There are artists who go their entire career without changing their signature sound. There are artists who constantly attempt to “reinvent” themselves. There are artists who experiment with their sound, but always return to a core sound that binds them together. There are eclectic artists who change their sound every other record. And then there is Kanye West.
Love him or hate him, you have to appreciate Kanye. Over less than a decade, he has released 6 of the most definitive hip-hop albums of the 21st century, and each and every one of them has been completely and utterly unique. It takes one hell of an artist to debut with a soul single called “Jesus Walks” and then, within a decade, transition into songs where he claims to be Jesus (“I Am a God,” “Power”). But thats just the tip of Kanye’s iceberg. From the soul-sampling consciousness of The College Dropout, the baroque smoothness of Late Registration, the anthemic pop of Graduation, the sorrowful dark electronica of 808s and Heartbreak, the rich lavishness and hedonism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and most recently, the industrial minimalism of Yeezus, West’s discography explores more sounds than any artist of any genre is ever likely to use.
West’s most recent effort, Yeezus, was met with universal critical acclaim, but failed to catch fire with commercial audiences, mostly because of the extremely raw, rough production and scathing lyrics—and the intentional lack of pre-release singles. But even if West doesn’t really give a damn about who likes him, there’s music for everyone in his discography—and, with the Yeezus Tour arriving in Vancouver on October 20th, its time we at Lotusland proved that. Everyone has their favourite album, and their favourite songs; here are our staff picks of the best Mr. West has to offer.
If there was ever a rap album that captured the lowest point a human beings spirit can fall, this is it. Prior to the recording of this album, Kanye had to resolve a dispute with fellow rapper 50 Cent, went through a painful breakup with his fiancee, and most importantly, lost his mother and mentor, Donda. Kanye loved Donda as much as a son could love a mother—listen to “Hey Mama”, from Late Registration if you don’t believe us, or see the live version that he performed at the 2008 Grammys in her memory. He even began to go off the wall a bit as a result—the infamous Taylor Swift incident happened right after Donda’s death. It could even be said there are two halves to Kanye’s music—after his mom passed, it became darker. Twisted. Melancholy. Cynical. Abandoning rapping for autotune-strung melodies, and ditching samples for synthesizers and drum machines, Kanye created the soundtrack to a broken heart. He got panned for it—rappers accused him of going soft, and a lot of people blamed the autotune-wave of the late 2000’s on this record. But from the string-accompanied regret of “Welcome to Heartbreak” (which also marks Kid Cudi’s first appearance on a Kanye track), to the cautiously sung and beautifully written “Love Lockdown” all the way to the absolute misery of “Coldest Winter,” 808s is not only an underrated record; its an influential one. It broke the stigma around an emotional hip-hop record, and laid out the blueprint for a whole new generation of rappers including Drake, Kid Cudi, and the Weeknd. It might not be as well received as his others, but this is not a record to sleep on.
Love Lockdown (808s and Heartbreak)
You can say all you want about Kanye’s autotune phase, but the man can write a perfect single. Nothing exemplifies that more than “Love Lockdown”, off 808s and Heartbreak. Simple but timeless lyrics, supported by a monstrous tribal beat, beautiful synths, and careful, haunting vocals create a song that personifies heartbreak. Kanye isn’t just expressing pain on this track—he’s saying maybe its best to keep the key to your heart with you, rather than risk it ever being broken again.
Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix ft. Jay Z) (Late Registration)
Featuring a beautifully placed sample from Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds are Forever,” of James Bond fame, backed up with some killer percussion, this track might be one of the smoothest beats Kanye has ever produced. So why the remix and not the original? Because Jay Z. Hova has what might be one of the best verses of his entire career, effortlessly flowing and dropping some of his most fantastic lines (“I’m not a businessman/I’ma business, man!”) all while sounding outrageously cool. Kanye originally thought his verse on the song was untoppable. A few years later, on “Big Brother”, he rapped “On that Diamonds remix swore I spazzed/then my Big Brother came and kicked my ass”. We’re happy with our Kanye, but we want this Jay Z back.
On Sight (Yeezus)
When Kanye fans first heard “On Sight,” the opening track off Yeezus, there was a collective moment of wondering what the hell was going on. The glitchy, electronic, fluid Daft Punk-produced beat was so different from the sample-laden My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that it turned a lot of listeners off. But those who stuck with it were righteously rewarded. This is Kanye at his rawest over a beat that accommodates that, and also allows for moments of peace and beauty. In other words, a perfect intro to Yeezus.
