Kanye West, contrary to what some of his lyrics may say, is a mortal man. And today, June 8, is the day of his birth. This year is a big one too, as the icon turns 40, gracefully sliding into middle age. And what better way to celebrate than with the following task, one that was both insanely difficult and immensely frustrating: ranking his 40 best songs.
Fortunately, there were plenty to choose from. Below you will find a list that includes work from each one of his seven studio albums, his collaborative masterpiece with Jay Z, Watch the Throne, and a standalone single here or there. Deciding on the top 10 alone took us hours of deliberation; when an artist makes nothing but masterpieces, it becomes increasingly challenging to critique one against the other. Nevertheless, we have done it.
These are the 40 Best Kanye West Songs:
Incredible piano riff, Chris Martin of Coldplay on the chorus, recorded at Abbey Road studios in London, likening his Chicago hometown to a long lost girlfriend, what more do you need from this classic Kanye cut?
39. “Get Em High”
While Kanye has a plethora of tracks exploring the depths of human existence, sometimes you just need a song to pass a joint around to, and “Get Em High” delivers. Talib Kweli watched Kanye whip up the incredibly dank beat in 15 minutes, and ended up hopping on the track last minute, with Common’s verses already recorded. Although the Clipse-esque beat isn’t representative of Kanye at his most inventive, it’s a damn good soundtrack to fill the room with smoke.
Classic Chicago house samples and a dash of Autotune with an exultant drum breakdown. What. a. jam.
37. “The New Workout Plan”
“The New Workout Plan”
Sometimes Kanye’s got a sense of humor, and when he does it’s glorious. His satire of workout mixtapes is a certified jam, but also serves as a commentary on the ridiculous demands put on women to look good. The music video is a campy delight, featuring the forever iconic Anna Nicole Smith as well as Tracie Ellis Ross pretending to be a French video girl.
“FML” is Kanye at his most candid, self-aware and impassioned. Accompanied with a stellar feature from The Weeknd, who rides “FML”’s beat perfectly, the track is one of the most vivid journeys into the mesmerizing mindset of Kanye West yet. The double entendre of the title focuses on Ye’s lust and love – he’s arguably still not sure which one will conquer which. And that spectral outro? Utterly haunting and fucking brilliant.
35. “Drunk and Hot Girls”
Only Kanye could pull a sample from Can, the formative, innovative German krautrock band, and turn it into a formal complaint on handling his intoxicated girlfriends and make it sound natural. And while he is the polar opposite of a saint when it comes to his relationship with women, the lyrics of this track are all delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
34. “Send It Up”
There are a veritable Greek chorus’ worth of bizarre guests teleporting in from various other musical worlds on Yeezus to assault the listener, but few have the immediacy of the presence of King Louie. His wild cackle is married to what can only be described as an air raid siren in the song’s opening moments, but it is at the end, after an excellent verse from Ye, that we are left with one of the album’s most mysteriously reflective ruminations, delivered atop a jarring beat: “Memories don’t live like people do.”
33. “Hey Mama”
“Hey Mama” was originally a beautiful dedication to his mother when Ye dropped it on Late Registration. It then manifested into an utterly timeless tear-jerker after Ye performed the track at the Grammys in 2008, after Donda had just passed. Poignant and powerful, it’s impossible to watch that rendition and not and get chills running up your spine.
32. “Everything I Am”
Linking up with DJ Premier for this motivational master-stroke, “Everything I Am” is one of Yeezy’s most-underrated songs from Graduation (and on this list.) Twinkling piano, Premier’s scratching and brilliantly introspective lyrics all make for an absolutely golden combination. Distinctly Chicago, distinctly superb.
Juxtaposing beautiful production alongside scathing critique of American racial injustice, “Gorgeous” actually depicts the ugliness of an America which continues to overlook minorities rights – particularly with Donald Trump in charge now. Best bar? Malcolm West snapping on “What’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?” Genius.
30. “Real Friends”
The transition from “FML” into “Real Friends” is a thing of beauty. Remember when this song dropped on Ye’s SoundCloud before the album dropped? It created social media bedlam, and uncontrollable excitement from even Ye’s harshest of critics. It remains one of those songs you play with your day ones mid-session, bleary eyed as the morning light trickles in…. head-nods… not needing to say anything… just knowing looks aplenty. One for the ages.
