A Better Ranking of Kanye West’s Album Tracks
Last week, Gawker published a numerical ranking of every single Kanye West album track. It was horrible for several reasons: it didn’t offer a single explanation for any of its choices, it gave the totally decent “Never Let Me Down” the top spot and it ranked “So Appalled” dead last. I’m still reeling from the last one, and might never read Gawker again as a result.
It’s important to remember that Gawker’s whole raison d’etre is constantly trolling everyone. You getting mad about this list and tweeting it with some incredulous comment is exactly what these trolls extraordinaire were counting on. But Kanye’s music deserves so much better than this.
My ranking, as I’m sure you’ll find, is also incredibly subjective and highly debatable. I’m afraid I might lose some friendships because of it. My personal biases (such as my all-abiding love for The College Dropout) definitely shine through. But the fact that no two people would rank Kanye’s oeuvre the same is what makes it so great. If these words and numbers inspire you to contemplate what Kanye music you love most and why, then it’s mission accomplished over here. I only ranked the top 25, because I’m gonna get enough death threats as it is, and I couldn’t possibly write something about all 70+ songs.
Without further ado:
1. Runaway – Kanye is so loveable not just because he’s produced most of the 21st century’s greatest music, but also because he’s relentlessly unapologetic. He called George W. Bush a racist on live TV, destroyed Taylor Swift’s rose-filled dream world, reportedly spent his entire wedding toast talking about himself, and never said he was sorry for any of it. Except for this one time, when he issued everyone an apology in the form of the best pop album in 10+ years. “Runaway” is the crown jewel of that magnum opus, where the greatest pop artist of our time starkly confronts his deepest flaws, and invites all of us to do the same.
2. Family Business – An odd choice, perhaps, that might get me some Gawker-like flak, but I’m not backing down. This is still one of the most beautiful, most optimistic songs I’ve ever heard. If you ever find yourself doubting Kanye (such as after the recent wheelchair incident, which wasn’t as bad as you heard) please just go back to this gem and remember all that is worthwhile in life.
3. Blood on the Leaves – Kanye has made many perfect pop songs over the years, and will probably continue to do so for a while. Personally, I don’t find those ones terribly interesting, which is why I barely listen to Graduation. I’m much more excited by the unsettling imperfection of Yeezus, totally encapsulated in this song. If you weren’t fully paying attention, you might dance to it as if it were a typical Hudson Mohawke banger. But then you realize that subtle sample, so well-balanced sonically with the dubby banging, is Nina Simone’s haunting version of the civil-rights touchstone “Strange Fruit.” And then, you realize that Kanye is calling on the legacy of slavery to describe his relationship with a groupie. It makes you realize how fucked-up Kanye’s life and worldview can be sometimes, seeing everything in terms of racial violence and degradation. Is he wrong?
Kanye is probably the single most important and influential pop artist of the 21st century. He calls trends way in advance and is always popping wheelies on the zeitgeist. Yet every time he opens his mouth, he’s degraded as an idiot or a fool. That probably gets to you after a while. This song is a pounding, apocalyptic exorcism of all that rage. It’s unsettling in a way you rarely get from pop music, and that’s why it’s so awesome.
4. Can’t Tell Me Nothing – Here’s one of those perfect pop songs I was talking about, and a demonstration of Kanye’s unique ability to craft a pop-rap song that is at once supremely badass and utterly self-critical.
5. Gold Digger – I don’t personally listen to this song (or Late Registration in general) all that often, but this song deserves a prominent place in the Kanye Hall of Fame for catapulting him to the next level of pop stardom. Some sports writers like to talk about players making “the jump,” like in 2011 when Derrick Rose went from a very good player on a rebuilding team to the NBA MVP. After a great debut, Kanye officially made “the jump” with “Gold Digger” and none of us have ever looked back.
6. Bound 2 – Kanye is going to make much more music, and thank God for that. But there’s a part of me that would be totally okay if “Bound 2” was his last word. It brings together the two sides of Kanye’s musical persona to make the perfect capstone to the most pop interesting album of the last few years.
There are basically two Kanyes: the soulful, fun-loving wiseass and the cold, dark, self-critical sad sack. All of his music exists somewhere in the midst of a Manichean struggle between these two artistic poles. “Bound 2” rests perfectly at the center, fueled by a bright soul sample but salted with a heavy does of world-weariness (the sarcastic “uh huh, honey” that cuts Charlie Wilson off anytime he starts getting too romantic). This song doesn’t give into the darkness, but it doesn’t pretend that things are going to work out perfectly, either. Kanye’s too wise for that now. For all of Yeezus’ apocalyptic strangeness, it’s nice to know that Kanye couldn’t finish an entire album without letting at least a little light in.
7. We Don’t Care – Nice to contrast Kanye’s last word (for now) with his first word. A lot of songs on The College Dropout can be taken as Kanye mission statements, and this one even more than most. Because if we’ve learned one thing from Kanye’s artistry and celebrity antics, it’s that he truly does not care what you think of him, or what traditional wisdom says. Neither should you.
8. Power – Given the public shaming, canceled tour and the obvious heavy emotional toll of his mom’s death, it wasn’t crazy to think in late 2009/early 2010 that Kanye’s career was all but over. Then this song dropped and proved that he was just getting started. Like the rest of MBDTF, this lead single takes everything Kanye does well (poppy braggadocio, scathing self-doubt, colorful samples) and makes it darker, weirder, better.
