In honor of me turning 30, I made mix CDs of my favorite songs from each of my 30 favorite musical artists/groups. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for this list. They’re simply my personal favorites. Coming in at number 4 is Kanye West.
With apologies to Eminem, Kanye West is probably my most controversial inclusion on this list, especially ranking as high as he does. Kanye West is a polarizing figure who over the past 10-15 years has grown from little known beat-maker, to well-known rapper to full-blown celebrity. Love him or hate him, if you pay any attention to pop culture in 2015, you likely have an opinion about Kanye West.
Rembert Browne wrote an article in February titled “We Love (And Hate) Kanye West Because He Says What We Think,” in which he astutely observed the following:
What Kanye has managed to do is unlike anyone else. He’s not a divider. It’s not that black people love him and white people hate him. Or men love him and women hate him. Or rap fans love him and non-rap fans loathe him. Or young people love him and old people despise him. Or even that Democrats love him and Republicans think he’s the absolute worst.
He’s found a way to rub large segments of every demographic the wrong way. Even Kanye West fans are split on the public persona of Kanye West. There are few things like it.
The polarized response to Kanye is similar to that of another public figure who Kanye name-drops in his verse on the “Ego” (Remix) embedded above, a certain NBA superstar that shares some common character traits with Mr. West: Kobe Bryant.
Like Kanye, Kobe has a loyal legion of fans who will passionately defend him against any negative comments. And like West, there is also never a shortage of negative comments being made in reference to Bryant. (Seriously, if you want to lose faith in rational human interaction, search Twitter for “Kanye West” or “Kobe Bryant” at pretty much any time of day or night.)
Both West and Bryant are undeniably gifted. Kanye West is both critically and commercially one of the most successful hip hop artists of all-time. Similarly, Kobe Bryant is statistically one of the most impactful players in NBA history and his starring role in five NBA championships puts him in the discussion among the games all-time greats. You can argue where Kanye and Kobe fall in the all-time pecking orders of their respective crafts, but they have accomplished to much to be left out of the discussion regardless of whether you like them or not. (There are also people who are entirely dismissive of the NBA as a genre of basketball and/or rap as a genre of music, but I’ll table those arguments for another day.)
The anti-Kanye camp and the anti-Kobe camp have many of the same gripes. Their complaints center around one of the most compelling questions in celebrity culture, an issue that likely has a different answer depending on who is being asked. Should celebrities be judged based on their work, their life outside of their work, or some combination of both? And if it’s the latter, what is the formula that determines such a criteria?
The biggest complaints about Kanye and Kobe are rarely about what they have accomplished in music or basketball. Generally, the complaints about them are about the perceived character flaw of hubris that they share. “Pride comes before the fall,” say the haters, as they wait with bated breath for Kanye and Kobe’s fall from stardom.
The criticism is not entirely without merit, especially if our celebrity approval rating factors in life outside of work. Unfortunately for Kanye and Kobe, if life outside of music and basketball is a significant part of the equation, Kanye and Kobe will always have their critics. Because like it or not, the same reason people hate them is what makes them great.
Kanye West and Kobe Bryant are special for a reason. Kanye West is more than a good rapper. He is a musical pioneer who Paul McCartney recently compared to John Lennon. Kobe Bryant is more than a good basketball player. He is a basketball savant, obsessed with perfecting his craft. However, the greatest strength of Kanye West is not his ability to rap. And the greatest strength of Kobe Bryant is not his ability to score a basketball. The greatest strength of both Kanye and Kobe is their unwavering self-belief. In Kanye’s mind, he is the best rapper alive. In Kobe’s mind, he is the best basketball player alive. Do they sometimes blur the lines between confidence and cockiness? Absolutely. But their belief does not have an off switch.
We live in such a celebrity-obsessed culture. Our society places great demand on our celebrities: musicians, athletes, and entertainers. We want our celebrities to aspire to greatness and, in turn, to inspire us to greatness. Yet we also want our celebrities to be selfless and humble before, during, and after they have achieved said greatness. Fans are willing to forgive a litany of celebrity sins from performance enhancing drug use to infidelity, but if they deem certain celebrities are being selfish or self-centered, they will turn on them or tune them out.
