Sometime tomorrow, Kanye West will release his highly-anticipated eighth studio album, The Life of Pablo. Every indication so far suggestsThe Life of Pablo will be a complete sucker punch from left field. Or in other words, who knows what it’ll sound like. All we know is that TLOP will be a new Kanye West record, and that’s something special.
So as we await the impending shit show sure to take place when Kanye releases this thing, I thought it might be a good time to look back on some of his best work. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock–perhaps an indie one–to call Kanye West influential is an understatement. His albums are generally considered indispensable, paradigm-shifters, and he is in an elite group of record producers–including Pharrell, Timbaland and DJ Mustard–who have pretty much single-handedly moved rap and R&B out of the boom-bap of the 90s into the highly-syncopated, forward-thinking pop it is today.
Nothing against the 90s mind you. It’s just important to remember that a musician like him–one who’s changed the game several times while propping up entire scenes around him with his production and songwriting prowess–is a rare thing. Although I suppose it’s not unprecedented. After all, before him there was James Brown and Prince.
We begin our list, appropriately, with a song entitled “Lift Off.” This comes from a Jay-Z record, but the presence of Beyoncé looms the mightiest. To be perfectly honest, she hijacks this joint. “We gon’ take it to the moon / Take it to the stars / How many people you know could take it this far?” She sings this with the authority of the Heavenly Mother. I know of zero mere mortals who could do what she does here in a few short lines.
Such a complete upstaging at the hands of his wife might have been a hard pill for Jay-Z to swallow. I’d rather not speculate too much about that. I will say this, though: the most notable thing about HOV’s verse is that he spends it essaying on the subject of how soft his dick is.
Yes, it’s that Adam Levine. The fellow from The Voice and Maroon 5. I wouldn’t blame you if you just kept on moving–but I strongly suggest you don’t. First of all, I’m a proud hater of Lavine’s work, but even I must give the man some credit. He kills it. Besides, Kanye is in rare form, too. This is a heartbroken and sullen Yeezy. He honestly doesn’t know what to do about the injustice in his community–and this is one of the few moments in his career where he discusses his frustration without a serving up a tirade of self-congratulation. Young black men, “can’t cop cars without seeing cop cars,” and before you ask him “to go get a job today / can (he) at least get a raise in the minimum wage?”
Probably not, but it’s a valiant effort. And one worth remembering.
Is this Christian rap? Who knows. What is certain is that this song marks our first glimpse into Kanye’s vigorous obsession with Jesus. “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long,” he admits on “Jesus Walks.” Years later would change his tune, “I’ve been talking to God for so long that if you look at my life I guess he’s talking back … (and) fucking with my clique.” In other words, his relationship with God is evolving, so much so that the Almighty himself kicks it with him and Big Sean from time to time, apparently.
For me, this is one of the more endearing continuities in Kanye’s work. Believing in God is complicated, especially when bad things happen. Whether Kanye is Christian or sacrilegious is anybody’s guess. At least he never fronts like he’s got all the answers.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a hunnid mil must be in want of a bad bitch…
It is also a truth universally acknowledged that a beat in possession of Rick Ross is in want of a better rapper.
This thing still goes.
If it’s been a while since you’ve listened to The Black Album, I recommend you remedy that right away. I did. It brought me back to 2003 in a major way—and that’s a good thing, I think. There isn’t a dull moment on that record. The production credits read like a crash course in influential beat makers: there’s Pharrell Williams‘, “Change Clothes,” Timbaland’s, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” DJ Quik’s, “Justify My Thug,” and Rick Ruben’s, “99 Problems.” Then of course there’s Kanye’s dual contributions, the gorgeous, jazz-influenced “Encore” and my favorite, “Lucifer,” with its Max Romeo sample and undeniably awesome bass line. It might be the best deep cut in Jay-Z’s catalog.
This is Kanye with a burr in his paw. And I’d personally like to thank whoever forgot to bring him his “damn croissants” the day he wrote this. Spot-on critiques of American society don’t come along often in pop music. Especially ones that go this hard. Kanye is on a mission, ranting about everything from conservative evangelicals to calling Chicago “Chiraq,” in a reference to how more American men were murdered on the streets of Chicago than in the Iraq War. “But I ain’t finished,” he raps, “I’m devoted and you know it!”
