Kanye West is one of the most heralded artists in hip-hop history. Few artists, in any genre, can match his career accolades. The 38-year-old rapper is easily one of the most accomplished artists of the 21st century and has everything that an artist would ever imagine to obtain in their career. However, his road to becoming a music icon wasn't an easy one.
The Chicago native began his career as a producer and landed his big break when he was producing hits for his friend and mentor Jay Z and other artists on the legendary Roc-A-Fella Records roster in the early 2000s. Despite all his success, Kanye's main goal was to become a rapper. Most record labels were reluctant to sign Kanye because he didn't fit the gangsta image prominent in mainstream hip-hop at the time. Then-label head Damon Dash signed West to Roc-A-Fella Records. A year later on Oct. 23, 2002, Kanye West got into a near-fatal car accident in California after he was leaving the studio. The accident would inspire him to write "Through the Wire" and lay the foundation for his debut album album The College Dropout, which released to widespread commercial and critical acclaim in 2004.
Yeezy would go on to release five more solo LPs, one compilation album and a collaborative LP with Jay Z, selling more than 32 million albums and 100 million digital downloads worldwide. He has won a total of 21 Grammy Awards, making him one of the most awarded artists of all time. TIME magazine even named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world twice (2005 and 2015). Plus he's founded the record label G.O.O.D. Music and creative content company DONDA (named after his late mother).
The hip-hop antihero's resume is filled with platinum and gold plaques and he's penned some of biggest songs over the past decade. XXL looks back and highlights the Louis Vuitton Don's best tracks to date. Here are 20 Best Kanye West Songs.
"Through the Wire"Kanye West
On Oct. 23, 2002, after leaving the studio in California around 3 a.m., Kanye West got involved in a near-fatal accident and was taken to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Unfortunately, his jaw had to be wired shut during reconstructive surgery. Two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, 'Ye would be inspired to record "Through the Wire" even with his broken jaw still wired shut. The song samples Chaka Khan's 1985 single "Through the Fire" and was the lead single from his debut album, The College Dropout (2004). "Through the Wire" peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and started Yeezy Season. The video was just as iconic. The almost five-minute visual featured footage and photography showing Kanye's chronological path from his accident to his Roc-A-Fella Records chaining day. At the end of the video, Jay Z and Dame Dash introduce their newest golden child to the world and the rest is history.
"Slow Jamz"Kanye West Featuring Twista & Jamie Foxx
The second single off of Kanye West's debut album The College Dropout was his biggest off the LP. "Slow Jamz," which was also the lead single for Twista's album Kamikaze, featured the two Chicago artists and Jamie Foxx. The song peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first No. 1 record for all three. Kanye added a different intro and two extra verses by Foxx for his album version. The song was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. "Slow Jamz" also features actress/comedian Aisha Tyler's memorable intro to Twista's stage-stealing verse.
"Jesus Walks," the fourth single off West's debut album The College Dropout, is arguably his most culturally impactful record. In a time where hip-hop was so squarely focused on gangsta rap, Kanye released a song that was overtly religious and spiritual, with some major publication critics labeling the song as a gospel record. "Jesus Walks" samples "Walk with Me" as performed by the ARC Choir. The boldness of the song's context plus its excellent production brought "Jesus Walks" widespread critical and commercial acclaim. The song peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming West's fourth consecutive top 20 hit in the U.S. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, "Jesus Walks" was awarded the Grammy for Best Rap Song. The song also had three different music videos with the second video winning Best Male Video at the 2005 Video Music Awards and Video of the Year at the 2005 BET Awards.
"Flashing Lights"Kanye West Featuring Dwele
"Flashing Lights," a great mix of electronic music and hip-hop, is off West's third studio album, Graduation. The track features R&B singer Dwele as well as Sneaky Sound System vocalist Connie Mitchell and was co-produced and co-written by Eric Hudson. A dazzling, fun record, 'Ye raps about a woman he can't stop thinking of. "She in the mirror dancing so sleazy/I get a call like, "Where are you Yeezy?"/And try to hit you with the ol-wu-wopte/'til I got flashed by the paparazzi/Damn, these niggas got me/I hate these niggas more than a Nazi," he raps. The song peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 list but was well-received in pop culture. "Flashing Lights" was used in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, NBA ads and on TV shows like MTV series My Life as Liz and Nip/Tuck.
