Kanye kicked off the decade a pariah. The sitting president, who was generally well-regarded in intelligent circles, famously referred to him as a “jackass” for interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs.
Putting aside his eleventh-hour gospel transformation, Kanye is ending the decade a pariah. The sitting president, who is generally loathed in intelligent circles, has called him “very cool” for vocalizing his misguided political support.
In between, he made music. Without generalizing too much, this music ranged from great to poor, innovative to derivative, and lurid to religious. On at least one occasion (“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”), it was both lurid and religious simultaneously.
Kanye designed fashion, both widely praised and roundly mocked. He delivered monologues, ranging from cogent to confounding. He disappeared from the public eye for long stretches, during which we’d eagerly await his return. Then he’d re-enter the spotlight and cause so much commotion—as he did in 2018 when he produced five albums in a month—we’d quietly hope for him to disappear again.
Kanye has always been an avatar for duality. But, over the past decade, this has become his defining trait. On balance, there’s been more to like about his output than there has been to loathe, it’s all just so hard to untangle. With Kanye, there’s no separating the art from the artist. It’s impossible to tell where one ends, and the other begins.
Equally unclear, then, is how one could pick just five songs from this decade to define his enduring legacy. Depending on the argument you’re trying to make, you could easily cherry-pick five songs to support it. Regardless, here is my attempt to put aside my personal biases and arrive at a representative cross-section.
“Runaway,” featuring Pusha-T (2010)
Kanye took the stage at the 2010 MTV VMAs, and with the push of a single button on his MPC, began the process of re-ingratiating himself to the public. It’s ironic because pushing buttons is what got him into trouble at the same award show just one year earlier.
Elegant, melancholic, and haunting, the opening notes of “Runaway” reverberated throughout the venue. By the time the chorus arrived, complete with Kanye openly proclaiming himself a “douchebag,” there was this overwhelming sense all was forgiven. “There’s that self-awareness we all know and love!” we thought simultaneously, as if under the influence of a magic spell. Not long after, the ballerinas came out, issuing a reminder of how rare it is for art to be this opulent and ambitious.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is thought of by many to be Kanye’s opus. As I write this, a critic somewhere is awarding it a top-five slot on their list of the best albums of the decade. Complete with a Pusha-T verse every bit as piercing as the production, “Runaway” incited the spark that made all this possible.
“New Slaves” (2013)
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After the success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye embarked on two long victory laps, releasing Watch The Throne with JAY-Z and compilation album Kanye West Presents Good Music Cruel Summer in the succeeding two years. It wasn’t until he began projecting ominous videos of himself rapping “New Slaves” on worldwide landmarks in 2013, however, that his latest artistic reinvention became apparent.
Although Yeezus has remained a polarizing record among specific segments of Kanye’s fan base, there’s no denying the shock-waves Kanye sent out when he began promoting the album’s roll-out with this unorthodox strategy. “Industrial rap” didn’t quite take off the way critics predicted when they initially classified “New Slaves” as a pioneering artifact of this new genre. Still, the song’s sentiment and chest-pounding 808s became a fixture of hip-hop production for years to come. Moreover, the way the song juxtaposed profane lyrics against political sentiments was fittingly emblematic of where Kanye was at this precise moment in his artistic evolution.
“Wolves,” featuring Vic Mensa & Sia (2016)
“Ima fix wolves,” Kanye West tweeted in 2016, the same day he finally released The Life of Pablo to the public. After a premiere at Madison Square Garden, a performance on Saturday Night Live, and numerous delays, it was odd to learn the album still wasn’t complete. Once a perfectionist who’d premeditated the titles of his first three albums years before his rap career had begun in earnest, Kanye was now a freshman cutting corners to finish his paper at the last second. Sadly, this set a precedent for the release strategy Kanye would ultimately go on to utilize on every one of his subsequent releases.
Musically, “Wolves” is second only to “Ultralight Beam” as the most affecting song on The Life of Pablo. Yet, whereas the latter was more of a showcase for Chance The Rapper, “Wolves” was a perfect reflection of Kanye—both of how far he’d come and where he’d eventually go—as an artist. Its gorgeous vocal sample harkened back to previous years, as did corny, earnestly-delivered stanzas, like “you left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich.” Conversely, its gospel-inspired lyrics foreshadowed the turn Kanye would eventually take three years later on Jesus Is King.
“Wouldn’t Leave,” featuring PARTYNEXTDOOR (2018)
Leading up to release of ye, Kanye famously embraced the toxic politics of Donald Trump, said “slavery was a choice” on TMZ, and evangelized the benefits of going off his mental health medication. Naturally, when he decided to follow all this up with an album, fans hoped the project would offer some explanation to contextualize this uncharacteristic behavior.
To the extent we got one, it came in the form of “Wouldn’t Leave,” one of the more listenable songs on the seven-track album. Except, rather than a genuine explanation, Kanye merely referenced the controversies, offered the lyrical equivalent of a shrug, and moved on. Unable to move past this, a vocal number of fans and critics wrote the album off as Kanye’s worst and then never revisited it. If they had, they might have noticed the album has redeeming qualities from a musical standpoint—“Ghost Town,” in particular, is a soaring triumph—but because Kanye wasted his shot at redemption on “Wouldn’t Leave,” history will remember little else.
“Follow God” (2019)
The jury is still out on whether Jesus Is King will go on to become one of Kanye’s defining albums or an aberration. Yet, after Kanye spent an entire year touring with a gospel choir—even bringing his Sunday Service performance to Coachella—it feels disingenuous not to reference it as part of this list.
As the album’s lead single, “Follow God” functions as an accurate microcosm—both of what Kanye was trying to achieve with this album, and why the results were so mixed. Rather than conduct honest spiritual inventory, Kanye spends more of the song’s run time rapping about being addicted to Instagram and the anti-Christian implications of fighting with your dad: “I was looking at the ’Gram and I don’t even like likes / I was screamin’ at my dad, he told me, 'It ain’t Christ-like.'"
Kanye could make an artistically-vital album about his born-again Christianity, but “Follow God” is not the blueprint for it.