Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My Top 15 Kanye West Songs

Today, right now, I should be on a bus to Toronto
I should be roughly five hours away from seeing Kanye West live at the Air Canada Centre. I should have seen Kendrick Lamar opening. I should have considered paying way too much money for controversial merchandise. That should have been today. But no. I haven't had good luck with concerts lately. At least this, unlike Radiohead, is going to be rescheduled...

Anyways, in anticipation of the concert, I've been listening to basically nothing but Kanye West the last few weeks. For a lot of artists, I'd worry about burning myself out on the music before the show itself, but with Kanye, I can't see that risk. His stuff is so addictive it feels like the "guilty pleasure" choice when you start in but has enough substance to enrapture you, even after dozens of listens. I love Kanye West. He's one of those artists that I've just liked more and more ever since, like, I saw him and Common do "The Food" on Chappelle's Show, or whatever. He occupies a really unique space where he's extremely popular and the center of all sorts of frivolous media scandals and scrutiny but also is critically beloved and outspoken on serious issues... he's vilified by the general public, but the critics rush in to defend him, it's the opposite of the typical process. I really reject the validity of something like "he's a dick, but he makes good music"... in an industry where people can hit their girlfriends and then the top 40, in that order, how is arrogance the most unacceptable sin? And it's arrogance that few could argue isn't deserved, what with a chain of critically and commercially beloved albums basically unmatched in the modern age... Anyways, I shouldn't get too much into this, it's a complex issue beyond the scope of what I'm doing here, which is listing my favorite Kanye songs and why.

15. "All of the Lights"
This is a pop song like only Kanye could make. There's a major aesthetic on MBDTF of sheer excess and the power that enables it. Early in his verse Kanye laments "MJ gone/our nigga dead", but then delivers a pop music tour de force that I doubt even Michael could match. 15 people - 15 talented, famous, people - contributed vocals to the song. Rihanna, in a superb patois grandeur, sings the hook, but he also gets Fergie, Alica Keys and La Roux too. Kid Cudi isn't enough - he also needs Drake and John Legend. They don't even particularly sound like themselves. Stars who usually got top billing are tasked with singing blended backup. He got Elton John to play the piano - can you even remember what the piano sounds like in this song? The result is something like a whole galaxy in simultaneous supernova. There's so much going on, and each element is stunning. Kanye goes even further, putting function to the form and allowing the song to soundtrack a genuinely distressing tale of love lost.

14. "All Falls Down"
I don't think enough is said about Kanye's talents as a rapper. A common criticism that I know I've said a few times myself is that, sure, he can produce, but he ought to leave the rapping to someone else (usually meaning Jay-Z). But man, sometimes he can really put in work. This is a pretty straightforward song, we get a unconventional but solid as hell beat driven by Syleena Johnson and acoustic guitar and Kanye spitting three great verses. The subject matter - "addiction to retail" - is discussed both for a hypothetical black girl, Kanye himself, and the greater context. The subjects are treated with dignity and understanding, never feeling too harsh or forgiving. What's really impressive though is the virtuosity of his language in expressing it: right from his Chingy-parody "insecurr" lines, you can tell he's going for something a bit next level on his flow. Everything comes together so well, every line is honest, insightful and entertaining.

13. "Drive Slow"
If Jay-Z is the chameleon of flow, the same ought to said for Kanye and beats. On the same album as the jazzy flair of "Touch the Sky" and the soul of "Gold Digger" - right after those songs, in fact - Kanye whips up a dank aesthetic that handles Chicago and Houston equally well. If you look at his whole discography, it seems incredible that it's all one guy. Anyways, this slick and catchy song, focused on pumping your breaks and enjoying the pleasures of life, is basically perfect. The beat is deep and sinister. Kanye's recollection of a lifestyle which is then glorified by Paul Wall and GOOD Music hidden boss GLC somehow creates an environment that I, white kid from rural Ontario, can picture clearly in my head. Special shout out to the extra-slow outro, but my favorite moment has to be the exchange between Kanye and GLC - Kanye raps "My car's like the movie, my car's like the crib/I got more TV's in here than where I live", somewhat a non-sequitur, and GLC responds "And that don't make no sense, but baby I'm the shit". Hilarious.

12. "Runaway"
This is a tricky song to talk about... I mean, it starts sounding like the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack and ends sounding like some sort of nightmarish pop version of 2001's HAL. It has Kanye at his most intimately confessional while also saying "I sent this bitch a picture of my dick". Pusha T contributes an "in-character" verse that works only because of how good Pusha T is at being himself. It's 9 minutes long and has a 35 minute long music video. What is this thing? It seems like there's something for everybody to hate. And I remember at first being turned away by the length, by the violins and piano that I saw as heavy handed, by the vocoder I found distastefully excessive. But maybe this is just the sort of music experience that you're better not to think about. If you want, the hook can become an anthem, the verses tragedies, and the whole song something truly beautiful and amazing that you can't really find elsewhere in this or any other genre.

