someone ordering a pizza, Ye sees his past relationship through a retrospective lens and is able to land some pretty potent observations. Lines like “You was the best of all time at the time though” show how infinite love can feel at the time whereas lines like “I guess a blow job is better than no job” and “My ex says she gave me the best years of her life I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right” ground the more considered thoughts in that trademark Kanye humour.
Couple all this with the celestial production on show and it’s a winning combination.
An unwavering through-line in the chaotic, bewildering and unpredictable career of Kanye West is his unwavering love for his late mother Donda West. Having passed away unexpectantly through complications with cosmetic surgery, the ode to his mentor best friend and the woman who raised him feels even more potent.
Kanye is undoubtedly one of the most polarising figures in the music industry. Whether it be through his recent political leanings or his increasing wealth making him more unrelatable, it could be argued many of his songs no longer hold the weight they once did. However, ‘Hey Mama’ cuts to the core of a man who wants to express his love for his mum and no rogue tweet, messy divorce or unwarranted comment will change that.
Get in your feels and watch him sing it live with his mother present.
Feeling like a tornado of emotions, the seismic and all-engulfing production ‘Coldest Winter’ is a cinematic exercise in grief. Having lost his mother and broken up with his fiancé of two years, it’s safe to say Ye was going through it when he penned his goodbyes.
Usually so confident, there’s no reassurance to be found in the bleak soundscapes, Coldest Winter’ is Ye’s previously impermeable armour beginning to crack in a sign of humanity.
A sensual house sample, stunning choreography (big up Teyana Taylor) and bass line to end all bass lines, ‘Fade’ is the coalescence of different approaches into what is a larger than life song that lives beyond the confines of streaming services.
While the creation and execution of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an exercise in redemption for Kanye following the VMA Awards controversy with Taylor Swift, Kids See Ghosts was the project that saw Kid Cudi rise from the ashes of his own despair. Having missed the mark with a number of albums previous and having struggled with addiction to drugs, Ye and Cudi’s re-emerged as a duo and that swept aside bravado and bullshit in their search for inner peace.
Reborn is the spiritual reincarnation of an artist and a song that’s highs are indebted to the unshakeable bond of a ten year friendship. Try not feel emotional when Cudi’s hum kicks in, I dare you.
If Kanye is known for his brash, fog-horn rap anthems, then ‘Heard ‘Em Say’ is his lullaby-esque slice of quiet heaven. Beautifully simple and sincere, the combination of twinkling keys and a capitulation to societal ills result in a bittersweet masterpiece.
Speaking to Montreality about how the song came about Adam Levine said, “We were on a flight to the EMAs in Italy, at the time, he was on the same plane. I don’t think we had met him yet. We were literally sitting there and he came up to me with his iPod or whatever it was at the time. He was like, ‘Yo, man. How are you doing? I’m Kanye.’ He was just getting big too. And he played me this record. Like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this record. Do you want to write a song together?’ On a plane. You know? And I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And that was it. The next thing I knew we were in the studio making the record and it was that easy.”
Everybody views art through their own unique prism. Whether you interpret ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ as a self-aware anthem poking fun at the delusions of grandeur money brings or you just see it as a pump-up anthem from one of music’s most self-absorbed icons, there’s no denying the unavoidable power in the song.
Conjuring up the most no-fucks-given imagery with the line “So I parallel double parked that motherfucker sideways” and coming through with an opening line that’d forever frequent fuck-boy Instagram captions, the one-liners land with more punch than Pro vs Celebrity boxing match.
You don’t really need to have much of an imagination to understand why a track produced by Madlib featuring verses from two of the greatest artists of all time makes the list. In all honestly, even with all the pedrigree on show, it still feels overlooked. There’s something about the pair trading verses that feels like two olympic sprinters constantly nosing infront of each other in a hip hop battle royale.
History will tell you that supergroups often fall at the first hurdle. Often, too many cooks spoil the broth, egos get in the way and frequently frankensteined collaborations come out sounding like a clunky, market-researched project.
