The first Kanye song I heard was back in 2005, several months after the release of The College Dropout. “Through the Wire” on a compilation of Grammy nominees. Shortly afterwards, I read an article about Kanye’s mercurial personality. I became intrigued and checked out the rest of the album. I enjoyed it, but not enough to get too excited.
But after I read the rave reviews of Late Registration, I picked up a copy and… damn. I was in. You’ll notice there isn’t much (any) rap on this Top 100, but the truth is that the way Kanye uses sound and melody to bring his rhymes to life connects with me so well. It’s crazy to think it was almost ten years ago I first heard Late Registration, but I haven’t looked back from being a “Kanye fan” since.
As I was writing about Kanye’s career, I realized my writing had expanded beyond the scope of a typical Top 100 entry. Thus — as with Oasis — I have written a two-part career retrospective that I am posting separately. (I’ve spent more time writing this than any other entry thus far, and I’m proud of the result, so please give it a read if you’re curious.)
And also, because I can’t resist countdown lists, here’s a ranking of Kanye’s six albums and a list of my ten favorite Kanye songs. (I discuss each album and all ten of these songs in the retrospective, so you can read those if you want to learn more.) If you don’t have the time to read a full career retrospective, this hits the major highlights.
Ranking Kanye’s Albums:
6. The College Dropout (2004)
Hugely influential? Yes. Solid, enjoyable album? Yes. The greatest album of the 2000s? No way. Not even close to Kanye’s best from that decade. Still, there are a few standouts: “All Falls Down,” “Slow Jamz,” “Through the Wire,” and the song I’ll be listening to the rest of my life, the sweeping “Jesus Walks.”
5. Graduation (2007)
The only album that marks an obvious step backwards from Kanye’s previous outing, Graduation is still full of great songs, but it’s shallower, less consistent, and less exciting than Late Registration. “Stronger” is one of Ye’s best singles and “Homecoming” has a killer hook, but this album is much too average and predictable to suit Kanye West.
4. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
Well that was… unexpected. This non-rap album was recorded quickly, features no samples, and uses little more than drum machines and autotune to create its stark soundscape. In other words, it’s a 180 from everything else Kanye stood for before. There’s some filler, but this is a moving album and served as confirmation that ‘Ye is more than just another rapper.
3. Yeezus (2013)
Kanye’s rapping has never been more clever or confident, his sounds have never been more surprising, and his artistic integrity never more infallible than on his latest album. Its “industrial hip-hop” sound is intentionally perplexing and not particularly fun, but these songs are fascinating and intricate. Listen with an open ear for long enough and you’re bound to fall in love.
2. Late Registration (2005)
West enlisted Jon Brion to give this album an orchestral sound, and it pays off in stunning ways. Beyond the sound and the hooks, these songs are almost faultless, from the silky “Heard ‘Em Say” that opens album to the gut-busting “Gone” that closes it, this is a huge album with plenty of knock-outs and almost no filler.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
One of my favorite albums. Kanye maximizes all of the things that make him interesting, both in the rhymes and the lyrics. The songs are in a new league for the rapper. Kanye uses collaboration to great effect, bringing out the best of the likes of Bon Iver and Nicki Minaj. But it’s Kanye himself who steals the show: He boasts (“POWER”). He confesses (“Runaway”). He shines (“All of the Lights”). Above all, he’s an anti-hero worth listening to.
My Ten Favorite Kanye Songs
10. Hey Mama – Late Registration
This is the track that I would point to for people who think they don’t like Kanye West. His declaration of love to his mother is heartwarming and appealing. You can’t hate him here. The clean “la-la-la” background makes this an easy listen every time.
9. Niggas in Paris – (with Jay-Z) Watch the Throne
So badass. This is Jay-Z and Kanye sitting on their throne, spitting game on top of a fantastic, driving beat. Great radio single that white DJ’s feel uncomfortable saying the title… There’s not even an easy abbreviation.
8. Love Lockdown – 808s & Heartbreak
The drum beat sounds almost tribal, and each verse crescendos to the explosive, perfect chorus. Ye’s voice is distorted with computer effects, but it somehow makes him sound more emotive and human as he grapples with his uneven love.
7. Stronger – Graduation
Kanye played with electronic beats on his third album, and never does this stand out more than on lead single “Stronger.” It’s the best song on the album with sampled Daft Punk providing a colorful, propulsive beat.
6. Gone – Late Registration
Funny, effortless, and precious, this standout from Late Registration features Consequence, Cam’Ron, and Kanye going back and forth with one great line after another on top of strings and an Otis Redding sample. The orchestral sound gives the track an unforgettable, intriguing aura.
5. Monster – MBDTF
Kanye, Hova, and Nicki explore the villainy of rap music, weaving horror imagery as they describe their careers. Ye lays the groundwork with a great “pharaoh”-”sarcophagus” lyric. Jay matches him line-for-line as he describes his Achilles heel (“looooove!”). But they both “watch the queen conquer” when Nicki steals the show. “This is what you live for” indeed.
4. Bound 2 – Yeezus
Kanye closes Yeezus with a track that sounds absolutely nothing like the album that preceded it. But it’s a great one. He describes his intense love for Kim Kardashian (“one good girl is worth a thousand bitches”). For maybe the first time ever, Kanye sounds truly happy, and he wants it to keep going: “Hey, we made it to Thanksgiving / Hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas.” Charlie Wilson provides the soaring chorus and Kanye gives an all-time great mic drop – “I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept.”
3. Jesus Walks – The College Dropout
Yeah, the Happy Gilmore quote is incredibly stupid. But it’s about the only brainless thing here. It’s not just Kanye’s incisive lyrics that make this an all-time classic, but the haunting, layered production.
2. All of the Lights – MBDTF
“Extra bright, I want y’all to see this.” Kanye considers his fame and nakedness with an intoxicating wall of sound. The triple-A cameos pile high: Rihanna, Fergie, Elton John, Alicia Keys. It’s difficult to find music anywhere that SOUNDS better than this.
1. Runaway – MBDTF
A self-deprecating response to Taylorgate and to his going-nowhere love life, “Runaway” is the type of confessional that every schmuck with an acoustic guitar dreams of someday making. Heart-wrenching, searing, and perfect, “Runaway” builds to an incredible catharsis. It also serves as the basis for his one-of-a-kind short film of the same title.