11. "I Am A God"
Yeezus is a whole other can of worms. Fresh off the success of MBDTF, probably one of the most critically acclaimed hip hop albums of all time, and Watch the Throne, which was basically a wet dream for everyone involved, Kanye probably could have done anything he wanted. He was a God. But, with the same sort of good-natured faith the religious put in their Gods, nobody really expected anything but a very limited set of what he could do. Yeezus was far outside of that. "I Am A God" probably best summarizes the polarizing attitude the album received. It has the arrogance - from the title to lyrics like the now-classic "Hurry up with my damn croissants" - that made him public enemy #1 for so many. It has the raw, electronic production that turned so many away. Just listen to the intro, that eerie whine followed by those heavy, crushed beats. It's something that would be startling coming from any producer, let alone Kanye, a Titanic in the mainstream. It has the mysterious elements that alienated many fans - what's with all the screaming? And, as is typical of Yeezus, all these aspects combine to make a song that is powerful, haunting, compelling... all around amazing.

10. "So Appalled"
This shit is fukkin ridikkilus. There's really no other way to say it. Kanye turned Midas-tier production skills to the classic crew cut, lining up five rappers to spit over a simple but rock-solid beat. Kanye, Jay-Z, and Pusha T all go in, delivering dense and clever verses. Cyhi the Prynce, eager and with everything to prove, goes nuts with wordplay and more than earns the extra time he duped Kanye into giving him. Good verses are obviously the backbone of any crew cut, but what really sets this apart is in the restraint shown. Swizz Beats gives a punchy hook but isn't allowed to dick around on a verse of his own. And RZA, although easily on the tier of Jay-Z and Pusha T for sheer rapping talent, gets weirdly truncated down to just repeating the hook. It feels disappointing, but the effect is memorable and quotable in the weirdly memetic way that can sometimes yield a classic. This time it certainly does.

9. "Blood on the Leaves"
This song makes no goddamn sense at all. Kanye starts by sampling Nina Simone's rendition of the haunting Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit". Okay, Kanye sampling a soul song, that's more expected than not, but this one? Not something funky and uplifting or some sorrowful song about breakups, but a culturally important protest song against lynching? And then, what does he rap over it? Yeezus  is filled with difficult questions about modern race relations and serious cultural accusations, but the portrait Kanye paints in this song is more one of excess and personal failings. What does a story that sounds like the darkest side of "Gold Digger" have to do with stories of first time MDMA use? What do either have to do with Simone's lyrics? All the elements bump into each other at weird angles, swirling in a vortex around those massive TNGHT horns. These horns simply cannot be played loud enough. The end result is utterly incomprehensible, irreconcilable... and if you think of the number of people in the situations described here, pulled in so many directions from so many expectations, this insane masterpiece seems devastatingly sensible.

8. "Touch the Sky"
I was 13 or so when this album came out... My older cousins had just started being able to drive, which was like, the coolest thing imaginable for me. I remember being driven by them up to our family's cottage, and my cousin wanting to just play this song over and over. It was a three hour drive, but I didn't complain. This song, too, was the coolest thing imaginable. Perennial genius Just Blaze produced, and Lupe manages to be even slicker than Kanye on his verse, but none of that matters. This is just two talented rappers having a really great time over a perfect beat. This song can't fail to give you four minutes of internal summer, no matter the weather.

7. "Monster"
This song has like, what, three intros? Bon Iver does a thing, with the roar and such, then Rick Ross drops my favorite line on the album ("Fat motherfucker, now look who's in trouble?"), Kanye does the hook once, and then he actually starts in with the verses proper. And this is like, a crew cut. Crazy. Well, when you have a track this monstrous, you have to hype people up for it a bit. When you have a beat this crazy, this demonic and insane and yet this solid, you get some serious talent on it. And when you get Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj on a track like this, you don't settle for anything less than a great verse from each, which you then have to match yourself. The song demands all of this, like the hungry monster it is. You gotta feed it lines like "I'm living in the future so the present is my past/My presence is a present, kiss my ass". You gotta let Jay-Z shout "LOOOOVE, I don't get enough of it" and "I smell a massacre". And you definitely have to let Nicki Minaj go just absolutely bananas. That is what a song this monstrous deserves.

6. "Can't Tell Me Nothing"
At the end of the day, as much as I love haunting masterpieces like "Blood on the Leaves" or beautiful epics like "Runaway", the main reason I'm tuning into Kanye, 90% of the time, is because I want to hear something certifiably banging. This is it. If you are a fan of popular hip hop in general I feel like this is everything you can want from a song. Part of the hook you can sing along with, the other part you can shout along with Young Jeezy. And yeah, Kanye needs to get Young Jeezy to do the shouts, because no one else can do them quite like him. All the verses have this smooth, straightforward flow where every line seems like it could have an arbitrary amount of emphasis. I mean, what can you really say? You play this out your car, or on your stereo, on your headphones on the street, whatever... you become the boss of that situation. And, in true "Hey Ya" style, the lyrics can both glorify and chastise, empowering while questioning. It's a wonderful duality few can achieve.