29. “On Sight”
The opening track to Kanye’s seventh studio album, “On Sight” is a full-on audio assault of an introduction to the world of Yeezus. Daft Punk’s metallic synths waft in on the track, and blown-out drums provide the backdrop for a fired-up Yeezy. Although less than three minutes long, it’s emblematic of Kanye’s constant quest to innovate not only his own tracks, but contemporary music as a whole.
28. “Good Morning”
Both the best possible song to open Graduation and absolutely the best song to start your day with a cup of joe, “Good Morning” is disarmingly simple and incredibly potent. Whether it’s facing the sort of life-changing event like the graduation of its lyrics or easing yourself out of a particularly rough patch, this song is here, a healing salve for all wounds.
“It is a weepin’ and a moanin’ and a gnashing of teeth” goes what was surely the darkest sample to hover out of car radios in the summer of 2012. This G.O.O.D. Music outing is a pitch-black work of show and tell; no matter how absurdist the bars coming out of Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz are, their humor is obscured by the cryptically foreboding production that surrounds them. Until light comes in the form of Mr. West, descending down from the heavens as a radiant chorus delivers him unto us, the mere mortals lost in endless suffering. He is a merciful lord indeed.
Remember when this track single-handedly ruined any credibility Taylor Swift ever had? Good times. “Famous” is production dynamite, with that Sister Nancy sample representing one of Ye’s best chops in recent times. Rihanna embodies fame itself on her brief appearances on the track, and Ye is at his braggadocious best on this bountiful beat.
25. “Love Lockdown”
“Love Lockdown” is the pulsing, bleeding focal point of 808s & Heartbreak; the torn heart of an album that is in itself a torn heart. That beat stays the same, gliding evenly throughout a track even as it is attacked by bouts of forceful piano, hand-claps, drums, and Kanye casually revolutionizing a tool called Autotune. It ends as it began, with that beat, a pressing reminder of the utter devastation that lies beneath all.
24. “Blame Game”
It’s tracks like this that re-affirm the fact that Ye was in a completely different stratosphere to any other artist when he dropped MBDTF. Juggling his love/hate relationship with his special others (fame/females), it also contains one of the best skits in hip-hop history from Chris Rock. Yeezy taught us well.
23. “Bound 2”
Quite possibly one of the most despised music videos of all time, “Bound 2” is canonical Kanye. Passing through hyperreal pastoral landscapes wearing tie-dye and plaid shirts on a motorcycle ride with his dream girl Kim, Kanye distorts classic Americana tropes into his own utopian vision. Unlike the rest of Yeezus, Kanye is back to his sampling ways with soaring gospel vocals, but he geniusly juxtaposes the old school vibes with a blown-out bass line on the chorus.
22. “Good Life”
“Good Life,” simply, was Kanye at his happiest. Alongside the effervescent and on-form T-Pain, it remains one of Ye’s most uplifting tunes. And props to T-Pain for shouting out his affectionate Grandma.
21. “All of the Lights”
Another triumphant banger from Kanye. That full orchestra arrangement, those drums?! Truly a team effort, The-Dream wrote the hook, and Rihanna, Fergie, Alicia Keys, La Roux and Elton John (?!) lent their vocals to the track.
20. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”
Kanye has become infamous for finding the most obscure samples to cull beats from, so for him to pluck a theme song as is from a film in one of the most successful franchises in cinematic history makes this track something of an anomaly. But the big band instrumentation utilized in John Barry’s James Bond score proved to fit in with fellow film composer Jon Brion’s work on Late Registration like pieces of a puzzle. It works so well that even Kanye’s most explicitly activist lyrics of his career fit into the picture without fuss.
19. “Ultralight Beam”
Kanye called The Life of Pablo his ‘gospel album,’ but that description really only applies to this track, one of the most experimental and haunting tracks he has ever put to tape. In between vast silences that seem to last for hours, a synth warble resembling an underwater organ hazily floats to the surface. And yet for being his opening statement, he’s barely present; this song belongs to the awe-inducing work of gospel legends like Kirk Franklin and, of course, that king-making verse from Chance the Rapper. It’s the sound of Ye simultaneously honoring his inspirations and crowning the next generation.
18. “All Falls Down”
I pined and I pined for this to make top 10. The unforgettable guitar riff. The legendary video where Kanye goes through the X-Ray machine. Kanye talking about materialism, societal flaws AND an introverted look at his own insecurities… in 2004? Benchmark-setting genius.
Built on a Lauryn Hill sample that was allowed by the songstress – but only if she wasn’t signing – Ye instead recruited Syleena Johnson, who was reportedly in the recording studio opposite him when he was producing the track, so used her instead at the last minute . “All Falls Down” ironically underpins Kanye’s rise to being one of the greatest artists of all time.