9. Gone – Late Registration is such a pretty little pop masterpiece that everyone surely has different favorites. This is mine. The Otis Redding sample, Cam’Ron’s guest verse and the Anakin Skywalker make for a timeless combo.
10. Paranoid – The “Bound 2” of 808s and Heartbreak, the little bit of fun that still manages to sneak in through Kanye’s dark cloud. That doesn’t mean it’s happy-go-lucky; like “Bound 2,” it’s still full of insecurity and, yes, paranoia. It’s just that here, Kanye doesn’t let that get in the way of having a good time.
11. Monster – It’s pretty much impossible to imagine a pop landscape without Kanye. We wouldn’t just lose all of his amazing music but also all the art he directly influenced. Working with him in the studio clearly changes people. This song alone launched Nicki Minaj’s career and changed Bon Iver’s forever. Speaking of Ms. Fat Booty…when it comes to best Kanye song guest verse, I’m aware there are some who would argue for Twista on “Slow Jamz” or “Never Let Me Down.” Gimme a break. There’s no contest.
12. Slow Jamz – One of the reasons Kanye’s music is so innovative is because he would probably get bored otherwise, having already mastered all of pop’s traditional forms. What I love about this song is watching Kanye take a form of beautiful music he grew up on and prove he was just as good at it as his idols. It only got better (and much stranger) from here.
13. New Slaves – On College Dropout tracks like “Never Let Me Down,” Kanye offered an inspirational take on his family’s history with civil rights. By the time Yeezus rolled around, he was a lot more bitter (or maybe just realistic?) about it. Kanye, of course, thinks this song’s second verse is the best in all of rap. In the words of David Foster Wallace, feel free to take that in “a high-sodium way,” but still, it’s a great song.
14. Through the Wire – Still the best example of Kanye’s inability to let minor setbacks (like, say, a jaw sewn shut) get in the way of producing the best, warmest music he can.
15. Good Life – Like I said above, I don’t find pop perfections like this as interesting to listen to as the weirder selections from Kanye’s oeuvre. But when you’re in a certain mood, there’s just nothing better.
16. All of the Lights – The best example of MBDTF’s opulent menagerie.
17. Jesus Walks – The genius of College Dropout is that Kanye, to quote him on “Family Business,” is that he “found a creative way to rhyme / without using knives and guns.” This song is still one of the best examples of that philosophy.
18. Touch the Sky – Like “Monster,” as if this song wasn’t already amazing in itself, we also have it to thank for the entire career of Lupe Fiasco (and probably for a resurgence of Curtis Mayfield nostalgia). It’s also extremely mashup-able: Exhibits A and B.
19. Never Let Me Down – This is probably closer to where it belongs. It’s a good song, don’t get me wrong. J. Ivy’s powerful spoken-word guest verse is a fairly unique listening experience. But it’s still only the fourth or fifth-best track on its own album.
20. Heartless – AutoTune as art, not effect. The reason I like 808s so much (I actually prefer it to Late Registration) is because it’s awesome to watch Kanye take a silly gimmick and turn it into an artistic implement for expressing sadness. Welcome to (the 21st century version of) heartbreak.
21. I’m In It – You can tell the difference between Yeezus and MBDTF just by looking at their respective tracklists. Yeezus doesn’t list a single collaborator, even though barely two minutes ever pass on the album without a distinct non-Kanye sonic presence. The reason Yeezus doesn’t list any collaborators (and the reason those collaborators are probably totally fine with being unlisted), is because they’re mere weapons in his arsenal. Here, he takes Justin Vernon’s unique ethereal sonics and Assassin’s rapid-fire rapping and plays them like instruments in his orchestra of racial paranoia and sexual deviancy. We’re still all so basic, while he’s speaking Swaghili.
22. We Major – Not one of the singles on an album that often plays like a Greatest Hits compilation, but still eternally memorable for the way Kanye takes such an incredible beat and just kicks back with his friends for seven extremely listenable minutes without ever getting boring, demonstrating their superiority in the chilliest way possible.
23. RoboCop – As fun as it is to hear Kanye repeatedly reference Stephen King, the real reason I love this song so much is because I think it contains the single saddest moment in Kanye’s entire discography: the “spoiled little L.A. girl” sequence from 3:05 – 4:08. I find it so sad, wise and heartbreaking.
24. All Falls Down – I won’t be able to say much more about the greatness of College Dropout without repeating myself, so suffice to say that “couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis” is still one of my very favorite Kanye lines.
25. Stronger – At some point toward the end of the last decade, Pitchfork started reviewing rap. No one’s really sure how and when the cultural union of indie music and hip-hop got started, but it’s a good bet that Kanye sampling Daft Punk was a watershed moment.
Black Skinhead – It’s just a little too soccer anthem-y. Kanye had that concern in the studio, even before it got played during the World Cup. But that crazy SNL performance is what first got me pumped about Yeezus, so it did its job as a single.
Say You Will – Worth noting that this is Kanye’s personal favorite Kanye song.
Graduation Day – Not even a song proper, but an example of why College Dropout is my favorite ever album for rap skits.