In sharp contrast to the orchestral sound on Late Registration and the absolute misery on 808s and Heartbreak, Graduation is Kanye’s most fun and pop-filled, record ever. Inspired by the anthemic sounds of bands like U2, Kanye decided it was time to start having fun with his music. The result? Some of the catchiest songs, smoothest beats, and intricate production Kanye has ever put out, with the same level of skill and lyricism that was recently seen on Yeezus. With an all-star cast including T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Mos Def, Dwele, and DJ Premier, Kanye put out songs that people could both dance and connect to. Check out his alternating states of mind on tracks like “Good Life” or “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” or his relationship with his hometown on “Homecoming.” This album is nothing but perfect singles, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t quality.
Good Life ft T-Pain (Graduation)
Over a Michael Jackson sample, Kanye shows us how to live. This song was made for moments when life is going your way, it begs to be blasted with the windows rolled down. Kanye is having so much fun on the track, swerving across lyrics with themes of happiness, success, and finally coming into ones own. He invites T-Pain along for the ride, and it’s a one way ticket to the top.
The Glory (Graduation)
“The Glory” is the closest most of us will ever get to having Kanye West give us a pep talk. On a high-pitched, dramatic vocal sample, Kanye blasts through bars upon bars of what it means to win. It’s not the most intricate track, but it has some seriously motivational—and sometimes funny—one liners; “With my ego/I can stand there in a speedo/and look like a fucking hero.” The track also reflects a beginning of a change in Kanye’s style—rather than rhyming about events and cultural circumstances, he switches to introspective themes, and his style goes from careful to incredibly driven and powerful.
Bittersweet Poetry ft. John Mayer (Graduation)
Some of the greatest mysteries of this world include the details of the JFK assassination, the exact KFC recipe, why this song was only a bonus track on the Japan edition of Graduation, and how the hell Kanye West made a collaboration with John Mayer work. Over a simple synth beat, Mayer and Kanye go through the ups and downs of a relationship falling to pieces. Kanye focuses on the punishments of fame (“She say she only with me for the currency”) but Mayer brings home the song with a devastatingly sad hook (“I don’t want you, but I need you”). Was this the prelude to 808s and Heartbreak? Possibly. But it’s more than good enough on its own.
Mahtab Laghaei/Charles Fretier-Gauvin:
Mahtab and Charles chose to to do their review together, so that the collision of their ideas would split an atom or a sample or something and erupt into a super-review.
Favourite Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
It’s early 2010. After the cancellation of his tour with Lady Gaga, the infamous Taylor Swift incident at the VMAs, lacklustre reviews for 808s and Heartbreak, and a series of bad paparazzi run-ins, it was time for Kanye to get away. Rapper Mos Def even visited Kanye at his home and told him that there was no place for him in America. The president called him a jackass. It doesn’t get much worse than that. Everyone thought Kanye West was over and done with.
But Kanye wasn’t going to let a few critics finish him. From a studio in Hawaii, he called in legions of artists including Kid Cudi, Swizz Beatz, Raekwon, Eminem, Jay Z, Justin Vernon, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, RZA, Pusha T, and countless others to create My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his most expensive album ever. Laden with gorgeous samples, rich tone, countless features, and lyrics that simultaneously emit hedonism and humility, this album is Kanye’s apology speech, but he’s flipping off the crowd. “Gorgeous” has Kanye at his most lyrical, ferociously tearing apart his critics while Cudi backs him up with what might be the best hook of his career. On tracks like “So Appalled,” “Monster,” and most notably “Power,” Kanye not only braces his egotistic image, but revels in it. Just a few tracks later on “Runaway,” he is in mourning. Over three short piano notes and a skeletal drum beat, Kanye is at his most introspective, accepting all his faults and even—maybe?—asking for forgiveness. The song ends with over three minutes of distorted, thick noise—Kanye’s voice being run through a synthesizer. Why is this important? Because he closes off a song with three minutes of noise and it is spellbinding.
What might be the most compelling about the album is the way Kanye is able to bring out the best in every artist he works with. Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” is a career highlight, “Runaway” was the first time we ever got to see Pusha T in action, and, somehow, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver works well on a rap song with themes of hedonism and violence. This album is very dark, and its very twisted, almost to the limit. But it is very, very beautiful.
