1 Through the Wire
Through the Wire, from West’s 2004 debut album The College Dropout, was arguably the most inspirational breakthrough hip-hop single since the Notorious BIG’s Juicy, released nine years earlier. It was inspired by a near-fatal car collision that required West to undergo reconstructive jaw surgery, which in turn meant he had to literally spit the verses through the wire. Although he had previously contributed guest vocals to Abstract Mindstate and Talib Kweli, Through the Wire was West’s first step on the journey from underground producer to megastar.
2 Jesus Walks
West was never one to shy away from airing his beliefs, and the subject matter of his third single was incredibly contentious upon its 2004 release. In fact, it’s believed this song’s appearance on an early demo recording scared off some of the major labels who were interested in signing West. However, with the help of three music videos, a chorus hook delivered by the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir, not to mention a flawless, cadence-shifting lyrical flow, Jesus Walks has become perhaps the most evocative of any of West’s singles. And, despite alarming those major label executives, it became one of Kanye’s biggest hits.
3 Gold Digger
West’s second album, 2005’s Late Registration, included West’s first US No 1 single as a lead artist, with Gold Digger eventually going quintuple platinum. He’d already appeared alongside Jamie Foxx on Twista’s US No 1 Slow Jamz. He teamed up with him again here, with Foxx reprising his performance in the film Ray to sing verses from Ray Charles’s I Got a Woman, with reworked lyrics to fit alongside West’s rap in this ingeniously executed track.
4 Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)
Built around Shirley Bassey’s Bond theme Diamonds Are Forever, Diamonds from Sierra Leone seemed to encapsulate all the characteristics West had displayed on his rise: a buoyant flow, a provocative lyrical theme, and a judiciously deployed sample. However, the original recording was soon succeeded by an official remix. Not only did the lyrics of this version delve deeper into the trade in illegal African diamonds, it also featured a guest verse from long-term collaborator and label-mate Jay Z.
5 Love Lockdown
West’s fourth album was released on 2008, and 808s & Heartbreak was a distinct change of pace from what had come before. It was preceded by the single Love Lockdown, which saw West taking inspiration from 80s synthpop, with its minimal production and heavy use of a Roland TR-808 drum machine. The single also featured a departure from the sleekly rapped vocal aesthetic of his earlier work, with his singing doing all of the talking, so to speak. His vocals appeared weak in contrast to his trademark raps, drenched in the Auto-Tuned effect he’d later become synonymous with. On paper, it sounds catastrophic, but the result was both fascinating and groundbreaking.
In the buildup to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West found himself in a peculiar position. He’d become as famous for his statements and actions as for his music, making international headlines in 2009 when he stormed the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for the best video award at the Grammys. He had split, publicly and acrimoniously, from his girlfriend Amber Rose in 2010, and he was still grieving for his mother, who had died in November 2007. He faced a choice: watch his public persona spiral into artistic insignificance, or he could strive to reaffirm himself and his career. Against all odds, the latter was achieved with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West’s most captivating album, which expressed a vulnerability rarely seen before. The single Runaway, accompanied by a Moonwalker-inspired promo film, is an epic tale of self-deprecation, love and loss, offering a toast to the “douchebags”, “assholes”, “scumbags” and “jerk-offs” (each used as terms to describe West following the Taylor Swift controversy).
7 Niggas in Paris
Hip-hop and fashion have long gone hand in hand, but few artists have shared West’s passion for the catwalk world. He has released collections for Nike, APC and, most recently, Adidas, and he name-drops his favourite designers throughout his verse on this cut from his collaborative album with Jay Z, Watch the Throne. Niggas in Paris saw the two MCs delivering an unfathomable rap masterpiece. It also popularised the term “cray” (a truncation of “crazy”), for better or worse. We’ll let you decide.
Another collaboration with Jay Z, also featuring Big Sean, Clique would’ve settled comfortably alongside the rest of Watch the Throne, released the previous year. Instead, Clique found itself on West’s label GOOD Music’s compilation album Cruel Summer. Built around an implacable, unrelenting beat from producer Hit-Boy, which takes in eastern melodic themes, Clique builds to West’s contribution after verses from Big Sean and Jay Z, and when West arrives he doesn’t disappoint. He’s been discussing the CIA and luxury cars with George Tenet, the agency’s former director. He’s so newsworthy, he needs a personal news crew, he’s the new Elvis, and most of all: “I been talking to God for so long/That if you look at my life I guess he’s talking back.”
9 New Slaves
West’s God complex had reached new heights come 2013 with the release of Yeezus. He discarded the luscious, soulful production of his previous LP release for a harsh soundscape of fierce electro and acid house influences, without tempering the arrogance across the 10 tracks, the most hard-hitting of which was New Slaves, on which he teamed up with Frank Ocean. New Slaves explored historic racism, segregation and classism through a brave, undiluted musical assault. It was another middle finger directed towards just about everybody and everything that had stood against West over the past 35 years.
10 Only One
Reverting to the heavy Auto-Tuned vocal style, Only One – West’s collaboration with Paul McCartney – appeared as if from nowhere as a New Year’s Day gift to the internet. This was another stark departure from music that had come immediately before. Gone is the angry, confrontational figure of Yeezus, with this single – an ode to his daughter – displaying West’s sensitive side. Billboard noted that the Auto-Tune tended to be used when West was at his most lyrically naked, and this song saw him addressing the spirit of his late mother, before being guided back to reflecting on the family he has made for himself.
The original article can be found online at theguardian.com.
By Jonathan Hatchman