Kanye West may not be the best rapper in the world, but in terms of global curiosity, there’s nobody more interesting.
From Kanye's early days of throwing out confrontational vibes on “Late Registration,” to that incident at the VMAs involving Taylor Swift, to disappearing into Hawaii and returning with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” to the guerilla marketing of “Yeezus” and Paul McCartney collaborations and the sloppy but one-of-a-kind release of "The Life of Pablo," he’s maintained an awesome cult of personality throughout his career.
Each of Kanye's albums has a distinct personality — a mirror pointed toward all the rumors and tabloids and scrutiny. Everything he does is an event; no other artist uses their platform more effectively.
West has particularly outdone himself in 2016 (so far). We have truly seen his highs and lows — throwing a hilarious, semi-misogynistic rant off a Wiz Khalifa tweet, announcing some troubling solidarity with Bill Cosby and, yeah, releasing another fantastic album. “The Life of Pablo” is a ridiculous sprawl, the sort of album that’s only possible when someone truly believes they sit at the right hand of god. It’s not his most focused work, but songs like “Famous,” “Waves” and “Ultralight Beam” are some of the best he’s ever recorded. Even when he’s being despicable, Kanye West’s genius is undeniable.
Putting together the 25 best Kanye songs is difficult, simply because you’re carving through multiple eras and multiple different types of greatness. It’s hard to compare “Touch The Sky” with “New Slaves.” The funny thing is we’re not even halfway through yet — Kanye’s only in his late 30s. What will this list look like in a decade? Will we have seen a return to the Kanye Bear? Will he be making full-on noise music? Only time will tell.
25. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” (2016)
To be honest, this song from "The Life of Pablo" is on this list for exactly one reason. “If young Metro don’t truss ya we gon’ shoot you.” It’s the same clip Atlanta producer Metro Boomin uses in all of his productions. You can’t get through a Future album without it being burnt into your brain, but Kanye has an ear for big moments. Delicately placed at the half-minute mark, it serves as a late title card before Kid Cudi swings in and takes us to the afterlife. Naturally the drop became a worldwide meme, and is on the shortlisted for best sequences in 2016. Kanye truly has a sixth sense for virality.
24. “Only One” (2015)
We may not want to admit it, but the jury is still out on Kanye’s upcoming album. “FourFiveSeconds” is limp-wristed. “All Day” feels like a watered-down version of the ferocity of “Yeezus," and there’s a general feeling of exhaustion with Kanye’s museum period. But there is still “Only One.” Tweeted out right as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, it’s about as pure-hearted as Kanye gets. An unabashed, joyful tribute to his daughter, sung wistfully alongside Paul McCartney’s semi-improvised keys. Kanye wears his heart on his sleeve, so its unsurprising he’d get enraptured enough in a firstborn for it to start infecting his art. Luckily, this time it worked out.
23. “Homecoming” (2007)
Occasionally Yeezy doesn’t want to break in a new name, and will instead hire Coldplay’s Chris Martin to sing the hook and pound out a rave-piano loop for three and a half minutes. The cross-promotion brought “Homecoming” all the way to No. 9 on the UK charts, which is odd considering it’s essentially a two-verse love letter to Ye’s deep love for Chicago. It might not stack up to the “Empire State of Minds” of the world, but it’s close.
22. “Otis” (2011)
This is just Kanye and Jay Z, from their "Watch the Throne" album, bragging about how much money they have over a gratuitous Otis Redding sample. In the video, they destroy a ridiculously expensive Maybach because they can. It is two of the richest, handsomest, most interesting artists in American history throwing as much shade as possible into the faces of the American public. We eat it up because we need that fantasy.
21. “Good Life” (2007)
One of Kanye’s best attributes is a willingness to embrace emerging trends rather than banish them like other old, bitter hip-hop men. A year after “Good Life,” Jay Z would release a song bluntly titled “Death of Auto-Tune,” but Ye happily invited T-Pain to sing the hottest hook of the summer. Before long, both of them co-owned a Rap Song of the Year Grammy.
20. “Through the Wire” (2004)
His debut single. A wonderful, self-produced, carefully rapped ode to the legacies of Common, Talib Kweli, Big L, all those culturally correct icons. It parked at 15 on the Hot 100, and sometimes, sometimes, we all wish Kanye still sounded like this.
19. “Love Lockdown” (2008)
Before the xx, before Drake, before Jeremih or Tinashe or A$AP, there was “Love Lockdown.” An odd, sung departure for a Kanye, reeling after the loss of his mother and the dissolution of a relationship, composed of quiet, frayed computers and heavy live drums. This and the entirety of “808s & Heartbreak” have gone on to influence an entire generation of nondenominational music makers. That’s a pretty good legacy.
