It’s easy to forget in all the Twitter rants, reality show marriage proposals and absurd interviews that Kanye West is one of pop music’s most interesting and vital artists. Sure, it’s easy to hate him and get annoyed by him, but Yeezy is undeniably a hit machine, a trendsetter and a pop music god. He’s able to mix all facets of American culture into one amazing, guilded mess, and then sell that to the masses. He’s a master producer, a brilliant copycat and true cultivator of image. From Late Registration to Yeezus, these are the songs that we play the most, the ones that remind us that, after everything else, the reason we still pay attention to Kanye is because he is a fucking incredible musician.
10. Flashing Lights
A stand out track on an album packed with hit after hit, “Flashing Lights” is still a favorite based on the strings and synth-ridden backing track. It shimmers while still being marred in darkness, and like every song on this list: it has a killer beat. This is a dance track that also contains the line “Like Katrina with no FEMA” — a feat just audacious enough for Kanye.
9. Love Lockdown
After three records of pure pop driven hip hop established Yeezy as one of the foremost hit makers, he delved face first into his experimental phase. Inspired by the loss of his mother and the dissolution of a relationship, Kanye put away his angry rapping and took to heavy auto-tuned singing and the cold, minimalism of 808s. This first single was unlike anything anyone had heard in pop music before, and it started a revolution of emotional rawness that has permeated the culture ever since — it was the first single in a string of masterpiece records.
Let’s be real — this is on the list less because of Kanye and more because of Nicki Minaj’s game changing guest verse. One of Kanye’s most amazing talents is his ability to curate: He knows who the best is and uses them to create the best. Of course, Minaj would not sound so amazing if not for the incredible, aggressive beat backing up her venom.
7. I Am a God
It’s impossible to divorce the public persona, narcissism and absurd ego of Kanye with his music, and that’s what he wants. In no song is his persona, his pension for knowing exactly how to get noticed, better tied in with his music than “I Am a God”. Of course, it’s all on the back of brilliant Rick Rubin minimalism, which holds some of the best lines on the record and those terrifying, guttural screams. He says he’s a god, but still is afraid of God.
6. Welcome to Heartbreak
Essays could be written (and probably have/will be) about the influence that 808s and Heartbreak had on American culture and pop music. One of the songs that exemplifies the incredible craftsmanship best is this mid-tempo dirge. From the heart-wrenching, beautiful cello to the alienating feel of the vocoder and 808s, it’s the pinnacle of mixing experimenting sounds and pop sensibilities.
If you’ve ever been to a Kanye show, (and really, why haven’t you?) then you’ve seen the amazing spectacle of thousands going absolutely mad for a single note. The top ten of this list is littered with songs that mix sonic experimentation with pop structure, and “Runaway” is when he mastered that mélange. It’s the sound of a man who knows exactly what you think of him, and is feeding on it until it creates something brilliant. It’s a 9-minute song constructed around a single piano note — excuse me, it’s a Billboard charting 9-minute song that is constructed around a single, haunting and jarring piano note.
4. Jesus Walks
Almost 10 years after it’s release, “Jesus Walks” is still a high watermark in the Kanye West oeuvre. It’s the song that really announced his arrival on the scene as someone who will not be underestimated. The chatting, the children’s choir, the essential rhymes (“the way Kathy Lee need Regis/That’s the way I need Jesus” is brilliant and hilarious). It’s a song that will go down as one of the best in a career filled with incredible hits.
3. Black Skinhead
Much like the dogs that accompany the song when he performs it live, “Black Skinhead” is absolutely rabid. It’s a fiery, chest-beating, angry track that combines the righteous fury of Fugazi with the passion of early rap. Kanye takes the idea of a “post-racial” America, and in three minutes shows just how absolutely foolish and naive that platitude is. It’s his most political song on his most political album, and it has all the fury that comes with the territory.
2. All of the Lights
Kanye West started as a producer, and with all his other talents, producing is still his most pronounced. This is his production at its most baroque; you can listen to it a million times and still not hear all the small, sonic flourishes buried in the mix.
With a King Crimson sample (and let’s be real, how awesome is that!) and a stampeding, celebratory beat, “Power” demonstrates all the best of Kanye West. From his powers of cultivation to his immaculate production and oversized personality, he’s always someone to be watched and a spectacle of the greatest kind delivering truly great music. “Power” rings out with force and is as unforgettable as the man — after all, every superhero needs his theme music.