"Lost in the World"Kanye West Featuring Bon Iver
If you didn't shed a tear when you first heard Kanye's "Lost in the World" for the first time, you might not have a soul. The cut, which is from his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), is one of the most beautiful songs in the history of man. The song features vocals by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, which honestly is the first time most hip-hop fans heard about the indie folk band. The atmospheric production takes the listener on a dark, endless odyssey. Match that with one of Kanye's strongest verses and "Lost in the World" is easily one of the standout records of his career. The song was never released as a single but it was so hard not to gravitate towards once the album was heard. Just play this song on repeat and enjoy the ride.
"Runaway"Kanye West Featuring Pusha T
Off of Kanye West's stellar fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), "Runaway" is a clear standout. The first thing that stands out is the wonderful production on the song thanks to a crisp, repetitive piano riff and its creation formulated by West, Emile, Jeff Bhasker and Mike Dean, which is the equivalent to the A-Team. The song itself is very introspective, with West discussing his failed relationships and media criticism. But in grand Kanye fashion, the hook says exactly what he thinks about everything ("I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most/So I think it's time for us to have a toast/Let's have a toast for the douchebags/Let's have a toast for the assholes/Let's have a toast for the scumbags/Every one of them that I know"). Featured on the song is Pusha T, who delivers one of the best verses of that year. The music video was a perfect complement to the song and for some, was their first experience ever with watching ballet dancers perform. Also, who could forget Kanye's 2010 MTV Video Music Awards performance of the track.
"Can't Tell Me Nothing"Kanye West
After back-to-back classic albums, Kanye wasn't trying to be humble at all on his third LP, Graduation. His first single from the project, "Can't Tell Me Nothing," is a four-and-a-half minute "suck it" to haters worldwide and a proclamation of what's to come. It's braggadocios, it's unapologetic, it's honest and it's Kanye West introducing himself to the world as the next music icon. The song was produced by West and Atlanta producer DJ Toomp. "Can't Tell Me Nothing" was nominated for Best Rap Song at the 2008 Grammy Awards, but lost to another one of West's songs, "Good Life." The lyrics says it all, "My momma couldn't get through to me/The drama, people suing me/I'm on TV talking like it's just you and me/I'm just saying how I feel man/I ain't one of the Cosby's, I ain't go to Hillman/I guess the money should've changed him/I guess I should've forgot where I came from."
"Hey Mama" is one of Kanye West's most touching songs. The ode to his mother, Donda West, is a wonderful five-minute ballad describing his affection for his mom and how she raised him through all the hardships. The song was surrounded by a heartbreaking air when on Nov. 10, 2007, West's mother died of heart disease while suffering "multiple post-operative factors" after plastic surgery. A week later, Kanye tried to perform at Le Zenith in Paris but broke down into tears during his attempt.
“He said the word, ’Mother,’ and just couldn’t go any further,” Le Parisien journalist Meddy Magloire told the magazine. “A backup singer, the DJ and a guitar player came over to console him. It looked like he might collapse. He just couldn’t continue. He just stood there in a spotlight, crying, while the band continued playing.”
Kanye would perform the song from 2005’s Late Registration at the 2008 Grammy Awards. His performance went down as one of the greatest moments in Grammy history.
