Wake up, Mr. West. It’s your birthday!
On “No More Parties in L.A.” off The Life of Pablo, Kanye West describes himself as “a 38-year-old 8-year-old,” which is maybe a perfect summation of the qualities that have made the 40-year-old rapper such an enigma: a larger-than-life icon who has cultivated a persona that draws as much infamy as it does reverence, with a head-spinning number of acclaimed tracks to show for it.
Somehow, as Kanye has gotten older, his almost youthful sense for defiance and creativity have created work that has only gotten more experimental, more groundbreaking, and with each new album, inspired a new crop of artists of hip hop and of music in general.
The roster of rappers that ‘Ye has inspired is truly staggering. Chance the Rapper has rhapsodized about the transformative effect College Dropout had on him growing up. In 2013, Drake called Kanye “a major influence if not the biggest influence” in his career. Kendrick Lamar told NME in 2014, that Kanye taught him “never to downplay your ideas” and “to always stay as creative as possible and never have any boundaries.”
Detractors (fairly) have often grown weary of Kanye’s oversized ego, but an objective look at his career to this point shows just how much of an impact he’s had on 21st century pop culture, and why so many artists and stans alike “love Kanye like Kanye loves Kanye.” As Kanye would put it, it’s “hard to be humble when you stuntin’ on a jumbotron.”
With that being said, here’s an exhaustive (yet woefully incomplete) list of 40 of Kanye’s most important songs, broken down — more or less — by album.
Writer’s note: This list does not include Kanye West’s many impressive contributions as solely a producer, which helped to launch his career as a rapper, and truthfully, deserve an entire article all their own.
The College Dropout
Feb. 10, 2004
Age at release: 26
“We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” “All Falls Down”
It’s worth noting who was dominating the scene the year before Kanye stepped onto the scene with rhymes about insecurity and Jesus. 50 Cent’s multi-platinum — and incredible — debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, was a perfect encapsulation of early 2000s’ rap and hip hop, and everything Kanye was not. Heavily sought-after as a producer, making songs for the likes of Jay Z, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Twista and more, the now-21-time GRAMMY winner, who is indisputably one of the most important hip-hop artists of the 21st century (if not before), just didn’t fit the mold of what a rapper looked or sounded like.
So, he carved his own path. One of Kanye’s lyrical strengths album to album has been his ability to self-analyze his status at that specific point in his life, and the lines on Dropout convey a distinct insecurity about not fitting in. From “All Falls Down’s” “I’m so self-conscious/ That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches,” to “Jesus Walks'” “So here go my single dog, radio needs this/ They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus.”
Nobody saw Kanye coming, but the rapper’s vice grip on both hip hop and pop was about to be felt in a big way.
“All Falls Down”
“Through the Wire”
“Kanye’s Workout Plan”
Aug. 30, 2005
Age at Release: 28
“Jay’s favorite line, ‘Dog, in due time.'” “Touch the Sky”
It’s too bad that “Gold Digger” is decidedly un-woke in 2017, if only because it might be one of the catchiest songs ever conceived. If Kanye proved his viability as an artist with Dropout, Late Registration, and “Gold Digger” in particular, showed that the rapper was superstar material. And the first one to call it, of course, was ‘Ye.
“Now he look at me, like, ‘Damn, dawg! You where I am!'” Kanye raps of his mentor, Jay Z, on “Touch the Sky.” “A hip-hop legend/ I think I died in that accident, ‘cause this must be Heaven.”
But perhaps the more telling line from that song comes earlier in the verse, when Kanye calls out those who didn’t believe in him, while displaying the self-deprecating humor that — unbeknownst to those who only know him for his bravado — often shows up in Kanye’s lyrics.
“Me and my momma hopped in that U-Haul van,” he raps. “Any pessimists, I ain’t talk to them/ Plus I ain’t have no phone in my apart-a-ment.”
“Touch the Sky”
“Heard Em Say”
“Diamonds From Sierra Lione”
“Get Em High”
Sept. 11, 2007
Age at Release: 30
“Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” “Everything I Am”
If you were in high school in 2007, at least one song off of Graduation was an anthem to you, or someone you know. (Writer’s note: Even if I’m wrong about that, I’m not.)
If “Gold Digger” was Kanye dipping his toe into popular culture, “Stronger” was him diving headfirst into the pool. Featuring an infectious “Daft Punk” sample, the ubiquitous lead single led off an album that somehow continued to push hip hop in ambitious new directions while simultaneously pushing Kanye further into the mainstream.
