The 10 Best Kanye West Songs

Co-authored by Amanda Shively and Michael Garrity.
s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
Kanye West’s sixth studio album, the not-so-subtly named Yeezus, comes out this Tuesday, and whether you love him or hate him, it’s poised to be one of the biggest events in music in all of 2013.
Despite West’s obvious eccentricities, we both love him (or his music, at least). Unfortunately, he’s been a little skimpy on revealing too many specific details about the album, meaning that it looks like we’re going to have to wait until Tuesday to hear anything other than the two official studio-recorded singles he’s already released.
No worries, though, because we’ve been regularly rotating his back catalog over the last month, which has helped us come up with this list of the 10 best (read: our favorite) Kanye West songs.
Kanye West
Kanye West

10. “Homecoming”

It seems only fitting to kick off a list of our favorite Kanye West songs with an ode to his — and our current — hometown of Chicago. The final single off of West’s third studio album, Graduation, “Homecoming” is a touching-albeit fairly obvious extended metaphor delivered over a poppy piano riff and featuring guest vocals from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. Like other deeply personal tracks, (see: “Hey Mama”) West works well when playing up the nostalgia and setting his ego aside to honor his roots. – Amanda

9. “Niggas in Paris”

“Niggas in Paris” was practically inescapable in the fall of 2011. The fifth (!) single off the love-it-or-hate-it West/Jay-Z collaboration album, Watch the Throne, “Paris” is fueled by a bouncy electronic beat and the duo’s apparent obsession with endlessly repeating the song in live performances. It’s a made-for-the-club single that feeds itself on repetition, somehow sounding better on fifth listen than first. “That shit cray,” as they say. – Amanda

8. “Jesus Walks”

“Jesus Walks” is a classic Kanye West track, an early hit off his debut album The College Dropout, and still a crowd favorite today. Much like its title, the song marches on in military fashion over a chorus of vocal samples from the gospel song “Walk With Me,” and West’s stilted, precise delivery. It’s an early, perfect example of the forethought West puts into his tracks, with both religious and militaristic allusions, as well as metaphors layered one atop another, from introduction to beat to lyric to sample — it’s a completely packaged message. – Amanda

7. “Flashing Lights”

Strings and synth drive this made-for-car-commercial Graduation single. It’s smooth and sexy, a slower jam filled with the references to style, fashion, history, art, and pop culture that have come to not only set aside, but define West as a lyricist. And on top of the aforementioned classier topics, he manages to slip in a controversial cultural/political reference (“Feeling like Katrina, with no F.E.M.A.”) that reiterates the fact that he hasn’t forgotten about the headier subjects on trial in the country. – Amanda

6. “Hey Mama”

As mentioned earlier, I’m personally a fan of the emotional side of Kanye — the Kanye that loves his city and his roots, and especially his mama. An older West track finally released on 2005’s Late Registration, “Hey Mama,” the dedication to the hard-working support and loyalty of his mother, is a touching number that became particularly relevant after her unfortunate death in 2007. The track became a nightly, heartfelt occurrence on the “Glow in the Dark” tour, and is a gentle reminder that even the most seemingly self-gratified people can still have love for their families. – Amanda

5. “Touch the Sky”

“Touch the Sky” makes its presence felt immediately with the bold horn sample from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” But the song is more than that — it’s also one of Ye’s grooviest and catchiest songs to date, as well as being particularly inspirational (it’s all about his ascent to stardom and battles with his own insecurities on the way up there). It also features an awesome guest spot from Lupe Fiasco, in what may be one of the rapper’s best verses ever. – Michael

4. “Gone”

The (official) final track on West’s second album, Late Registration, starts out with a sample of Otis Redding’s “It’s Too Late” (and West would be known to sample Redding again in the future) set over a bright, bouncing piano line, but when the strings come in at the :31 mark, the song gets pushed into the upper echelon of Ye’s discography. Featuring great guest verses form both Cam’Ron and Consequence, the song remains an interesting and unique addition to West’s catalog, particularly the way it ends, with a sinister minor key change at 4:14 that builds to a hesitatingly optimistic ending, which happens just as the past Kanye that he is rapping about is starting to see his career as a producer begins to take off in the song’s narrative. – Michael

3. “All of the Lights”

There are very few moments in music that are as full of tension and anticipation as the gradually escalating brassy horns at the beginning of Kanye’s “All of the Lights.” Particularly when paired with the interlude that precedes it (which is technically a separate track on the album), “All of the Lights” is a premier example of combining a variety of seemingly disparate sounds, styles, and influences to create a spectacularly cohesive piece of music, all of which is based around Rihanna’s out-of-this-world catchy hook and those horns that drive the whole thing. – Michael

2. “Through the Wire”

West’s first single still remains one of his best produced and most emotionally meaningful tracks to date. Chronicling the story of Ye’s life-threatening car accident, and the rehabilitation that followed (eventually resulting in the release of The College Dropout, the landmark debut album that features “Through the Wire”), the song is the revenant of a younger, ambitious Kanye who hadn’t yet realized his true genius or fulfilled his real potential as a songwriter, but on “Through the Wire,” it’s easy to see where it came from. – Michael

1. “Runaway”

For a song that is largely built around the single repeating piano note at the beginning, “Runaway” is probably one of the most artistically ambitious (and just as artistically successful) records in the history of popular music. Equal parts self-indulgent and self-aware, West’s grandiose, nine minute oeuvre revels in his humanity and inability to live up to the standards that both him and others have set for Kanye West. Of course, there’s some irony to a guy sarcastically referring to himself as a “douchebag” and an “asshole” in the same song where he seems to be literally indulging every last one of his artistic eccentricities, but the whole point is that Kanye’s almost agonizingly self-aware of it, so what can you really say? Besides, the final three minutes of this song are among the most viscerally moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and there aren’t even any (intelligible) lyrics. – Michael TC mark

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