Glad to hear it. Somebody get this guy 300 Trojans STAT!
Like everyone else who’s ever written about this song, I’ll just point out the obvious. Nikki Minaj’s verse so thoroughly lays waste that it renders everyone else superfluous. You can pinpoint this as the exact moment Bon Iver’s street cred surpassed Jay-Z’s. “Just killed anotha’ a career,” she raps, giddily, “it’s a mild day.”
“Turn this mu’fucka up only if it feels right,” raps Kanye as if we had a choice. I, for one, am powerless when it comes to bumping this irresistible orchestra of absurdity. And as someone who’s tardy for everything, when I heard this for the first time, I felt like someone finally understood me. “I’ll be there in five minutes,” Kanye raps, “five hours later, I’ll be there in five minutes.”
“Everything I Am,” is a gorgeous and deceptively modest-sounding track. Here Kanye makes a very good argument for why he’s special. Admittedly, it comes off a bit earnest, but it’s still pretty hard to hate. “I know people wouldn’t usually rap this,” Kanye begins, “Just last year Chicago had over 600 caskets / Man, killin’ some wack shit / Oh yeah, except for when niggas is rappin’ / Do you know what it feels like when people is passin’?”
Maybe Kanye doesn’t deserve the, “Nigga please award” after all.
Steely Dan wrote some classic tunes. “Kid Charlemagne,” wasn’t one of them. “Champion,” on the other hand, nicks its chorus from “Charlemagne” and manages to be one of the great R&B tracks of the century. Truthfully, for all their brilliance, Steely Dan could really get caught up in some noodling. Kanye knows better. A million odd time signatures and complex chord progressions can never make up for knowing when you’ve got a killer hook on your hands. “Mmm hmm, that’s that shit,” Kanye raps mockingly, “So if you’re gonna do it, do it just like this.”
It’s good advice. Donald Fagan should take notes.
Forget all the hoopla surrounding the Paul McCartney collabs. For my money, this is Kanye’s finest moment of 2015, so far. His verse is all fire-breathing non-sequiturs. He does it all: pays his respects to Eric Garner, shouts out his boy Tom Cruise, and even compares himself to Michael Jackson. Most importantly, though, he rhymes Crystal Carucci with, “girls be acting like they got diamonds in their coochie.”
I don’t know about you, but I needed that little nugget of wisdom in my life. Thanks for putting things in perspective, Kanye.
Kanye can’t do everything. Dance music, for example, might best be left to others. That doesn’t prevent Kanye from claiming to be the Alpha and the Omega of steppin’ on “School Spirit.” Whatever. He still manages to endear himself.
The big trick he pulls off on “School Spirit” is how easy he makes this shit sound. And where did he learn do it? Not college, evidently.
Advising young America to stay away from school might seem like bad advice, but as someone with crippling debt and the same career I had before I got my degree, I’ve got to concur with Kanye on this one: college is bullshit.
Wanna get ahead, kids? Get a library card and learn a trade.
The sample of Laura Nyro, singing, “Can’t study war,” is telling. It’s is an obvious reference to the great Negro spiritual and anti-war rallying cry, “Down By The Riverside.” Kanye, who’s mother was a civil rights activist, is well aware of the potency in referencing this song. (It’s about crossing the metaphorical Jordan River: the final impediment for the ancient Israelites to traverse before truly escaping slavery and reaching the Promised Land.)
You might think that, given the heavy baggage that comes along with using this sample, Kanye might want to say something, you know, relevant.
You’d be wrong.
Kanye spends “The Glory” rapping about how awesome he thinks he is—with a quick homage to Tribe thrown in for good measure.
There’s just one problem. The song still manages to be, dare I say, uplifting. So as you listen to Kanye run his victory lap, consider that maybe it’s what he isn’t saying that’s important. For a guy in his position, there’s a particularly heavy load to lay down. After all, the Jordan is deep, and a lot of people haven’t reached the shore yet. Kanye’s boasting just makes that fact all the more obvious.