Graduation was simply an undeniable jam. And it’s also where some Kanye-haters started to take notice of that world-famous ego. On “The Glory,” Kanye references his earliest awards show moment (Nope, not that one. This was a full two years before “Taylor, Imma let you finish”), rapping, “And yeah, at the GRAMMYs, I went ultra Travolta/ But with my ego, I could stand there in a speedo and be looked at like a f**kin’ hero.”
You could be forgiven, at the time, for believing Kanye was at his peak. With song titles like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Good Life,” Graduation so deeply felt like a jump-the-shark high that may never be repeated. And it seemed that way, to some, when on the rapper’s next album, he shed the spectacle entirely.
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
808s & Heartbreaks
Nov. 24, 2008
Age at Release: 31
“Look back on my life, and my life gone.” — “Welcome to Heartbreak”
Two months after Graduation was released, Kanye’s mother died. Donda West, a college English professor, was a guiding figure in Kanye’s life, which you can hear in his earlier songs, like “Hey Mama.” Months later, the rapper ended his engagement to designer Alexis Phifer, after a six-year-long, on-and-off relationship.
Coping with two devastating life events, it’s hard to picture Kanye busting out the celebratory verses that were present on tracks like “Good Life.” So for 808s & Heartbreaks, Kanye stopped rapping entirely.
The dark, emotional electronically influenced record — made in large part with the discontinued Roland TR-808 1980s drum machine — is the birthplace of Kanye’s autotune, where, in contrast with the sleek, cleanly produced hooks of T-Pain on the previous record, Kanye somehow turns his self-admittedly non-accomplished voice, which brushes harshly against the pitch correction, into a groundbreaking, unique instrument all its own, which drones on omnipresently throughout the album.
“Memories made in the coldest winter/ Goodbye my friend, will I ever love again?” Kanye sings, with an anguish and pain that is absolutely arresting. Arguably underappreciated at the time, Kanye, yet again, changed the course of hip hop, both in the further marrying of electronic and hip hop, and in inspiring a new crop of rappers who don’t shy away from vulnerable verses. (Listen to Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” and try not to hear the influence.)
It was the moment Kanye exposed the world to his deepest self.
And then, on Sept. 13, 2009, Kanye took the microphone from Taylor Swift at an awards show.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Nov. 22, 2010
Age at Release: 33
“Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it, I guess every superhero need his theme music.” “POWER”
Kanye was over.
With Kanye’s infamous moment at the MTV Video Music Awards becoming meme-fodder the world over, ‘Ye had become a national pariah; a villain in pop culture’s eyes. Moreover, with 808s, intriguing as it may have been, free of the stadium hits that Graduation was filled with, the public was ready to write Kanye off entirely.
To overcome the infamy the rapper had accrued in his PR disaster of a year, Kanye would have to come out with a bona fide masterpiece. So, he holed himself up in Hawaii and made one.
A listen through Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s 12.5 songs is a magnificent experience, from Nicki Minaj’s storybook-like introduction on the semi-eponymous lead track (not to mention her verse-of-the-decade candidate on “Monster”) to the absolutely scathing lines on “POWER.”
“Lost in translation with a whole f**king nation,” the rapper fumed. “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/ Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation.”
He wasn’t wrong. And his response was a maximalist feat, where ‘Ye is unselfish, both in lyrical humility (“Let’s have a toast to the douchebags,” and in production, as Kanye often placed himself far in the background of his own songs, such as with “All of the Lights.”
Universally adored by critics, this may be the point where the Church of Kanye began, which the artist took to a very literal level with his whiplashingly different follow-up album, Yeezus. But hang tight, because just before that…
“All of the Lights”
“Lost in the World”
Watch the Throne (Collaboration Album With Jay Z)
Aug. 8, 2011
Age at Release: 34
“What she order, fish fillet?” “N***as in Paris”
…. Kanye went to Paris with Jay Z.
The collaboration album became the biggest thing in hip hop — from its announcement to its release — in part because it’s just so damn fun, while still achieving moments of social commentary from two artists with arguably the largest platform in the music industry.
From the Otis Redding sampling, “Otis,” (which would be on this playlist, but isn’t, ’cause Tidal), to the endlessly quoteworthy “N***as in Paris,” we could argue that Watch the Throne doesn’t quite stand up to Kanye’s (or Jay Z’s) solo albums, but it belongs firmly in the collection for both artists.
Plus, Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory line, “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative … Gets the people going,” may be one of the greatest samples in music history.