18. “Famous” (2016)
Kanye can be at his best when he’s talking his talk. His true, undisputed bangers carry a tinge of chest-puffing insecurity (see “Power,” “Gone,” “Good Morning,” etc). “Famous” might be the most delusional yet, opening with a pretty cringe-worthy line that doesn’t do Mr. West any favors and has added fuel to the ongoing fire between him and Taylor Swift. But, wow, it’s hard to deny Rihanna’s purifying performance, or the amazing, recombobulated edit of Sister Nancy’s indelible “Bam Bam.” Kanye stays winning, even when he’s burning bridges, which he has also done in the song's new video.
17. “Paranoid” (2008)
It wasn’t the lead single — in fact it only peaked at 61 on the Billboard 100. But there isn’t any better document from Kanye’s frosty, Eurodance period than “Paranoid.” He could never sing, but those claustrophobic synths make you feel the exact right sort of alone and ajar. “Baby don’t worry about it, don’t even think about it, you worry about the wrong things, the wrong things.” She’s unconvinced — so is he.
16. “Touch the Sky” (2005)
Remember “Send Up,” when Kanye recruited Chicago drill icon King L to drop knowledge? It felt like a superstar tapping a younger talent for greatness, but it’s also something West has made a habit. Sure, he lets Daft Punk produce and gets Adam Levine on the hook, but back in 2005, Kanye shared “Touch the Sky” with a Midwestern countryman named Lupe Fiasco who was just about to break out on his own. Fiasco raps the verse of his career, but to be fair, anyone on earth would sound great on Just Blaze’s tipsy Curtis Mayfield horns.
15. “Hey Mama” (2005)
If nothing else, this is one of Kanye’s favorite songs. Despite it never being released as a single, he’s used it to close out shows throughout his career. “Hey Mama” is a soft, simmering deep cut that took on new meaning after Kanye’s mother passed in 2007. When Ye played it at the Grammys a couple years back, he replaced the bubbles for some tear-stained strings. Sometimes it feels like that shadow will never lift.
14. “Slow Jamz” (2003)
Never forget: Before Kanye was a stoic, leather-on-leather storm trooper, there was a time where he was pretty funny. Jamie Foxx and Bernie Mac killed it on the skits, and the man who’d go on to make “Yeezus” happily rapped about getting lucky in college. The best document of this period is “Slow Jamz,” where Yeezy enlists the help of Twista to make arguably the greatest ladies’ jam of all time. Oh, and it was Kanye’s first No. 1 single.
13. “Jesus Walks” (2004)
What a weird song. A devout, conflicted, profanity-spiked tirade about racial injustice, sin, the music industry, and it’s set to an infantry march. Middle America probably thought Kanye was a Christian rapper for a handful of months, at least until “Gold Digger” dropped. “Jesus Walks” was his third straight Top 20 single through the “College Dropout” cycle, and easily the thing that pricked up our ears the most.
12. “Monster” (2010)
Kanye says that thing about a sarcophagus, Rick Ross shows up for 30 seconds and Jay-Z yells “LAAAAHVE,” which served as a prophetic death rattle for his relevance going forward. Bon Iver is in there somewhere. None of it matters. Nicki Minaj comes through with a ridiculous, savage, schizo verse that’s several different kinds of crazy. Years later she has a legit claim for “best rapper alive.” Sometimes Kanye works best as a facilitator, not a maestro.
11. “Blood on the Leaves” (2013)
If we’re being honest, “Blood on the Leaves” co-opts a bloody, Jim Crowe-era protest song, sampled gorgeously from Nina Simone, so Kanye can rap about distrust of women. That’s a pretty bad look, but the sheer physical force of “Blood on the Leaves” is undeniable. Hudson Mohawke’s death march, the Auto-Tune, the bass? We all remember the first time we heard it at the cold, steely heart of “Yeezus.”
10. “Flashing Lights” (2007)
Kanye has done backpack rap. He’s done highbrow, Very Serious arthouse cinema. He’s made club jams and aloof, singer-songwriter Auto-Tune slumps. But some of the best Kanye is the Kanye we got in 2007, when the greatest rapper alive became a Eurodance sensation. “Flashing Lights,” in all its dusky-pink synthetic beauty, never quite took the reins from “Stronger” as the marquee single on “Graduation,” but it’s certainly the better song.
9. “Waves” (2016)
To be a Kanye fan is to be locked in a constant cycle of anger and reluctant admiration. The run-up to “The Life of Pablo” was not great. Even the most devoted stans struggled with Yeezus’ baffling decisions, but volatile, polarizing people do volatile, polarizing things. Somehow he always manages to win the world back and it usually only takes a moment or two. Those first few ticks on “Wavves,” where a stunning, stuttering choir burns from the gates of heaven and the problematic Chris Brown swoops by in the greatest verse of his career and all of a sudden you realize the light in your soul is back on. Kanye’s core manifesto (or insecurity) is to show the world exactly how great he is. And when he hits, boy does he hit.