17. “New Slaves”
Like many others, my first association of Yeezus was sneaking out in the dark of night to catch one of the croppings of secret projections displayed on buildings around the world. What appeared was a ghoulish visage of Kanye’s face stretched to billboard size, rasping the lyrics to a song I’d later learn was called “New Slaves,” his eyes full of a purposeful fire. Even now, years later, I see his eyes as I listen, channeling a righteous and furious anger built from centuries of oppression. His message, taken seriously from the first, has become prophetic.
Acknowledging both his status as a controversial figure and his desire to create an incredibly successful hit, “Monster” balances Kanye’s increasingly avant-garde production style with his cultivated pop sensibility. Bon Iver’s on the intro and outro, Jay Z and Rick Ross hop on the track, and Nicki Minaj comes in with one of the greatest verses of all time.
15. “Black Skinhead”
In an alternate universe, Kanye fronts a punk band, and “Black Skinhead” is the song that he frequently smashes his guitar to. High-octane and cathartic, he casually throws in anti-racism and anti-establishment sentiments while solidifying his status as rap god.
14. “Slow Jamz”
One of the most nostalgic songs of all time. “Slow Jamz” immediately transports you back to the most halcyon of days whenever it’s played. The song name itself pretty much spawned its own genre. On countless sex and party starter playlists – it invokes ALL the feels. Whether it’s that timeless Michael Jackson bar, or Twista taking over from Kanye to mesmerizingly ride the beat with his incessant flow, this one is an absolute classic in every sense of the word.
Ye deliberately steered away from making something radio-friendly on the opus that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but “POWER” is the closest thing we have on the record resembling the structure of a pop song. But even by those standards, this track is an entirely different beast. With a beat that could quake the earth, a sample of infinitely melismatic war chants, and a barrage of one liners that rain down like bullets (“At the end of the day god damn it I’m killing this shit”), this is Kanye firing on all cylinders; the most decadent effort on an album of maximalism. No wonder he has to end the song by jumping out the window.
12. “Touch the Sky”
Another early Kanye classic, “Touch the Sky” samples Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” and its slowed-down horns are a perfect compliment to Blaze’s massive drums. Kanye switches from a smooth flow to non-Autotuned vocals with ease. The iconic video with Pamela Anderson provides triumphant ’70s Evel Knievel vibes, foreshadowing the out-of-this-world trajectory Kanye would follow as a musician and pop culture icon in the years to follow.
11. “N*ggas in Paris”
This song was performed by Kanye West and Jay Z 11 times in a row during their tour stop in the title’s namesake city. Armed with that knowledge, do we really need to explain how great it is?
10. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
For the last few months of my high school career, I was late every single day. Literally. Bless you poor Mrs. Scales, but I could not possibly have made time to care about physics in my marijuana-addled days of being a 17-year old. And each day, as I pulled into the parking lot, I made a ritual of firing up “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” slowly rolling past the empty cars just so I could yell “Class started two hours ago, OH, AM I LATE?!” There has simply been no better anthem for pridefully having zero (zilch nada) fucks to give written in this lifetime.
On “Stronger,” we have peak shutter shades / Louis Vuitton Don era Kanye. He’s confident enough to use a Daft Punk sample (later confident enough to hire them for a performance at the Grammys), and to say that he makes it work would be an understatement. The track was mixed down 75 times, but Kanye still wasn’t satisfied, so he enlisted Timbaland to re-do the drums. A pop masterpiece, “Stronger” solidified Kanye’s position in the mainstream consciousness.
Kanye strips back the maximalism and puffed-up optimism of his previous albums and pares it all down with a Roland-808 drum machine and Autotuned melodies on “Heartless.” In stark contrast to the warm samples and old-school hip-hop sounds he’s used in the past, here he’s dramatic, cold, and detached, reminding us that although he’s at the top of the rap game in 2008, he’s still human and feels the isolating depths of loneliness. But what beauty he can spin from it.
7. “Devil in a New Dress”
What. A. Beat. Perhaps the standout from Kanye’s most masterful album, it captures his unique style as a rapper. From the scintillating “Put your hands to the constellations / The way you look should be a sin, you my my sensation,” through to stereotypically wry, “That’s Dior Homme, not Dior Homie,” it’s Ye at his most acerbic. Then there’s Rick Ross, who casually wraps up proceedings with his greatest guest verse of all time. Goosebumps.