The New Workout Plan (The College Dropout)
Is this the first use of satire in rap? The 4th single off of his debut album The College Dropout, “The New Workout Plan” takes the worst stereotype in rap music—that women are valued for bodies, men for money—and relentlessly mocks it by embracing it. Over a tight, quick fiddle beat, Kanye gives women advice (his “workout plan”) about getting in shape and how to pick up the richest guy possible. If this weren’t satire, would probably get him killed. But like the entire College Dropout, it ends up being an incredibly conscious song.
Jesus Walks (The College Dropout)
Since the very first beat dropped, rappers have been talking about crime, money, drug use, themselves, and everything else that we associate with rap culture. But what about God? When was the last time you heard a song on the radio talk about God? Yes, its controversial, but it’s important to people. Maybe that was the thought process when Kanye released “Jesus Walks” as a single. It could have backfired. It could have gotten removed from radio for being too political, too religious. Kanye knew that: “If this take away from my spins/which will probably take away from my ins/then I hope it take away from my sins, and bring the day/that I dream about/next time I’m in the club/everybody screaming out/Jesus walks.” In a few years, Kanye would switch to calling himself God. But here, his sincerity and faith creates a track that deserves the airplay.
Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Late Registration)
We already talked about the remix to this in Paris’s review, but the original definitely deserves a nod. It has the same Shirley Bassey sample, the same hypnotic beat, and the same on-point Kanye. But without Jay Z there, braggadocio takes a backseat to awareness, and greed takes a backseat to consciousness. Has there ever been another track that directly addresses blood diamond trafficking of all things, and makes a radio hit out of it? We don’t know, but we’re pretty sure this is the best one.
That old familiar drum beat and resonant chorus of “oooo”s is enough to trigger a familiar sensation. Your feet fly into a strut, on the street or in the halls, and whatever papers you happen to be clutching undoubtedly fly around you in a hurricane of hood culture. Everyone has a coming of age album, one that shapes your youth and carries you like a gondola to the sandy shores of self assurance and young adulthood. For many, that album is Graduation. Sure, other Kanye music had been on the radio—after the Taylor Swift debacle he was hard to miss—but something about Graduation connected with hordes of people. If starting high school was a terrifying time, it was nice to idolize a man who thought he could “buy his way to heaven but then spent that on a necklace.” “Good Morning” served as an alarm for hundreds of youths in those dark and angst filled times. After all these years, Graduation holds its place as one of Kanye’s finest. Maybe it’s all those memories of those crisp fall mornings, quietly repeating “homie this shit is basic” and wishing for high school graduation. Maybe it’s the comfort in knowing that getting D’s on every test and having a bit of a cheeky attitude could potentially end with you driving away in a DeLorean, just like Kanye.
Picking favorite Kanye songs is like a mother picking her favorite children: it seems impossible at first, but as you grow and they grow it becomes apparent which ones are A grade and which ones are bound to be found in dingy clubs desperately clinging to men in Ed Hardy shirts. Here are three favorites in no particular order:
The Glory (Graduation)
First is “The Glory” from Kanye’s third album. A man who can rap about his riches and bitches but also mention the injustice of shytown murders is a man to be held in the highest regard. The pronunciation of “Adidas” is what first stole my heart in this song. There is no shame in being able to rap most of this song from memory. Why did you spend time learning this song to recite like a show monkey? For the glory. Long live the pink polo shirt and the awards show antics of the coolest looking man in rap. We all do most things for the glory, and it took Kanye to help us admit that.
So Appalled ft. RZA, Jay Z, Prynce Cy Hi, Pusha T, and Swizz Beatz (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)
Second on my top three list is “So Appalled ( Feat. RZA, Jay-Z, Prynce Cy Hi, Pusha T, & Swizz Beatz)”. Kanye’s opening verse in this song combines everything good in life: shout outs to Donald Trump’s hair, some jokes, the word viola, and a rapper acknowledging how a lot of rap is extravagant and not relatable. At first listen this song appears un-ironic, talking about bitches, champagne, and not giving a fuck. Pretty standard. But lines like “Niggas be writing bullshit like they gotta work/Niggas is going through real shit, man they outta work/That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt/That’s why I rather spit something that gotta purp'” are spoken. With Kanye’s fellow man going through crisis he realizes he must rap honestly and from the heart, not just about the champagne wishes and outlandish fantasies everyone holds. To write a rap song about the lack of honesty in art, while using the chorus “middle finger in the air if you don’t really care?” Man that shit is fuckin’ ridiculous.
