“Kanye West is an asshole.”
“He’s a self-absorbed prick who rants just to get attention.”
“I don’t like ‘Ye, but his new joint is bangin’!”
That’s the caveat to Kanye West: you don’t like his public persona, but you can’t deny his talent. Whether West is behind the boards or on the mic, he harbours a magnetic quality that keeps you transfixed to the stereo, no matter how esoteric the sounds. He conceives things that look ridiculous on paper (remember when he put Raekwon and Justin Bieber on the same song?), yet it works, somehow.
Then there’s West’s new work. In May, he unveiled the single ‘New Slaves’ by plastering his face across random buildings throughout the world; the video itself is nothing more than ‘Ye rapping to the camera about racial segregation and the prison industrial complex.
A day later, on US show Saturday Night Live, West debuted ‘Black Skinhead’ against a big-screen projection of barking dogs and flashing price tags, the latter a visual middle finger to consumerism.
So he certainly knows how to get your attention. On June 18th, West is slated to drop ‘Yeezus’, his first solo album since 2010’s stellar ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (Clash review).
While you wait for the new LP, Clash has here compiled a list of West’s best songs: the ones that signaled a sea change for his career or solidified the shaky rep he holds today. Let’s have a toast to the douchebag.
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10. ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’ (2001)
Powered by a Jackson 5 sample, ‘Izzo’ was the lead single from Jay-Z’s 2001 album, ‘The Blueprint’. It was also one of the first examples of Kanye’s gospel-infused soul sampling that would become his trademark. His standout production work on ‘The Blueprint’ (‘Takeover’, ‘Never Change’, ‘Heart Of The City’) bolstered his reputation as a go-to composer for Roc-A-Fella Records.
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9. ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ (2005)
Kanye knows his shortcomings and acknowledges them: “What more could you ask fo’, the international asshole / Who complains about what he is owed, and throw a tantrum like he is three-years-old.” There’s also a sociopolitical undercurrent here; the video seesaws between posh surroundings and a diamond mine in Sierra Leone.
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8. ‘Love Lockdown’ (2008)
People hated ‘808s & Heartbreak’ when it dropped in 2008. It was different, Auto-Tuned and sullen. Years later, the vitriol surrounding Kanye’s “heartbreak” album has subsided, and it’s celebrated alongside his more popular recordings. ‘Love Lockdown’ was a tribal reflection of lovelorn angst, told from the perspective of the recently single megastar.
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7. ‘Gold Digger’ (2005)
Ever the opportunist, Kanye capitalised on the recent success of Ray Charles biopic, Ray, nabbing its lead actor Jamie Foxx for a feature spot on a song that samples the iconic soul singer. The track, which chastises money-grubbing females, is ironic in hindsight: We haven’t seen Kim Kardashian with any broke dudes, either.
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6. ‘Flashing Lights’ (2007)
On the surface, ‘Flashing Lights’ is blithe and bombastic. Beneath the surface, Kanye is waxing about his girl or some sort of muse. Either way, it’s a stomping jam tailor-made for the runway and nights out at the club. ‘Ye makes a brief appearance in the video before he’s shovelled to death.
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5. ‘Jesus Walks’ (2004)
Perhaps released an afterthought from his debut album, ‘The College Dropout’ – it was the fourth single, you know – Kanye pitched this for radio airplay while recognising it might not go far. “Here go my single, dawg, radio needs this / They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played?” Quite the contrary, ‘Jesus Walks’ was a smash hit.
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4. ‘N****s In Paris’ (2011)
By 2011, West had become a rap icon. So when he linked with his mentor Jay-Z to record the collaborative ‘Watch The Throne’ album, it was merely a shits‘n’giggles LP recorded for their own amusement. Such opulence was apparent on album anthem ‘N****s in Paris’, which introduced the term “cray” and reminded us all that we’re mere minions to the throne. That shit cray.
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3. ‘Runaway’ (2010)
Chilling, brooding and poignant, ‘Runaway’ was the clear centrepiece of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. After six minutes of intricate self-loathing with collaborator Pusha T, ‘Ye emphasises the point with another three minutes of piano-laced reflection, this time distorting his vocals to the point of incoherence. Even if you hate Auto-Tune, you have to respect his artistic approach here.
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2. ‘Stronger’ (2007)
Kanye used to be king of the “chipmunk sound”, as Roots bandleader ?uestlove calls it. Prior to the release of third album, 2007’s ‘Graduation’, his instrumentals carried layered percussion and an accelerated soul sample. ‘Stronger’, ‘Graduation’’s second single, introduced us to the Kanye we hear today. Gone were the formulaic beats of his early career; this was something heavier, louder, and with lots more pop. This Daft Punk-sampling track, much like the work after it, is made for stadiums. He’s certainly reached that pinnacle.
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1. ‘Through The Wire’ (2004)
Before Kanye would crash Taylor Swift’s parade and highlight then-US President George Bush’s apprent disdain for black people, he was just a regular dude trying to get on. These days, it’s crazy to think that Kanye’s career almost ended before it got started. For ‘Through The Wire’, he rapped through a wired jaw, the result of a nearly fatal car accident in 2002. This track was Kanye at his most human, before all the flash and decadence that keeps the artist from fawning adoration.
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Words: Marcus J. Moore
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