Kanye West’s best songs? That’s a tough one. Born in Atlanta on June 8, 1977, Kanye is one of hip-hop’s most compelling artists. From his early work as an in-demand producer, to studio albums that have taken in chart-topping dance-rap, Auto-Tune-heavy electro-soul, and dark, cutting-edge musical experiments, he’s spent a career challenging and expanding the genre’s boundaries.
Part of a close-knit Chicago hip-hop scene, West began his musical life as a producer for hire. The beat tapes he sent out found him work for the likes of Foxy Brown and Jermaine Dupri, before Jay-Z snapped him up, putting Kanye to work on his 2001 Roc-A-Fella Records album, The Blueprint. West’s productions, such as “Izzo (HOVA),” typically featured sped-up samples of Motown classics backed with stark, clipped beats.
The Blueprint was Jay-Z’s fourth US chart-topper and turned Kanye West into hip-hop’s most in-demand producer, but a frustrating few years followed, as West sought to gain acceptance as a rapper in his own right. His 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, proved to be worth the wait. One of the most multi-faceted and idiosyncratic releases in rap history, it was nevertheless packed with enough pop nous to conquer the charts. Lead single “Through The Wire,” written and recorded while West’s jaw was wired shut following a near-fatal car crash, is a self-reflective, heartfelt moment of carpe diem expression driven by an irresistible, pitched-up sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through The Fire.” “Spaceship” is a gospel-inflected tale of low-wage job struggles, while on “Jesus Walks” Kanye delivered a pro-Christian message over an ingeniously constructed infantry march. “All Falls Down,” featuring Syleena Johnson, was yet another hit from the smash album.
The College Dropout brought Kanye West huge commercial and critical success, winning Best Rap Album at 2005’s Grammys. Riding the crest of the wave, he went straight back into the studio to begin work on its follow-up, released later that year. Late Registration found Kanye working with soundtrack composer Jon Brion, who helped give the album a grander, more expansive sound. It has some of Kanye West’s best songs, even though the trademark high-pitched samples were nowhere to be found. Instead, there were pop tunes aplenty, such as the smash hit singles “Gold Digger” (feat. Jamie Foxx with inspiration from Ray Charles) and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” which found West probing the ethics of the diamond trade and bling-obsessed hip-hoppers’ role in it. The album also featured a heartfelt ode to his mother in the shape of “Hey Mama,” while “Celebration” pairs the most wilfully silly of Kanye lyrics with Brion’s ravishingly grandiose orchestral score. “Touch the Sky,” meanwhile, features Lupe Fiasco and samples Curtis Mayfield to magical effect.
In an effort to broaden his fanbase, Kanye toured with U2 to promote Late Registration, his experience of performing in front of packed arenas going on to inspire its follow-up. 2007’s Graduation was an attempt to invest rap with rock and pop dynamics, alongside simplified lyrics which would work in front of large crowds. Released as singles, the Daft Punk-sampling “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights” both exemplify the album’s bombastic, synth-heavy pop sound with a skillful melding of electronic dance and hip-hop styles. “Good Life,” featuring T-Pain, and “Homecoming,” featuring Coldplay singer Chris Martin, also stood out as highlights on the record.
Two devastating personal events – the death of his mother and the breakup of his relationship with fiancée Amber Rose – fuelled a dramatic change of direction for 808s & Heartbreak, released in 2008. Dispensing with rapping entirely, Kanye sang in Auto-Tune across the album, channeling his heartbreak into introspective, glacial pop-soul nuggets such as “Love Lockdown.” Controversial at the time due to its perceived over-reliance on Auto-Tune, the album’s emotive lyrics and astute blending of R&B and hip-hop tropes proved prescient, influencing a slew of contemporary musicians, among them Drake and Frank Ocean.