6. “Through the Wire”
To paraphrase a line he would utilize a few albums down the road, “every superhero needs his back story,” and as far as origins go, you just can’t make this shit up. The account of Yeezy laying down his bars through a jaw wired shut after a frighteningly close experience with violent death is — rightfully — the stuff of legend, but the track holds up just as well without the story. It is one of the best examples of Kanye’s early, pitch-shifted sample-driven work, and a masterfully-crafted interpolation of the funk and soul records he grew up listening to.
5. “Gold Digger”
One of Kanye’s first mainstream hits, winning praise from Spike Lee and your friend’s cool dad alike, “Gold Digger” is an emblematic early Kanye track from his 2005 sophomore album Late Registration. Showcasing his innate musical knowledge with a reappropriated Ray Charles classic performed by Jamie Foxx and a surprise synth-coda that is a clear nod to Stevie Wonder’s mammoth-hit “Superstition,” the song deliriously upends decades of pop music into one lean, mean, unstoppable machine. Bonus points for the percussion and Kanye’s laugh-out-loud bars. All together now, “WE WANT PRE-NUP, YEAH!”
4. “Blood on the Leaves”
Yeezus has, amazingly, been with us a mere four years. Its influence is unparalleled; whispers of its stylistic flourishes are ubiquitous in hip-hop and electronic music alike. It was immediately hailed as an instant-classic within days of its initial release, an assessment which — if possible — may have served to undersell its quality.
‘Instant-classic’ is also a term that feels inevitable for “Blood on the Leaves,” a towering pinnacle of anguish in an album full of it. Above the mercilessly crushing beats, high above the ululations of that Nina Simone sample, even higher than the soaring lines of Autotune (an instrument West somehow redefines yet again), is the raw, emotional honesty that courses through each second of this song. “Remember when we were so young, when I would hold you” he bemoans, plumbing the depths of his soul and serving it to us on a gilded platter. As far as lamentations go, this one is nothing short of exquisite.
3. “Jesus Walks”
“Jesus Walks” is an anthemic masterpiece; both doggedly militaristic in tone whilst simultaneously holding a pertinent message, one that still rings true today. Ye lays down the gauntlet from the get-go, “We at war with terrorism, racism and most of all, we at war with ourselves,” in what goes on to become what is perhaps Kanye’s most revered track.
The whole cult of Kanye West was spawned from this very song – “Jesus Walks” is soul-stirring, invigorating, fervor-filled – you name it. It’s Kanye at his most transcendent; ultimately foreshadowing his transition into Yeezus himself. A requiem for the old Kanye, who has since become considered rap’s foremost iconoclast.
2. “Flashing Lights”
“Flashing Lights” was recorded in 2007, a decade removed from Kanye’s now monolithic status in style, music and popular culture. The name itself earmarked what he has endured throughout this decade – unprecedented media attention and unparalleled super-stardom – it’s all right there, summed up in its most succinct form.
It contains all the best elements of a classic Ye song. Stirring strings, archetypal bars about luxury and lust and a killer hook. All of which accompanied an iconic, Spike Jonze-directed video, which sees Ye beginning to flex the creative muscles that now keep him firmly on the lips of even the deepest chasms of the internet. He’s now a certified SEO-goldmine for any publication – you’re now reading this article because ‘Kanye West’ was in the name of this piece. Why? Because of the sheer visionary brilliance of tracks like “Flashing Lights.”
In a catalogue that spans decades, hundreds of tracks, an army of collaborators and a smorgasbord of musical styles, “Runaway” was decidedly and unanimously our choice for the greatest Kanye West song. Now, why?
One cannot overlook the context of its creation; in which this song was the definitive statement in an album that was a true make-or-break moment in absolving his sins in the eyes of a public still reeling from that fabled mic theft. In a record full of self-flagellation, “Runaway” is the towering peak of Ye’s benediction, a shrieking wail from the depths of his soul acknowledging how far his mighty hubris had made him fall.
And we accept his apology, because “Runaway” is nothing short of nine minutes of sheer perfection. Never before has Kanye’s tinkering with Autotune produced a result as awe-inspiring as the song’s coda, a duet with a cello that inevitably takes up half of the track’s runtime. Never before has he created a melody as instantly recognizable or as simplistic as the one gently pressed in those opening piano keys. Never before, and never since, has his work ever been so ravishingly beautiful.
If this wasn’t enough for you, check out our ranking of the 25 best Drake songs right here.
- Text: Jake Boyer, Jacob Davey, Bianca Giulione