The character foil for Kobe Bryant is Tim Duncan. They came into the league one year apart and both undoubtably will be first ballot Hall of Famers. Both have won five NBA championships. Bryant is 17-time all-star, 4-time All-Star Game MVP, 1-time NBA MVP, and 2-time Finals MVP. Duncan is a 15-time all-star, aa 1-time All-Star Game MVP, a 2-time NBA MVP, and a 3-time Finals MVP. Bryant has played his entire career in the bright lights of Hollywood for the Lakers while Duncan has played his entire career in small market San Antonio for the Spurs. Unlike Kobe Bryant, no one hates Tim Duncan. He is universally respected as the consummate professional and ideal teammate. Is Duncan better than Bryant? Is Bryant better than Duncan? Which player has been the NBA’s best of the 2000s? It is a debate that fans will have for years to come.
It’s less clear who the character foil is for Kanye West. Who is the Tim Duncan of rap? Will Smith? Nas? Rap is more of a brash, in-your-face genre. Perhaps looking more broadly at music in general, someone like Beyoncé would be a more apt comparison as someone with a higher Q score. Everyone would agree Kanye is a better rapper than Beyoncé and Beyoncé is a better singer than Kanye. There is no argument there. But if the question was framed as: who has had a bigger impact on music, Kanye West or Beyoncé? That sets up for a more interesting debate.
As a fan, I am generally willing to overlook minor character flaws in celebrities—such as a lack of humility—especially when the artist/athlete in question would arguably not be as successful without that characteristic. Of course I believe there are some aspects of an artist’s or athlete’s life that cannot be overlooked. There are some personal lines that cannot be crossed without overshadowing professional successes. In general, however, I prioritize the performance over the player and the art over the artist. And that is why I have no trouble ranking Kanye West as my fourth favorite musical artist of all-time.
No other musical artist gets my blood pumping and feet moving at the gym quite like Kanye West. In fact, I was listening to the tracklist below just yesterday as I ran on the treadmill.
Narrowing Kanye’s catalog down to fit on a single CD for my 30 at 30 project was no simple task, but the finished project makes for a fantastic, frenetic mix perfectly suited to serve as the soundtrack for a day at the gym.
For the opening track I chose “Good Morning,” which offers a fitting message to wake up the mind and a good beat to warm up the body. It was one of five tracks I selected from West’s 2007’s album Graduation.
Track two is arguably West’s most inspiring track ever, “Through the Wire.” As the debut single from his 2004 album The College Dropout, “Through the Wire” was West’s introduction to the masses, including me. Not since Eminem‘s “My Name Is” had I been so blown away by a new rapper. What made it even more impressive was the song’s backstory. West wrote and recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut after suffering a car accident in October 2002. The story was played out through the words of the song and in the video that accompanied it on MTV. (Yes, MTV still played music videos back then.) Perhaps the most interesting thing about the video is the introductory message that identifies West as a “Grammy nominated producer” rather than a rapper. With this song, that was all about to change.
Track three also comes from The College Dropout, the second of five tracks from West’s debut. “Never Let Me Down” is the first of four collaborations with Jay-Z that made it onto my compilation. However, it is the verse dropped by performance poet J. Ivy that always jumped out at me:
We are all here for a reason on a particular path.
You don’t need a curriculum to know that you’re a part of the math.
Cats think I’m delirious but I’m so damn serious.
That’s why I expose my soul to the globe, the world.
I’m trying to make it better for these little boys and girls.
I’m not just another individual.
My spirit is a part of this. That’s why I get spiritual.
But I get my hymns from Him.
So it’s not me, it’s He that’s lyrical.
I’m not a miracle, I’m a heaven sent instrument.
My rhythmatic regiment navigates melodic notes
for your soul and your mental.
That’s why I’m instrumental. Vibrations is what I’m into.
Yeah I need my loot by rent day,
but that ain’t what gives me the heart of Kunta Kinte.
I’m trying to get us “us free” like Cinque
I can’t stop; that’s why I’m hot.
Determination, dedication, motivation
I’m talking to you of my many inspirations
When I say I can’t let you or self down.
If I were on the highest cliff, on the highest riff,
and if you slipped off the side and clinched on to your life
in my grip, I would never ever let you down.
And when these words are found
let it be known that God’s penmanship has been signed
with a language called love.
That’s why my breath is felt by the deaf
And while my words are heard and confined to the ears of the blind,
I too dream in color and in rhyme.