"Gold Digger"Kanye West Featuring Jamie Foxx
"Gold Digger" is arguably Kanye West's biggest song. The song features guest vocals by Jamie Foxx and is the second single from his second album, Late Registration (2005). "Gold Digger" peaked at No. 1 one on the US Billboard Hot 100, becoming West and Foxx's second No. 1 single together. Jon Brion co-produced the record, which samples Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." The single broke multiple digital downloads records in 2005 and was the second-longest running No. 1 record on the Billboard Hot 100 at 10 weeks, behind Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" (remember how inescapable that song was?). "Gold Digger" was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2006 Grammy Awards and won the award for Best Rap Solo Performance. The lyrics were also incredible and is a staple in Kanye's performances. "Ok, get your kids but then they got their friends/I pulled up in the Benz, they all got up in/We all went to din and then I had to pay/If you fucking with this girl then you better be paid/You know why? It take too much to touch her/From what I heard she got a baby by Busta/My best friend say she use to fuck with Usher/I don't care what none of y'all say, I still love her," he raps. Kanye don't kill 'em.
"Bound 2"Kanye West Featuring Charlie Wilson
"Bound 2" is flat out one of the most beautiful songs Kanye West has ever created. This is a song that could be included in many a wedding ceremony because it bleeds intoxicating love. "Bound 2" is the hip-hop equivalent of Pachelbel's "Canon in D." The single was the last track on Kanye West's sixth studio album, Yeezus (2013) and rightfully so. It was a complete contrast to the post-apocalyptic vibes off the rest of the album. It was produced by West and Che Pope, with additional production being handled by Eric Danchick, Noah Goldstein, No I.D. and Mike Dean. The song features vocals from legendary soul singer Charlie Wilson. It samples "Bound" by Ponderosa Twins Plus One and the line, "Uh-huh, honey" from Brenda Lee's "Sweet Nothin's." The music video, which features his wife Kim Kardashian West topless, finds the two riding on a motorcycle through the mountains. The clip was lowkey softcore porn and it was tremendous.
"All of the Lights"Kanye West Featuring Rihanna & Kid Cudi
For the first time ever, Kanye West and Rihanna team up for a song of epic proportions. "All of the Lights" is the fourth single from Kanye West's fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010). It was produced by West and features additional vocals from John Legend, The-Dream Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John and Rihanna. "All of the Lights" is like the song you hear after the best moment of your life just happened and time slows down. It's triumphant and nauseously beautifully. Rihanna and West need to make more music together. The single peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. The track also won Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2012 Grammy Awards plus was certified triple platinum by the RIAA. On the flipside, the video, which was directed by Hype Williams, may give you a seizure.
"Crack Music"Kanye West Featuring The Game
"Crack Music" is one of Kanye West's most underrated tracks. The song is off of Late Registration and it compares America's crack cocaine epidemic to the addiction of hip-hop in America. With an excellent hook from The Game -- it's been reported that his verse didn’t fit the concept the song, though Game has released a version with the verse -- with additional backing vocals from Keyshia Cole, Charlie Wilson, and Tony Williams.
Kanye's first verse is a standout, showing off his social consciousness with solid wordplay; he doesn't sound preachy and it's far from boring. "Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer/You hear that? What Gil Scott was hearing/When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin/Crack raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland/We invested in that, it's like we got Merrill lynched," he raps. The ability to make "conscious rap" a radio single, this is what makes Kanye so great.
"Monster"Kanye West Featuring Jay Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver
The star power alone makes "Monster" one of Kanye West's best songs of his career. The track features rappers Jay Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and singer Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The single was originally released through West's G.O.O.D. Fridays, a weekly free music giveaway to help promote My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- the song was later confirmed to be on the LP. The drum-heavy production was terrifying and each MC rapped about the reasons they're a monster in the game. The song was a hit, peaking at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also a coming out party for Nicki Minaj, who delivered what some considered the best verse on not just the entire album but of that year.
"Devil in a New Dress"Kanye West Featuring Rick Ross
"Devil in a New Dress" is a lush cut off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and was produced by Bink. It was the only song not produced by West on the album. The song samples Smokey Robinson's quiet storm recording "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." Love and religion are the topics of discussion on the single. What takes this song over the top is the sick break and guitar solo by Mike Dean that transitions to the absolutely incredible verse from Rick Ross. Seriously, has Ross ever rapped a better verse in his career than on this song? "I shed a tear before the night's over/God bless the man I put this ice over/Getting 2Pac money twice over/Still a real nigga, red Coogi sweater, dice roller/I'm making love to the angel of death/Catching feelings never stumble, retracing my steps," he delivers. Chills.
