Arrogant. Provocateur. Genius. These are some of the adjectives that have been used to describe the one and only Kanye West. Before the memes, before the infamy, there was the artist. Not only one of the most notable hip-hop artists of this generation, but one of the genre’s biggest luminaries, period. With each of his releases, West has continually brought something new to the table. Through every evolution, West’s razor-sharp lyrics have remained one rock-steady constant. Socially aware with a flair for the superficial (and “so much emphasis”) since his 2004 debut, The College Dropout, Kanye’s words and self-conscious mentality have been just as his important as his self-made, powerhouse beats.
15. “Street Lights” (808s & Heartbreak, 2008)
West got down with his cyborg self on the mournful, heavily Auto-tuned 808s & Heartbreak, but lying underneath the metallic sheen was the same Kanye unabashedly wearing his heart on his sleeve. On “Street Lights”, a somber ‘Ye delivers some of the biggest lyrical downers of his career as he likens passing street lamps on a cab ride to life moving by at a pace he can’t control. In spite of the fleeting nature of existence, Kanye still remains hopeful (“Things ain’t always set in stone”), and on an album filled with sadness and regret it becomes one of the more inspiring moments.
14. “Mercy” (Cruel Summer, 2012)
Between the minimal, buzzing bass and all the boasting, “Mercy” oozes swagger. Mid-way through the track, Kanye deconstructs the beat and hijacks the entire affair for himself. And why not? After all, he is the de facto leader of G.O.O.D Music, so it’s only fitting that the guy in the charge should steal the show. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, ‘Ye strolls into the room and puts his signees in their places (though Big Sean and Pusha turn in commendable efforts). The four-on-the-floor bass only lends additional strength to his outlandish claims (“I threw suicides on the tour bus”). When he says a line like “I step in Def Jam building like I’m the shit / Tell ‘em give me fifty million or I’m- a quit”, you’d be hard-pressed to tell this guy “no”.
13. “Niggas in Paris” (Watch the Throne, 2011)
Kanye kept things simple lyrically on this standout from Watch the Throne, but in the process created some of the biggest catchphrases of his career. Who else could bring such notoriety to a fish fillet sandwich? Whatever you do, just be sure not let him into get into his zone.
12. “Through the Wire” (The College Dropout, 2004)
Even with the dental hindrances after a devastating 2002 car accident, West never dials down the fiery passion as he recounts the near-death experience. While throwing around visceral lines (“There’s been an accident like GEICO / They thought I was burnt up like Pepsi did Michael”), not a bar goes to waste, clenched jaw and all.
11. “Who Gon’ Stop Me” (Watch the Throne, 2011)
“This is something like the Holocaust”, West boldly raps on the first line of “Who Gon’ Stop Me”, in reference to the history of plight toward Black Americans. Aside from this refrain, the song has little to do with the past and everything that’s happening in ‘Ye’s present; instead, the song focuses on all the money he’s stockpiling and how much more he’s making annually than us. But damn, does he do it in style. He has significantly less time on this track than his partner in crime, Jay-Z, but Yeezy still fires bullets in all directions. The line “y’all weed purple, my money purple” may or may not even be a subtle jab at prolific stoner Wiz Khalifa who shacked up with West’s ex-girlfriend, Amber Rose, around the same time Watch the Throne was released.
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10. “Monster” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)
If there was ever any question about West’s dominance in the rap game, his verse on “Monster” erases all doubt. Like his features on the song (namely Nicki Minaj’s shape-shifting, earth-shattering appearance), West didn’t come to play nicely or make new friends. “I’m living in the future, so the present is my past / My presence is a present, kiss my ass”, raps West, simultaneously endearing and alienating his listeners. The intricate wordplay and verbosity makes “Monster” a song that’s worth revisiting time and time again.
9. “All of the Lights” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)
What could have been a simple party track becomes the story of an estranged father and his daughter. But “simple” is one word Kanye could never wrap his head around. On “All of the Lights” there’s heavy talk of public visitations at Borders, child support, and the passing of his idol, the King of Pop. Within his dark, twisted fantasy there are plenty of lighter moments, but none glow as bright as this.