So I guess I’m one of a kind in a full house
’cause whenever I open my heart, my soul or my mouth
a touch of God reigns out. (Take’em to the church)
The next two tracks embody West’s ability to re-imagine classic tracks. Jamie Foxx joins Kanye West on “Gold Digger,” a song from 2005’s Late Registration that includes an interpolation of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.” Meanwhile The College Dropout track “All Falls Down” features Syleena Johnson singing the hook, an interpolation from Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Inequity.”
By the time track six hits, workout mode is fully engaged. “All of the Lights,” from 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a powerful anthem equally fit to fire up a stadium crowd before a big game or an individual before a workout.
West’s 2013 album Yeezus was his most controversial release to date. West himself described the album as “a protest to music.” The songs are agitating, abrasive, and antagonistic, undeniably fueled with a fervent IDGAF flavor. No song packs a punch quite as hard as “Black Skinhead,” the seventh track on my compilation. Lyrically, musically, and visually (via the music video), West makes a powerful statement. It’s impossible to watch/listen and not have some type of reaction; at the same time, this song gets the adrenaline pumping and keeps the workout going strong.
Track 8 comes from 2011’s Watch the Throne, the collaborative release between West and Jay-Z. The song samples a line from the movie Blades of Glory. Will Ferrell’s lines “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative… it gets the people goin'” is an apt description of many hip hop lyrics, including this track.
Track nine needs no explanation: “The New Workout Plan” works just fine.
The next three tracks work well together despite coming from three different albums. “Power,” “Stronger,” and “Touch the Sky” all provide the listener with a similar sense of internal motivation as the workout grinds on.
Track 13 is the feel-good groove “Good Life” that features T-Pain. It’s hard not to feel good vibes listening to this song, and the laid back beat is a welcome change of pace after the intensity of the previous run of songs.
Track 14, “Amazing,” is the only track that made the cut from 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak. The album was a departure from much of what West had done previously. On the album Kanye favored singing over rapping and relied heavily on Autotune. In my opinion, some of the tracks worked better than others, but West’s willingness to experiment and break the mold is part of why he is one of the most important and innovative people in music today.
Track 15 is “Champion,” a fitting moniker for anyone approaching the end of a workout.
That is followed by “Jesus Walks,” the final track from The College Dropout to make an appearance. This is an excellent example of West as a straightforward rapper, tackling a topic others might shy away from head on. The beat is something special, too.
Speaking of rapping, Jay-Z and Kanye both deliver in a big way on the “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (Remix), which is track 17. The mid-verse transition from West to Jay-Z at the 2:25 mark is unique and awesome. This song also serves as the final workout song, and Jay-Z’s final “goodnight” is an appropriate transition into the final cool-down portion of the workout.
As much as I enjoy intense, in-the-heat-of-battle, workout mode Kanye, I also love his ability to chill out and rhyme smoothly over a slow beat like he does in track 18, “Everything I Am” from Graduation. If you prefer the more laid back Kanye, I recommend listening to “Family Business” as well as the full 12:41 of “Last Call” from The College Dropout, which details his journey to Roc-a-Fella Records. Also, check out”Hey Mama” from Late Registration and “Big Brother” from Graduation and my newest favorite, “Only One” (featuring Paul McCartney).
The final track is another Jay-Z collaboration featuring a hook from Frank Ocean that I dare you not to sing along with. “Made in America” is lyrically strong and worth a closer look. It is an inspirational song that explores several relatable themes, including family, the struggles of youth, and the American Dream. Congratulations, Kanye. You made it in America, all the way to number four on this fan’s list of favorite musicians.
MM 30 at 30: Kanye West tracklist (finalized August 10, 2014)
1. Good Morning
2. Through the Wire
3. Never Let Me Down feat. Jay-Z & J. Ivy
4. Gold Digger feat. Jamie Foxx
5. All Falls Down feat. Syleena Johnson
6. All of the Lights
7. Black Skinhead
8. Ni**as in Paris w/ Jay-Z
9. The New Workout Plan
12. Touch the Sky feat. Lupe Fiasco
13. Good Life feat. T-Pain
14. Amazing feat. Young Jeezy
16. Jesus Walks
17. Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix) feat. Jay-Z
18. Everything I Am
19. Made in America w/ Jay-Z feat. Frank Ocean