If 808s & Heartbreak had found Kanye in a brittle state, he was at his most self-assuredly bombastic on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. A hugely ambitious work that offers no end of contenders for the best Kanye West songs, the album is consumed with the twin themes of celebrity and excess, and was recorded in Hawaii among a plethora of fellow producers and artists in a self-styled “rap camp.” The preceding single, “Power,” came armed with shredding guitars, acerbic lyrics, and an ingenious King Crimson sample. Elsewhere, the anthemic “All Of The Lights” featured guest turns from a galaxy of stars, including Fergie, Alicia Keys, Elton John, and Rihanna, while on “Monster” West wrung fine performances from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Jay-Z, Rick Ross and a spectacular off-the-wall turn by Nicki Minaj. The self-analytical “Runaway,” meanwhile, found him tackling his oft-controversial image head-on over a production that mixed spare piano stabs with tough beats. Finally, “Devil in a New Dress” features Rick Ross at his finest.
With Twisted Fantasy still riding high in the charts, West once again teamed up with Jay-Z, to record 2011’s Watch The Throne, a wealth-obsessed yet socially conscious effort that included what would become one of the best-loved songs of either men’s careers, “Ni__as In Paris.” Two years later, West delivered his sixth solo album, Yeezus. Recorded at his Paris loft with a clutch of established and cutting-edge producers, among them Daft Punk and Hudson Mohawke, it underwent a last-minute overhaul at the hands of Def Jam legend Rick Rubin. Influenced by minimalist design and architecture (West repeatedly claimed that a Le Corbusier lamp was his prime inspiration), what emerged was West’s most experimental music yet, with genres as diverse as industrial and acid-house blended into stark and abrasive fare such as “New Slaves.” Elsewhere, “Blood On The Leaves” was bold and uncompromising enough to pair a sample from Nina Simone’s rendition of the civil-rights song “Strange Fruit” with a bitter tale of failed relationships.
The critics raved – as they had with West’s previous releases – and with rumors of prime productions kept by for a follow-up, expectations were high for the album that was initially titled Swish. After drip-feeding several new songs via SoundCloud in January 2016, among them “No More Parties In LA,” which featured the distinctive beats of West Coast rap genius Madlib over some typically charismatic Kanye rap verses, West premiered the album at New York’s Madison Square Garden on February 11. A typically ambitious move, he also used the event to showcase the latest designs in his Yeezy fashion line, before releasing the album – eventually titled The Life Of Pablo – exclusively on the streaming service Tidal. It featured what might be one of Kanye West’s best songs of all, “Ultralight Beam,” a gospel-tinged epic. The album also had a memorable guest verse from Kendrick Lamar on “No More Parties.” In the weeks that followed, Kanye busied himself refining the album, confusing fans with new tweaks and issuing updated versions while striving for another collection that would stand among the best Kanye West songs. While his Twitter antics threatened to overshadow the new music, West’s prodigious work rate seemed to be catching up with him.
Any assumptions that he would ultimately slow down, however, were unfounded. In 2018, Kanye announced that he was behind five new albums, all to be released in consecutive weeks throughout the summer: ye emerged under his own name, while KIDS SEE GHOSTS was a collaboration with Kid Cudi; of the others, West returned to his production role, helming releases by Pusha-T (DAYTONA), Nas, and Teyana Taylor. The barrage might have done nothing to clear any confusions around where he was headed, but ye’s “Wouldn’t Leave” offered a moment of levity and vulnerability on an album that otherwise saw Kanye flying full-throttle with the filter well and truly off.
Recently, the rapper has leaned further into his love of gospel, leading to the release of Jesus Is King. Featuring appearances from the Sunday Service Choir, it eventually won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album. Two years later, after an unsuccessful run for President of the United States, Kanye returned with Donda, an album named after his late mother. The 27 song opus featured a whole host of guest appearances, including Playboy Carti, Jay Electronica, DaBaby, Marilyn Manson, Pop Smoke, Syleena Johnson, and many, many more. The Weeknd and Lil Baby popped up on perhaps its most celebrated song, “Hurricane.”
Article originally published on uDiscoverMusic.com.