“She ain’t messin’ with no broke niggas,” is not the only reason I’m single, but it’s certainly in the top five. Still, I love this song. Mostly because I respect Jamie Foxx’s ability to sound exactly like a young Ray Charles while flipping the script on the line, “she gives me money when I’m in need.”
Detractors might find this tune a bit sexist at first blush. But in Kanye’s defense, he spends the final verse warning women on the perils of staying true to their man. After sticking with him, through thick and thin, he’ll make it, then, “he’ll leave your ass for a white girl.”
The realness: We’re all terrible.
Kanye’s most wondrous moments have always been gratuitously so. And he wisely enlists the hungriest singer in the game to bring his most marvelous chorus to date home. Like Beyoncé on “Lift Off,” and Nikki Minaj on “Monster,” Rihanna makes this beat her bitch. And while we’re talking about Rihanna, we may as well bring up her most recent collab with Kanye. My advise: look the fuck out for her this year.
There are just two things I want to say about this song. 1) Twista is the most under-appreciated rapper alive, and 2) I can’t think of a better way to honor “Slow Jamz” than by links to some great songs by the people who inspired it:
Marvin Gaye – Luther Vandross – Anita Baker – Ready For The Word – New Edition – Minnie Ripperton – Gladys Knight – Chi-Lites – Evelyn “Champagne” King – The Whispers – The Isley Brothers – The Spinners – Earth, Wind, and Fire – Keith Sweat – Maze – Jodeci – Teddy Pendergrass –
These rhymes are idiotic. Yes, Kanye, I know you have a “Lambo,” and if you wanted to, you could steal my girlfriend, no matter who she is. No need to rub that in.
Still, I cannot step to this beat (produced by an almost impossible cast of bad asses). The most inexplicable part of it all, I find myself singing along in spite of myself, “Lamborghini mercy /Your chick she so thirsty…”
I don’t even like Lambos.
It’s hard to imagine a time when a chipmunked soul sample wasn’t a ubiquitous novelty, but rather, a revelation. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” was that time. It was also Kanye’s breakout moment and an indisputable classic of hip-hop. People who don’t like rap music make an exception for “Izzo” in spite of their bad taste. That’s the kind of jam it is.
“That’s the anthem, get your damn hands up,” raps a cocksure Jay-Z. How the hell are you going to argue with that?
Of all the self-evident truths in American pop culture, “Ain’t nobody fresher than my motherfuckin’ clique,” ranks high among them. In other words, if Big Sean is to be believed, all men are not created equal, “My crew deeper than Wu Tang / I’m rollin’ with, Umm, what the fuck am I sayin’? / Girl, you know my crew name / You know 2 Chainz / Skrrrrt / I’m pullin’ up in that Bruce Wayne.”
The whole thing would be intolerable except I totally want to take a ride in the Batmobile.
“Pardon my French but I’m in France, I’m just sayin’,” raps Kanye in a subtle reminder that his life is far more spectacular than ours will ever be. Here is Kanye at his absolute best, “My niggas in Paris and they goin’ gorrilas,” is somehow a rhyme that he pulls off. It’s also his raison d’être: opulence, maximalism, and absurdity in equal measure.
What makes this Kanye’s best song isn’t its braggadocio, it’s the contagious and unbridled joy that explodes from every note. He and Jay-Z are simply having a blast.
Jay-Z “ball(s) so hard, motherfuckers tryin’ to fine him.” So he and Kanye decided to escape to gay Paris. And why not? They can kick it with Prince William and take their ladies out to lavish dinners. To hell with the price tag, too. After all, “What she order? Fish filet?”
Indeed, every bit of this is most certainly “cray.” But best of all, is how Kanye gives Jay-Z arguably his finest album in Watch The Thrown, even as Jay-Z relinquishes well, The Throne, to Kanye. It’s a fair trade. Here we have these two great pillars of hip-hop cementing their dual, and inextricably linked, legacies while reminding us of a very important life lesson:
Living well is the best revenge.
is a freelance writer and hipster emeritus. His work has appeared in various impressive publications including the one you’re enjoying now and he has his own music blog where he reviews music both old and new: oldnewborrowedblew.blogspot.com