However, what Kanye managed to orchestrate on ‘All Of The Lights’ is nothing short of a monumental moment in hip hop history. Featuring contributions from FOURTEEN different artists, the track not only manages to bring together some of the most celebrated artists on the planet from a myriad of genres seamlessly onto a single track but it manages to give it the grandiose atmospheric qualities a line up of this quality deserves.
The opening interlude’s use of cello is the perfect introduction to the dark exploration of his public facing mishaps which are put into full focus by the intoxicating and blinding lights that he fails to escape from.
You can’t tell me you don’t feel ready to take on the world when the horns kick in.
For anyone wondering, the fourteen artists on the single are Alicia Keys, John Legend, The-Dream, Drake, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Ryan Leslie, Charlie, Tony Williams, La Roux, Alvin Fields, Ken Lewis and Rihanna.
Let’s be honest, ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is full of caveats and contradictions.
Given Kanye’s comments about slavery since its release and his support of Donald Trump, his use of a sample from one of America’s most potent protest songs to tell a story about love leaves a lot of people feeling uneasy.
However, it’s hard to deny the power of the soaring melodies and punch of the record’s distorted peaks.
In the social media era ‘The New Workout Plan’ is more relevant than ever.
The video is among his best and his satirical take on the workout tapes of the day shines a light on the ridiculous standards women are expected to attain. Plus that hook and vocoder outro is *chef’s kiss*.
Using three samples from Smokey Robinson’s ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow‘, the beat on ‘Devil In A New Dress’ is masterful and notably, it’s the only track on the album that Kanye doesn’t have a producer credit on.
The tasteful sample and classy bassline from Mike Dean form a beautiful marriage of convenience with the thematic queues taken from the original Smokey Robinson song which questions the genuineness of a love interest’s intentions. While the instrumental sounds like life on cloud nine, Ross’s verse, which is arguably his best guest feature and Kanye fleeting words about his ‘sin-sation’ throw up a type of uncertainty that’s now a staple of dating apps.
An iconic video that touches of everything from Afro-pop to autotuned melodies, ‘Love Lockdown’ is a time machine that gave the unknowing public a brief glimpse into the future. Part of an album that helped instigate the melodic brand of hip hop common today, it’s worth highlighting the vulnerability on display in an era where emotional repression in rap was the norm.
What makes it all the more impressive is the ability to bring many of these left-field elements together into a mainstream cut.
While Jay-Z may sound like he’s rattling off a list for Halloween costumes on ‘Monster’ Nicki Minaj introduced herself as a global force on the track from Ye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. A verse so good that Kanye admitted he nearly had it removed because he didn’t want to be roasted on his own song.
The world is a better place with the track, one that will go down as one of the hardest posse cuts of the new millennia.
Foreshadowed by projections of his face on the sides of buildings all around the world, ‘New Slaves’ marked a new era for Kanye.
Whilst Kanye had always been concerned with pushing the envelope, before the release of Yeezus he had not done it at the cost of commercial viability. Even the unchartered waters of 808s & Heartbreaks had mainstream appeal, but when he debuted ‘New Slaves’ on SNL in 2013 with its jarring synths and unapologetic lyrics about the prison-industrial complex it was clear it wasn’t designed for the charts.
Sharing DNA with the dystopian landscapes of Kraftwerk and the industrial barrage of Death Grips it cemented West’s dedication to taking to path-less-travelled in pursuit of boundary breaking records.
There’s a sense of anticipation and curiosity that’s built from the moment those youthful vocals fade to obscurity and a metallic-like synth raises its head. At the time, ‘Ultralight Beam’ felt like a passing of the torch from one Chi Town native to another. Chance The Rapper simply bodied the feature with his jaw-dropping verse stunning a live audience on SNL during its live debut back in 2016.
We can’t forget the conception of the iconic line “I met Kanye West I’m never going to fail” in what is in earnest a gospel song that had secularists screaming out the lord’s name across the world a la ‘Jesus Walks’.
