Before Kanye West released his 2018 Wyoming projects and before he started tweeting and saying questionable and problematic things, I had this idea of writing this essay about Kanye West and his music. Not in a Pitchfork type of way where I analyze his music, but through a pop culture lens.
I should also explain that I was in the middle of reading Shea Serrano's Basketball (and Other Things), so this was my frame of mind.
One Friday night when my roommates were out of town, I played Kanye West's albums back-to-back-to-back, writing and trying to understand his lyrics, evolution, and his mindset at the time. Quite proud of what I had written and hoping for a feature on The Ringer, I emailed Shea for critique, something he's often very open to giving because he's a man of the people.
This was his response:
Of course. Why did I even frame it as a ranking? Probably because I was still in the middle of reading his book. I mean, I was the type of guy to switch majors to whatever class I was taking at the time because I thought it was so interesting.
So I made some edits, shopped it around to other sites that are not The Ringer and got zero bites, so here it is.
What If Kanye's Albums Were TV Shows?
The entire Kanye discography is like a tv network, each album is a tv show with a different flavor, theme and story. Most, if not all of them, should be listened all the way through from beginning to end to get the whole picture. And if each album is a tv show, that means each opening track is its theme song.
If the HBO static hum and chorus came on just before you hit play, what emotions would the opening track elicit? Would it be the same feeling you get from the Game of Thrones theme song (an epic fantasy saga involving incest and murder), or Sex and the City song (a fun half-hour look into four female friends navigating life, love, and Manhattan), or maybe it’s Insecure and there’s no theme song, just a 2-second title card?
In this case, your fingernail tapping your telephone screen trying to navigate your music app and search “Kanye West” is the HBO static.
“Intro” + “We Don’t Care” on College Dropout (2004)
I was in the car with my friend Eric on our way to a camping trip in 2004. Fresh of out things to talk about, he told me about this rapper who had kids on his album singing about how they sell drugs. Didn’t sound like my kind of music, because I was more into Apple-commercially indie bands at the time, but in the interest of not having to talk to Eric anymore, we had a listening party in his Honda Civic.
I’ll be honest. I can’t remember anything from that experience. Even “Jesus Walks” didn’t impress me at the time. But I was dumb and didn’t understand hip-hop culture and didn’t realize how transformative College Dropout was both sonically and lyrically.
Now when I listen to the opening skit with Bernie Mac telling Kanye to do something for the kids and moving into the song about how kids are dealing crack to survive, I get it. This is the origin story of Kanye West, even though we get a 15-minute, Wikipedia-esqeue, oral history of the origin of Kanye West at the very end of the album.
This theme song tells the story of hustle and the tv show is about that hustle and also about how school is kinda dumb.
“Wake Up Mr. West” and “Heard ‘Em Say” on Late Registration (2005)
In Late Registration, DeRay Davis reprises his role as Kanye’s teacher, calling him a bum, which is always hilarious, followed by “Heard ‘Em Say” featuring Adam Levine. The song is catchy as hell but because the album’s kind of a sequel to The College Dropout, “Heard ‘Em Say” isn’t a standout despite the interesting pairing.
“Good Morning” on Graduation (2007)
In the final album of the College Trilogy, Kanye is no longer hustling as he did in Dropout, nor is he as socially aware as he was in Late Registration. Graduation is all about the glow up.
“Good Morning” is a good theme song for a good tv show that has been going on for a little too long, like if The Wire’s ninth season’s theme song was performed by Randy Newman. Undoubtedly good. But also, like…come on, man.
“Say You Will” on 808s and Heartbreak (2008)
808s and Heartbreak is an album that came after the break-up with Amber Rose and passing of his mother. There were a lot of emotions swirling around Kanye at the time, putting him in a different headspace than where he was for his first three chipmunk-soul albums, so it only makes sense that 808s kicks off with this emotional, auto-tuned track about heartbreak and sets the tone for the rest of the album.
But here’s the thing: “Say You Will” is a good song but doesn’t exactly hype me up for the rest of the album. If the Jeopardy clue was “This is the first song off of 808s and Heartbreak,” I would’ve buzzed in with so much swagger and said, “What is ‘Heartless,’” and then I’d be at -$3600 and then my mentions would be in shambles.
“Dark Fantasy” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2011)
Five weeks before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped, we got the 37-minute film, Runaway, that opens on Kanye running full speed down a country road and the title card. Then we cut to a meteorite burning through Earth’s atmosphere and catch a glimpse of Kanye rapping this song through the rearview mirror of a Tatar MTX, driving down that same country road, surrounded by deer. Maybe it’s just associative memories at this point, but honestly, that shit’s tight as hell.
Fantasy is the first album that opens with spoken word since Late Registration, where Nicki Minaj reads a retold sample of Ronald Dahl’s “Cinderella,” and she literally tells us what the album is about. Then Teyana Taylor asks us if we could get much higher, like, 30 times. And Kanye goes on and on about pain, but in my mind, he’s going on and on about pain while driving a Tatar MTX. It’s very cool.
“No Church in the Wild” on Watch the Throne (2012)
In the early 2010s, Dodge started running ads that featured the driving beat of “No Church in the Wild” and every time I heard it, my body instinctively prepared itself for a 45-minute, luxury-rap adventure and the unseen dark side of it all, as told by two of the best rappers of the decade.
Watch the Throne is a great album not only because it’s so catchy, but also because of its themes, which mirrors The Great Gatsby (2013), which Jay-Z, who identified with Jay Gatsby, got executive producer credits for lending “No Church In The Wild” to the movie.
“On Sight” on Yeezus (2013)
Yeezus is the angry follow-up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and between the laser sounds, that weird interlude, and duration of how long Kanye drags out the word “mooooooooouuuuuutthhh,” this theme song is perfect.
“Ultralight Beam” on The Life of Pablo (2016)
There are things in life that you wish you could experience for the first time every time, like visiting New York City, or getting your first big paycheck, or the first time you lay in bed with the lights off and letting the choir from “Ultralight Beam” wash over your body. We’re always trying to chase that dragon and this song is probably the easiest dragon to catch. And that’s before Chance the Rapper even comes on.
Kanye always said The Life of Pablo is a gospel album, and I’m not sure what getting bleach on your t-shirt has to do with church, but overall the album is a potpourri of sounds and production that describe Kanye as the man he is today, post-Amber, post-Donda, post-VMA, husband, and father of two, and the gospel song that gets us there is undefeated.