Blood on the Leaves (Yeezus)
“Blood on the Leaves” comes from Mr.West’s latest masterpiece, Yeezus. Not only is Kanye a brilliant, comedic, and heartfelt rapper but he is also an insanely gifted producer. The samples picked for Yeezus were on another level completely. A shining example of his production is “Blood on the Leaves.” This song is tragic, the story of a man getting caught up in fame and success as the people he loves get consumed by fame and success, ultimately losing his fame and success in the process. What keeps this song near and dear to me is the outro, which is vulnerable, wise, and relatable
And live and learn
And live and learn And living and living like I’m lonely
And living all I have
And living all
This means to an end is where Kanye takes the place of your clever uncle with the mysterious face that you only see on holidays, who will sit you on his knee and tell you all his sorrow and all his lessons until you are a little afraid, but upon returning to the table for dinner, a little more brave.
When I was 11, my parents had just gotten divorced, and suddenly family was more important than ever. Whenever my dad drove me and my siblings along the long road to our “second house,” there was a song he would always play—and I mean endlessly. We probably listened to it four times a day or more. That song was “Family Business”, by Kanye West, and for some reason it was so heart wrenchingly perfect back then. Was it a bit awkward when I asked my dad what “nigga” meant? Yeah. But from then on out, I decided Kanye West was my man.
The College Dropout was my favourite album for a long time. Then My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Then it was Graduation for a while. But in the end, I settled on his sophomore effort; Late Registration. This album catches Kanye at a transition between the almost cheesy writing we see on the College Dropout and the grandeur of Graduation, a balance between soulful Kanye and the lavish one. Inspired largely by baroque instrumentation (because he’s Kanye West, goddamnit) we get some of the most intricate beats, samples, and instrumentation he has ever produced, along with features from a young Lupe Fiasco, Jamie Foxx, Jay Z, Nas, Cam’ron, Common, and other artists who would later become legends. The result? Some of Kanye’s most outstanding lyrics on tracks like “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Gone,” and “Addiction,” perfect singles like “Gold Digger,” “Heard ‘Em Say,” and “Touch the Sky,” and personal pieces like “Hey Mama.” It’s an album where Kanye is actually happy with his life, and that positivity just radiates through the entire album. Some people have that “one song” they want to remove from an album, but there’s nothing to be deleted here.
Gone Ft. Cam’ron and Consequence (Late Registration)
With an almost-too-perfect Otis Redding sample, a gentle piano, and some seriously beautiful strings, Kanye sets up one of his best beats ever and then proceeds to destroy it, in the best way possible. West’s opening verse is good, but Cam’ron’s follow up blows it out of the water. It’s incredibly funny (there’s a knock-knock joke) while simultaneously bringing a serious edge to the verse. Consequence builds on this with another, more intense and personal verse. And then…nothing. The stings build and fade away. The piano melody changes. For a minute, you are no longer listening to Kanye West, but are in an orchestral suite. Then, BAM! The violins are back in force, and so is Kanye with one of his finer verses. He references everything from Taco Bell to the burdens of success to Star Wars to the Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston breakup and makes it work. More than that, he makes it touching.
Gorgeous ft. Kid Cudi and Raekwon (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)
Kid Cudi has always been at his best when he’s working with Kanye. Over a stadium rock guitar riff, Cudi’s slow, deep, powerful hook is the perfect backdrop to the lyrical fireworks that Kanye and Raekwon set off. If “Gone” had happiness mixed in with content, this has none. Kanye is pissed. His three verses claim the U.S government is intentionally spreading AIDS, attacks airport security, threatens to dismantle the prison system, speaks on his position in music, and says more than should be possible in just a few minutes of music. Raekwon rounds out the track with a verse that seems almost like an “Amen”—a perfect closer to the chaotic beauty of the song.
Family Business (The College Dropout)
Yeah, its still a favourite. One of Kanye’s most emotional songs, “Family Business” is an ode to the power and significance of family, and a reminder of the discord within it, like a single off note in an orchestra. Over the sound of pianos and choirs, Kanye finds that off note. But he doesn’t correct it. He doesn’t need to.