8. “Gone” (2005)
This track has his trademark high-minded classical bent (Those strings! That Otis sample!) and his boastful, regretful, unlikable, magnetic ethos on full display in the verses. “Gone” was never released as a single — it features a particularly mediocre Consequence verse — but there’s no better representation of what makes Kanye interesting.
7. “Power” (2010)
It’s hard to remember now, but Kanye buried himself deep underground and out of sight following the great Taylor Swift/VMAs debacle. Well, underground isn’t quite right — he was in Hawaii. But when he did finally resurface in 2010, with “Power,” it seemed incomprehensible that we’d spent the previous handful of years without him. Yeezy is one of the few rappers in the world who can take a King Crimson sample all the way to 22 in the Hot 100. Let’s hope he keeps that fire stoked.
6. “Real Friends” (2016)
Nobody will admit it now, but it was pretty easy to doubt Kanye before “Real Friends.” He had spent most of 2015 releasing fine, but mostly unspectacular songs like “FourFiveSeconds” and “Facts,” and generally seemed more lost than ever creatively. That changed with “Real Friends,” nominally the first single from “The Life of Pablo.” A gorgeous, haunted twinkle underscores a laundry list of doubts, confessions and insecurities. It’s classic backpack Kanye — a return to his human roots, far removed from the deifying effects of the fashion industry. In a way, “Real Friends” was the most radical thing Kanye could’ve done after “Yeezus” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy;” talking on the TV like it’s just you and me.
5. “Runaway” (2010)
It’s not even particularly well sung. And certainly not the first thing you’ll reach for to break someone into Kanye’s universe. “Runaway” is very meta, resurfacing after a long absence from public view, still brokenhearted about his (deserved) rejection from the American public following the great Taylor Swift feud. Kanye paints himself as sympathetic, but not overwhelmingly so. He’s resigned to being conceited, rude, angry, vain. It’s not all he is of course, but this is the one moment where he’s not making excuses. “Runaway” never received overwhelming radio play, but it absolutely set a precedent for Kanye’s second era.
4. “Lost in the World/Who Will Survive in America” (2010)
People make a lot of noise about “Runaway,” “Power,” “Blame Game” and “Monster,” but no song cuts to the life blood of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” quite like the closing suite of “Lost in the World/Who Will Survive in America.” You’ve got Bon Iver eclipsing his beard-folk roots into some sort of intergalactic god, and there’s Kanye leaving the last words of the album to Gil Scott-Heron, instead opting to go out on this awesomely cringe-y line: “If we die in each other’s arms, still get laid in the afterlife.” It’s so big and glorious and silly and unforgettable. It’s hip-hop hubris gone super saiyan, and it still thrills five years later.
3. “New Slaves” (2013)
This is the gauntlet thrown at the beginning of the “Yeezus” cycle. An ugly, gristly slab of Trent Reznor-esque Goth-pop, with Kanye standing resolute, unfurling haymaker after haymaker on an unexpecting America. When we watched him perform this song on "Saturday Night Live" in its live debut, it was proof that the fun and games were officially over. It never charted, it was never even released as a single. It didn’t need to be.
2. “Ni---s in Paris” (2011)
Peaking at No. 5, 3 million digital units sold, dozens and dozens of performances of the same song at every stop of his “Watch the Throne” tour with Jay Z. And, most importantly, nobody — from New York City to Paris to outer space — will think of fish filet the same way ever again.
1. “Ultralight Beam” (2016)
It’s early, but “Ultralight Beam” is making a pretty good case for joining the pantheon with “Untitled,” “99 Problems,” and, like, “God Only Knows” of songs that simply can’t be written about. “Ultralight Beam” is shrouded with the sort of transcendence that makes art critique feel extremely disposable. There are far too many moments — the beautifully clipped choir bursting from the shadows and immediately dissipating, the bookend prayer from one of the cutest kids laid to tape — but mostly we hang our hat on the Chance the Rapper verse. Kanye has a surprisingly generous history of welcoming up-and-comers on his albums (King Louis on “Send it Up,” Post Malone on “Fade,” a then fresh-faced Lupe Fiasco on “Touch the Sky,”) but nobody has ever looked better than the 23-year old "Coloring Book" rapper from Chicago. Pure joy, the sound of a young man who’s waited his whole life to share a studio with the city’s prodigal son. In Kanye’s best moment yet, he’s almost completely out of the spotlight. There’s a lesson here, somewhere.