There’s an art to sampling and any producer worth their salt knows going near cult sounds is a risky game. If you get it wrong it’ll sound corny and derivative, but if you strike the balance and get it right you’ll grant people permission to reimagine familiar motifs and mould pop culture on your own terms.
Chopping up the theme to the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever was a brave move on Ye’s part, but that Shirly Bassey sample has the cinematic sauce to form the bedrock of a song that’s core message was driven home by equally emphatic rapping.
12 times. They played this song 12 times in a row in Paris.
Part of what made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so groundbreaking was its ability to stay true to the key tenets of hip hop whilst simultaneously innovating. Flipping a prog-rock sample from King Crimson and adding claps from Afromerica’s ‘Continent n° 6’ maintained the age-old approach of sampling but swapped Kanye’s trusty soul-indebted cuts for a borderless stadium rock sound.
“I was the abomination of Obama’s nation”, is a line that felt as earth-shattering as the booming production on hearing it the first time as a kid.
Speaking on Ustream about the track Kanye said, “When I think of competition it’s like I try to create against the past. I think about Michelangelo, Picasso, the pyramids. That’s the reason why I put 5,000 hours into a song like ‘Power.’”
A moment of silence for the pure soul in Jamie Foxx’s voice on ‘Gold Digger’.
The track is Kanye’s rise to superstardom personified. After seeing Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, West invited Foxx to sing an interpolation of Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’ on the track that was serendipitously crafted before the release of the film. It proved a masterstroke and it became Kanye’s first number one record on the Billboard charts.
A hugely important crossover moment for Ye, it remains one of his most well known tracks to date and if you are like me you’ll have to wrestle with every fibre of your being to not shout “we want prenup!” every time the song gets cranked up.
808s and Heartbreaks divided opinion as cleanly as Moses parted the Red Sea. The sparse and cold approach to crafting his lovesick melodic world had old heads, used to warm and vibrant beats and intricate wordplay turning up their noses. Meanwhile, it inspired a new school of artists to take the sound and run.
‘Heartless’ is Kanye on the precipice of being swallowed by his unrequited love and is the emotional peak of that newly developed sound.
“In the night I hear them talk, the coldest story ever told, somewhere far along this road he lost his soul to a woman so heartless”.
At this point, I’m running out of ways to say “Kanye was involved in controversy” but having been sued by Evel Knieval for the video for ‘Touch The Sky’ you’ll be relieved to know Evel called him “quite a gentleman” when the pair made amends. A rare moment in Ye’s career that lacked a dramatic boiling point.
No matter how Kanye’s sound evolved over the years, his early work’s commitment to soul samples remains timeless. ‘Touch The Sky’ is just one of those songs you can’t not scrunch your face up at. If there was ever a musical substitution for dopamine then this is as close as Ye gets. For many, it was also an introduction to Lupe Fiasco who would also go on to today the revered Food & Liquor. For Kanye, being the forth single from his sophomore album it marked the move towards superstardom.
Visceral, unrelenting and rebellious, ‘Black Skinhead’ is Kanye in full flight – “I’m doing 500, I’m outta control (Now)
But there’s nowhere to go (Now) And there’s no way to slow (Down)”.
West is done with white corporate America and flips the imagery of white, racist skinheads on their head with the song title before going for broke with claustrophobic and tribal percussion. Co-produced by Daft Punk, the all-enveloping sounds of the record are trance-inducing.
If you apply the lyrics “If I talk about god my record won’t get played” to Kanye’s gospel album Jesus Is King it makes sense, but in 2004 the Chicago spitter had clubs across the country marching to ‘Jesus Walks’. Its claustrophobic coos and militant drums set the scene perfectly for what is his most potent sermon.