“N***as in Paris”
June 18, 2013
Age at Release: 35
“Soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you” “I Am a God”
OK, back to solo ‘Ye. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne under his belt, Kanye could pretty much do anything he wanted with his next project. If Kanye was less Kanye, perhaps he’d return to his “college”-themed anthology (The Adjunct Professor?), or try to recreate the highs of “All of the Lights,” or “POWER.” But Kanye IS the most Kanye he could possibly be, which is why Yeezus is a starkly different, caustic, stripped down, 10-song rallying cry that said basically: I am the greatest living artist, and I have a bone to pick.
The dichotomy between self-reference and calling out social problems happens all throughout the record. “New Slaves” features biting commentary of institutionalized racism, from “My momma was raised in the era when /Clean water was only served to the fairer skin,” to “Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with the CCA / They tryna lock n***as up, they tryna make new slaves.” But on “I Am a God,” Kanye angrily spits, “Pink-ass polos with a f**kin’ backpack/ But everybody know you brought real rap back,” with just as much intensity.
He earned some criticism for this too. On “Blood on the Leaves,” Kanye sets Nina Simone’s heart-wrenching crooning about black lynchings as the melody behind bars about a past breakup.
The fiery record moves forward at breakneck speed all the way ’til we hit the last track, “Bound 2,” a welcome relief of a love anthem to Kanye’s now-wife of three years, Kim Kardashian West.
No matter how you feel about their relationship, try to listen to the line, “And hey, ayo, we made it: Thanksgivin’/ So hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas,” and not crack a smile. It’s impossible. And a nice bookend to a manifesto of a record.
“Blood on the Leaves”
“I Am a God”
The Life of Pablo (with Special Mention “Only One”)
Feb. 24, 2016
Age at Release: 39
“Name one genius that ain’t crazy” “Feedback”
The rollout to Pablo was bonkers. Conceived amid a litany of tweetstorms, and with the full force of the Kardashian-Jenner social media megalith behind it, the album changed names and tracklists, was pushed back several times, and because of what the streaming-era of music has made possible, it would not be surprising if Kanye was still tinkering with it to this day.
You can hear the environment it was created in on the album. Kanye, a production master in his own right, experiments with his arguably least polished work to date, with samples slamming into other samples, and the completely restructured “Wolves,” which the rapper promised to “fix” after the record debuted.
But amid the chaos, there’s such beauty here. It may not be the “gospel album” Kanye professed it to be (there’s very little that’s sermon-esque in bars about having sex with Taylor Swift), but “Ultralight Beam” is a positively soul-enriching listen, featuring a Chance verse that might as well have been the lead single of his record, Coloring Book. Later on “I Love Kanye,” aka the Kanye-ist thing that has ever happened, the rapper cuts the beat entirely, and turns a 30-second exercise in total self-indulgence into a somehow endearing experience.
The turmoil in Kanye’s personal life that followed the record’s release seems almost prophesied in the lyrics, from a parable of himself and Kim as Joseph and Mary “surrounded by the f**kin’ wolves” on “Wolves,” to “You ain’t never seen nothin’ crazier than this n***a when he off his Lexopro” on “FML.”
Pablo, with all its imperfections, divides Kanye fans, who came to know the rapper for his arguably tighter productions and lyrical achievements on Dark Fantasy and Yeezus. But with Pablo, we find Kanye once again reinventing himself and airing his rawest artistic expression since at least 808s.
I think we looove Kanye.
“I Love Kanye”
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
“No More Parties in L.A.”
“Only One” (Released 12/31/14)
“I used to want this thing forever, y’all can have it back.” “Forever”
This is more of an addendum, as Kanye clearly pours the bulk of his artistry (respect it, Beck) into his albums, but when the rapper does appear elsewhere in music, he’s always a welcome addition.
When he features, Kanye typically doesn’t try to “steal” a track. For instance, on Chance’s “All We Got,” Kanye has no verse at all, with his heavily modulated voice in the chorus feeling more like an instrument than a vocal melody.
Still, when he does rap, we get some of our favorite Kanye-isms, such as the guilty-pleasure (admittedly groanworthy) line, “Now super bad chicks givin’ me McLovin,” on Drake’s “Forever.”
This playlist is about celebrating Kanye, and you really can’t do that without including a few of his collaborations.
Drake, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne — “Forever”
Kid Cudi — “Make Her Say”
Twista — “Overnight Celebrity”
American Boy — “Estelle”
Now, Kanye is rumored to be working on his next album on a mountain in Wyoming (the rumored title is TurboGrafx 16, but we’re personally hoping for YEllowstone), and if his prolific body of work is any indication, he’ll have even more new classics to add to the tableau of hip-hop music and pop culture at large.
And with that, happy birthye, Kanye!
Here’s the playlist (Warning: Explicit lyrics):
Watch the video below for how Kanye, Kim and their kids celebrated his 40th.