5. "Never Let Me Down"
When I first got into hip hop it was, like so many others like me, through Eminem, mainly through stuff like "Without Me" or "The Real Slim Shady". I was into it because it was fun, catchy, clever music, but I still had it tiered in my head a bit lower than "legitimate" genres like "rock" or "classic rock". We were all stupid as kids. This song as a big part of breaking me out of that mindset. This song really seemed, even to my ignorant kiddie ears, to really be about something. I don't even know if I knew who Jay-Z was at that point, but I knew I was listening to someone important. I can still pretty clearly remember how uncomfortable a line like "Racism's still alive, they just be concealing it" made me feel back then.  J. Ivy's spoken word section is so powerful and meaningful that no one could deny the spirituality in hip hop's gospel roots. And then, coming through the church, Jay-Z brings it back with straight braggadocio in a closing verse that still grabs my attention almost ten years later. Seriously, when he shouts "the Roc is in the building", it's still one of the most triumphant proclamations of Jay-Z's GOAT-contender status I can think of. And Kanye has always been the GOAT of producing that.

4. "Slow Jamz"
Haha, this song... what can you possibly say about this song? Kanye takes his loves of hip hop and soul and cranks them both up to the absolute extremes. He had already carved out a solid niche for himself as a producer with his use of sped up soul samples (a niche he excelled in, but, thankfully, did not let define or limit him), so to step it up further, he doubles up, rapping and singing about the very slow jams he samples. Jamie Foxx makes a legitimate new entry in the genre with his smooth crooning about the girls who want to slow it down, showing off the extremes of his vocal range without seeming to put forth the slightest effort. This is matched by gotta-go-fast Twista, who spits at like 588 syllables a minute (yes, actual math was used in arriving at this number) without breaking a sweat. It doesn't really even matter what they're saying, although all the allusions to soul are fun to spot - the sheer thrill of hearing all this talent is what makes the song so addictive. Even Kanye's somewhat plain verse, easily the weakest aspect of the song, still has classics like "she got a white skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson/she got a dark skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson".

3. "New Slaves"
I think before we can argue about the moral validity of Yeezus - if that is what people actually want to do - we first ought to appreciate it for its raw sonic majesty. Lines like "I know that we the new slaves/I see the blood on the leaves" or "Y'all throwing contracts at me/You know that niggas can't read" are supercharged with controversy in any number of contexts, yes. There will be a lot of debate from a whole lot of angles about lyrics like this. And these will be valid debates on questions deliberately provoked by Kanye himself. That's all fine. But what I want to discourage is this discourse overshadowing the musical elements of the song itself. Reading those lyrics doesn't give you one tenth of the meaning that hearing Kanye so violently spit them does. And hearing those a cappella doesn't give you one tenth of the experience that full production gives you. The transition at the end... I think I could hear it a million times and it wouldn't stop being stunning. For Kanye to have been able to imagine that sound, to pull it out of such obscurity, to craft it that meticulously... there's no other word short of genius.

2. "We Major"
I have an experiment I'd like you to try. Wait for a day where you're in a particularly good mood when you wake up. It shouldn't be for any specific dramatic reason, like, you're graduating or your daughter is going to be born, or anything like that. Maybe you can have some vague plans later in the day that you're looking forward to, but nothing too important. The weather has to be good, it has to be warm and sunny. On the morning of this day, I want you to take whatever portable music player you have and your best headphones and go for a walk while listening to "We Major". That's it, that's the whole experiment. The experiment is called "How to Feel Just Ridiculously Happy, like, Way Happier than you Probably Thought Possible in Two Easy Steps". As far as I know there have never been any negative results. It's hard to say what's so great about this song, there's just something to it... just something about the way Really Doe's hook transitions into the titular lines... I think, for brief instances, this song can impart onto you the satisfaction and joy rappers like Kanye probably felt the first time they realized that they, like all the rappers they idolized, were major. It's a powerful feeling.

1. "Two Words"
Everything I said for "Can't Tell Me Nothing" goes double for this... all the 100% banger quality of anthem flows and catchy hooks. Everything I said for "Slow Jamz", the thrill of seeing such raw talent, goes double for the stirring Harlem Boys' Choir and the Mighty Mos Def. The soulful significance of "Never Let Me Down", the insatiable beat of "Monster", the compelling flows of "All Falls Down"... this song has it all. I remember watching the segment of Chappelle's Show with this track on it over and over again. I can rap every word of it with my eyes closed and have to restrain myself from doing so in public situations. It's everything I could want in a Kanye West song, in a rap song... in just a song, period.

Okay that's my list
I feel sort of weird on principle leaving off songs like "Gold Digger" and "Jesus Walks", absolute classics that I do love, but I couldn't bring myself to cut anything else for them. Someday I'd also like to take an album-by-album look at his discography, as much of his stuff really benefits from the album context. I felt like writing something about him now, to uh, bemoan or celebrate the still-upcoming concert. I want to do more lists like this, my previous one for Das Racist seemed to be well received. Okay that's all for now.

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