Amongst his freewheeling rants, arrogance and self-flagellation there’s a sense (until recently perhaps) that Kanye is aware of his flaws and throughout his work, he’s taken rare moments to ground himself in amongst the chaos. An adaptation of Def Jam poetry slam performance of a piece called ‘Self-Conscious’, ‘All Falls Down’ sees Ye embrace his vulnerabilities and uses them as a lens to understand the pressure of capitalist America.
Confessing to his own battle with consumerism, Ye immediately humanises the issue and uses a first-person perspective in the video to accentuate this approach. The moment Kanye goes through the X-Ray machine in the video highlights beneath the surface he is just like anyone else and coupled with honest examinations in the reflection of a car window and the bathroom mirror, there’s an endearing level of self-assessment going on.
Additionally the clever one-liners like “Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis” remain timeless. Throw in an interpolation from Lauryn Hill’s line from ‘The Mystery of Iniquity‘ in Syleena Johnson’s chorus and we’ve the ingredients for a classic.
In a year where the Pain White Ts, Gym Class Heroes and The Fray were all some of the Billboard Charts highest selling artists, ‘Flashing Lights’ is testament to the grander vision of the Chi Town native.
A timeless anthem, the intersection of orchestral sounds, glamorous visuals and spacier synths (that can still remain popular to this day in the astral sounds of Lil Uzi Vert), feels like Kanye crossing a bridge from popular rapper to cultural icon. A move he made on his own terms.
The cultural impact of ‘Stronger’ really cannot be underestimated. Its the song that caused an endemic of shutter shades at underage discos and had teens across the world huddling in school yards to send each other the robotic hit by infrared.
Following a tour with U2, Kanye saw the reaction their music got in arenas packed with tens of thousands of fans and wanted to make an album that had tracks that would rock full stadiums. In ‘Stronger‘ he found his one-way ticket to Mexican waves and overpriced hotdog stands.
In a stroke of robotic, pop genius Ye sampled Daft Punk and cemented his spot as a genuine icon.
The story behind ‘Through The Wire‘ alone is enough to catapult it up the list. Before Ye was the solo artist and global phenomenon we know today, he had built his name as a talented producer. Not satisfied with remaining behind the board he managed to secure a deal as a rapper and producer with Rockafella, but from the label’s perspective, they were more concerned with securing his services as a producer and had little intention to push him as a solo artist.
In 2002 he was working as a producer for the Black Eyed Peas and fell asleep at the wheel and drove into another car, breaking his jaw in three places and fracturing his nose before going through reconstructive surgery. When he returned from the hospital to his hotel room with his jaw wired shut he recorded what would be his break out single.
Built on a sample of Chaka Khan’s ‘Through The Fire’ Kanye’s genius flip has the listener hearing “through the wire” to nod towards the near-death experience that ended up inspiring one of the most successful music careers of all time. A song in defiance of the industry that didn’t want him and the adversity that threatened to halt his journey before it started the intro provides the mission statement that would be the lynchpin of Kanye’s discography, “Yo, Gee, they can’t stop me from rappin’, can they?”.
A hero/ anti-hero origin story depending how you see it.
The emotional centre-piece of one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, a technically stunning nine-minute magnum opus that sees the arrogance, bravado and celebrity of one of history’s most polarising figures shatter with the touch of a piano key.
‘Runaway’ is a rare moment of surrender in Kanye’s ongoing search for redemption in the aftermath of the overwhelming scrutiny post VMA Awards. A product of the legendary recording sessions in Hawaii, there are countless unforgettable moments throughout the song, that in isolation are potent but together provide a genuine compositional masterclass.
Whether it’s the naked piano keys that provide the vulnerable setting or the transcendent outro, the emotional highs on ‘Runaway’ cut straight to the soul.
Moreover, the decision to premiere it at the MTV Awards a year on from the debacle with Taylor was a fittingly Kanye move.
The vocals aren’t particularly impressive on ‘Runaway’, but it doesn’t matter. The imperfections and the simplicity of its elements make for a piece of art steeped in folklore and history and the high point of one of the most celebrated artists of all time.