In the spring of 2004, a girl on my high school lacrosse team wearing her uniform of a kilt and polo shirt dropped into a seat next to me on the bus on our way to a game and said, “Here, you have to listen to this song, it’s so funny.” It was “The New Workout Plan.” There, I had the whitest possible introduction to Kanye West.
The College Dropout, Kanye’s first album, was released 11 years ago, and I never could have guessed how he would evolve over the next decade, how integral he’d become to how I live. Kanye is not just content or an artist, he’s a mindset and a way of being.
It’s funny: Kanye is known for his bombastic overconfidence, but so much of his music is about laying bare his insecurities. He has a lot of modes: He’s arrogant, emotional, clever, regal, desperate, dazed, dismissive, self-assured, self-aware. A few months ago, I decided I wanted to find a systematic way to process him, his body of work, and what he means to me.
There are album reviews, which is how Kanye is usually processed, but they don’t show him fully in context. Ranking also doesn’t work , for reasons mentioned above: He’s changed too much and his work is too varied. So I made a bracket, and through this bracket, I’ll find my favorite song. Theoretically.
I chose the initial set of 32 ad hoc, and then refined it by re-listening to all of the albums and swapping out this or that song while keeping a list of alternates. My loose goal was to represent all albums, with some effort toward representing them all somewhat evenly. This didn’t pan out, as The College Dropout has six songs in the set while Graduation has two. I decided to have Watch the Throne and Kanye West Presents GOOD Music Cruel Summer in the mix, because, while they are not his solo releases, collaboration is essential to Kanye’s work. It feels disingenuous to say I can include, for instance, “Monster,” but can’t include “No Church in the Wild.” His most recent releases (“Only One,” “FourFiveSeconds,” “Wolves,” “All Day,” all off his forthcoming album “So Help Me God,” as well as a leaked mixtape) are not included, because we don’t know anything yet about what complete thought they are a part of. Which is not to say I don’t love them; “Only One” is the only Kanye song that makes me cry.
I might have landed on a different 32 if I were not trying to incorporate fair representation from all the albums, probably, and pay tribute to all of Kanye’s evolutions. They would have looked different a year ago. They would look different if I didn’t live in New York. They’d look different if I were single, if I had a different relationship history, if I had a different job.
The bracket is set up such that the Past Kanye tracks are pre-2008/pre-808s and Heartbreak Kanye, which is often where musical “purists” draw the line over “which” Kanye they like. The Present Kanye tracks are 808s & Heartbreak and everything after. The exceptions are Watch the Throne and GOOD Music Cruel Summer, which are demi-credits to Kanye’s name in comparison to major releases. The tracks I chose each fit neatly on one side, so I slotted them there. This won’t winnow down a completely pure pre-2008 and post-2008 song choice, but it will be close. I’m fine messing it up this way because to say you only like “pre-2008” Kanye is an entitled treatment of Kanye anyway.
How songs move through brackets isn’t supposed to indicate anything about the album they come from either way—his albums are extremely cohesive, best consumed and judged whole. I’m just doing this because I wanted an excuse to think about and listen to a lot of Kanye. And to make people angry. But mostly for my personal relationship with Kanye as a force in my life.