8. “Blood on the Leaves” (Yeezus, 2013)
Robo-Kanye still has some fight in him. Dusting off the Auto-Tune that altered the entire rap landscape five years earlier, “Blood on the Leaves”’ subject matter runs the gamut of unfulfilled love to a Beyonce reference to hypothetical cocaine dealing. West’s storytelling comes on strong, but it’s impossible to look away.
7. “All Falls Down” (The College Dropout, 2004)
Early on in his career, West announced his eternal mantra: “We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it” on “All Falls Down”. This is the epitome of “Vintage Kanye” — scratchy soul samples, warm beats, and most importantly, honest and heartfelt lyricism. Way before he was appointing himself a god, Kanye portrayed himself as the kind of guy you wanted as your friend.
6. “New Slaves” (Yeezus, 2013)
In spite of the self-proclaimed divinity, there’s plenty of instances of West showing his humanity on Yeezus. Turning back the clocks to the era of segregation, West opens the song by comparing that period of American history into the bigotry he faces in the modern-day fashion industry. And just when things couldn’t get more heated, he goes into an all-out tirade in the second verse. Hell, even the rapper himself deemed the second stanza of “New Slaves” the best rap verse of all time (and we know he’s not one to brag).
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5. “Hey Mama” (Late Registration, 2005)
When looking at the song with a rearview lens it’s easy to point out the inherent sadness in “Hey Mama”. But prior to Donda West’s untimely death, Kanye wrote it as an ode to his loving mother. Over a gospel choir- aided beat West’s words celebrated all that Donda had done for him to get him where he is today. “Hey Mama” still stirs up emotions for the rapper whenever he performs it live and with good reason — the sheer love he had for mother is tangible in every syllable.
4. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (Graduation, 2007)
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is so menacing it can make anyone look like a badass just by listening to it. Consider it West’s acceptance speech for earning his status as a rap giant. He acknowledges his vain shortcomings (“I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / When I awoke I spent that on necklace”) all while keeping his middle finger cocked at anyone ready to call him out (“This is my life, homie, you decide yours”). His lyrical strength would only continue to grow more forceful and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” feels like a solid warm-up for the ultimate statement of his prowess (more on that soon).
3. “Runaway” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)
In 2009, after a series of PR nightmares (particularly The Taylor Swift Debacle), everyone’s favorite anti-hero stole away to Hawaii, avoided interviews like the plague, and recorded his bombastic magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. All the sentiments from his less than ideal year culminate on the album’s centerpiece, “Runaway”. It may be a “toast to the douchebags” (with West in rare self-effacing form), but it’s ultimately a nine-minute-long deep exhale for the rapper. A vocoder obscures West’s vocals on the song’s lengthy outro and even sans clear lyrics, the fuzz never draws away from the raw emotion.
2. “Jesus Walks” (The College Dropout, 2004)
For such a deeply pious song, West sure rains fire and brimstone with his words on “Jesus Walks”. America might have been at war in Iraq, but Kanye shed light on the battles being fought on our country’s streets (especially in his “young and restless” hometown, Chicago). West took a huge risk by bringing his personal religious beliefs into the mix, but it was a massive, poignant payoff. Seven years later on Watch the Throne, Kanye would boast, “I made “Jesus Walks”, so I’m never going to hell”, and with a classic rap song this divine, he makes a pretty sturdy case for himself.
1. “Power” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)
“Power” is an undeniable tour de force that utilizes every tool in West’s lyrical arsenal. Even if you’re anti-Kanye (he reminds us, “screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it”), this track proselytizes you to the Church of ‘Ye. The cultural references that were potent when “Power” (“I was the abomination of Obama’s nation”) still ring as sharp as a siren nearly half a decade later. Then, three minutes into the track, there’s Kanye’s epiphany: even with all his godly wealth, he’ll still eventually die like everyone else. Maybe Yeezus is mortal after all.