"Paranoid"Kanye West Featuring Mr Hudson
Following the release of Graduation, the next couple of years were the most difficult for Kanye West. He lost his mother, broke up with his longtime fiancée Alexis Phifer and relatively felt like he was alone. To cope with everything that was going on in his life, Kanye musically went left and released the emotional effort 808s & Heartbreak. The LP stands as one of the most influential albums in hip-hop history. A standout on the album is "Paranoid," which features Mr Hudson. The production is handled by Jeff Bhasker and Plain Pat, while co-written by Consequence and Kid Cudi. The song is also probably the closet thing on the album to traditional rap.
"Good Life"Kanye West Featuring T-Pain
"Good Life" teams up ultra competitive Auto-Tune lovers Kanye West and T-Pain for one huge record. When this song was released it was all over the radio and incredibly catchy. The third single off of Graduation, it peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Good Life" is produced by West and DJ Toomp, Timbaland and Mike Dean plus contains a sample of the keyboard outro to Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." John Legend and Ne-Yo provide background vocals. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Song at the 2008 Grammy Awards. In short, this song is very addictive.
Statistically, "Stronger" might be Kanye West's most successful song. It's a great mix of electronic vibes and hip-hop plus listening to it is like getting a triple expresso shot. The second single off of Graduation was produced by West and Mike Dean and the vocal sample of "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" by Daft Punk. Seriously, if you ever lose ambition or get distracted, just listen to the hook on repeat. "N-now th-that that don't kill me/Can only make me stronger/I need you to hurry up now/Cause I can't wait much longer/I know I got to be right now/Cause I can't get much wronger/Man I've been waiting all night now/That's how long I been on ya/(I need you right now!)," he rhymes. How inspiring is that? Note that the music video, which was directed by Hype Williams, was inspired by 1988 anime film Akira (watch that if you haven't). The song won earned Best Rap Solo Performance at the 2008 Grammy Awards.
"Power" peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard charts and was the lead single for Kanye West's fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The song features vocals by Dwele and is co-produced by West and Symbolyc One. The samples are aplenty. It was "21st Century Schizoid Man" by King Crimson, "Afromerica" by Continent Number 6, and "It's Your Thing" by Cold Grits. The song was important because prior to its release was Kanye's infamous Taylor Swift moment at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and he was ripped apart by the media at the time. The song received universal critical acclaim and set the tone for the MBDTF. It was nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 2011 Grammy Awards. But seriously, you got the power to let power go?
"Heartless," off of Kanye West's iconic 808s & Heartbreak album, is an extremely emotional and vivid single. The song peaked at No. 2 on Billboard Hot 100 and is one of Kanye's best-selling singles of all-time. No one feels more lonelier in the world than Kanye on "Heartless." The lyrics are gut-wrenching. "I mean, after all the things that we been through/I mean, after all the things we got into/Ayyo, I know of some things that you ain't told me/Ayyo, I did some things but that's the old me/And now you wanna get me back and you gon' show me/So you walk around like you don't know me/You got a new friend/Well I got homies/But in the end it's still so lonely," he delivers.
"Blood on the Leaves" Kanye West
"Blood on the Leaves" is like being caught in a nightmare. Kanye interpolates "Strange Fruit," which is such a sacred song, and turns it into a story about an affair that doesn't end well (when do they ever?). Without being an official single, the song peaked at No. 89 on the Billboard Hot 100. Produced by some huge names (West, Hudson Mohawke, Lunice, Carlos Broady, 88-Keys, Arca and Mike Dean), the record wins on production alone.
Hudson Mohawke of TNGHT discussed the creation process in an interview. "I think Kanye had wanted to use that 'Strange Fruit' sample for a while, but it was like, 'How in the hell are you going to get that to fit?' But it miraculously came together. Obviously, 'Strange Fruit' carries so much political weight, and “Blood on the Leaves” is more about past relationships, but you can draw some parallels between the two," he said. "There’s not an overtly political message in the final lyrics, but in some ways that would’ve been too easy."