Kanye West, Ranked: Part 1
Christopher Parker | Thursday, April 16, 2020
I was born in May of 2000 with two older siblings: an 11-year-old brother and a seven-year-old sister. By age five or six, my earliest memories of music involved crouching next to my brother as he used LimeWire to burn a blank CD full of blink-182, Usher and plenty of Kanye West. I got in trouble in second grade for rapping lines from “We Don’t Care” to show off for my friends. My first iPod Shuffle, a hand-me-down from my sister one Christmas, came loaded with several cuts from “Graduation.” “All of the Lights” was audible through my wall during junior high, and “Yeezus’s” “Bound 2” ushered me into high school. The point is this: I’m reviewing Kanye’s work not because I have any real insight, but because I’m nostalgic. In each phase of my life, Kanye was the soundtrack.
Best Kanye West Features (Defined as Songs < 50% Kanye)
5. “SMUCKERS” — For someone who spent a decade defining pop-rap, Kanye’s contribution to Tyler the Creator’s “Cherry Bomb” showcases his versatility. He fits seamlessly into the verbose and aggressive style that we’re used to from Tyler, crooning and yelling right alongside him. I think it’s his verse that brings the jazzy track together.
4. “No Church in the Wild” — I might be cheating using “Watch the Throne” tracks, but this one can’t be overlooked. On an album criticized for its weak lyricism, Kanye and Jay-Z drop references to Plato and Spike Lee while questioning the authority of religious doctrine. Plus, Frank Ocean.
3. “Clique” — Like the Power Rangers forming Megazord, “Clique” has so much to offer because it’s built from that which makes Kanye powerful. It has Kanye/Hit-Boy production, solid verses from Hov and Big Sean and, of course, Kanye’s own contribution. He takes us through his materialism, his battle with white America and his religious and personal life viewed through his mother’s recent death.
2. “Otis” — The second “Watch the Throne” song I’m using takes the cake as one of Kanye’s best uses of sampling. I don’t say this lightly; Kanye loves paying homage, but nothing quite does it like this one. Otis Redding’s soulful voice provides the percussive element while Kanye and Jay-Z trade fast, short verses. It’s underproduced and carries more of Kanye’s old-school sound than the rest of the album.
1. “THat part” — This ScHoolboy Q track ranks as one of my favorite verses from Kanye ever. Ironically, it’s got none of what I look for in most of Kanye’s music — no big-name production, no 90s influence and no deep look into Kanye’s psyche. “THat part” draws me in for the same reason as “I Love It (& Lil Pump)” succeeded. It’s just Kanye being Kanye, spewing hilarious irreverence and weird noises to a killer beat. It’s fun to listen to, fun to rap along to and a sign of what makes Kanye timeless.
Best Kanye Songs
5. “Stronger” — I’ll say it right now: This spot almost went to “Blood on the Leaves.” But as far as Kanye’s radio hits go, “Stronger” is without a doubt my pick. It’s one of his most fun flows but still toys (cautiously) with the most important elements of any Kanye West song: commitment to God, commitment to money, commitment to Kanye. It’s a perfect example of everything “Graduation” can offer, from great sampling to a pop-rap sound.
4. “Runaway” — If I were going to pick one song of Kayne’s to call a work of art, it would be “Runaway.” Considering “808s & Heartbreak” features nowhere on my list, I’m letting this song stand in for the ones that got away (sorry, “Street Lights”). It doesn’t inspire compassion like some of Kanye’s other emotional works, but it’s much more raw and authentic. No matter how you feel about the song or the artist, take a half hour and watch the accompanying film.
3. “New Slaves” — “New Slaves” is the model socially conscious Kanye song which focuses the same amount of effort on being provocative as being offensive. Sex, politics, racism, consumerism, stereotypes. It’s all there, as Kanye himself has said on several occasions. It’s an obnoxious, dissatisfied reality check for America that we need now more than ever.
2. “School Spirit” — And yet, as impressed as I am with tracks like “New Slaves,” Kanye’s best music has always been just Kanye having fun. You’d be hard-pressed in Kanye’s recent discography to find something that’s got soul and swagger without being in-your-face. That’s exactly what he gave us in “School Spirit.” It’s a song you and your friends learn every word to and cruise to on summer evenings.
1. “Lift Yourself” — Just kidding. I love the song and its epic backstory, but I can’t call it the best. Whoopity-scoop poop.
1. “Jesus Walks” — Ranking this track as the best Kanye song of all time (especially with “School Spirit” in second) makes it seem like his work has gotten worse since “The College Dropout.” But “Jesus Walks” is Kanye’s best because it’s prophetic. Just read the lyrics: It’s a story of struggle and uncertainty even in the face of self-obsession. In three minutes and 14 seconds, it invites you to look inward at the ugliest parts of you and confronts you with your powerlessness to save yourself. This isn’t the place for my argument that Kierkegaard would have been proud of Kanye, but suffice it to say “Jesus Walks” foretells Kanye’s story as a man of God.
If you liked what I wrote, look for Part Two next week with my picks for best albums. If you don’t like what I wrote, argue with me on Twitter.