Kanye West has a sprawling discography that doesn’t stop at his eight official studio albums. He has a bunch of mixtapes, standalone singles, collaborative projects, and other odds and sods that showcase how his prolific creativity cannot be reined in by traditional release schedules. This is — after all — a man who helmed five wildly-varying seven-track albums this year, released across five consecutive Fridays. (If you missed any of these releases, catch up with the Turnt Mixtape which collects twenty Kanye-produced highlights from these records.)
To celebrate this mad level of output, and to highlight a number of his songs which may have fallen through the cracks for those who only frequent his studio albums, here are Kanye’s ten best non-album songs.
NB: While it could be argued that Watch The Throne isn’t one of his official albums, being a collaboration with Jay-Z, it was high-profile enough that it doesn’t need to be included here. Ditto with the recent Kids See Ghosts collab. with Kid Cudi.
GOOD FRIDAY (2010)
This was part of Kanye’s legendary GOOD Fridays run-up to the launch of his magnum-opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy during which he dropped 14 free tracks on a run of Fridays, many of which could have argued themselves onto the starting lineup for MBDTF – had that album not have been one of the greatest ever made. ‘Good Friday’ is one such song that was probably left off the record not due to quality, but because the breezy, carefree tone is rather at odds with that album’s more serious, epic bend.
A Sesame Street beat coupled with a smooth Kid Cudi hook, and killer verses from Kanye , Pusha T, Common, and Big Sean, they all sound like they are cruising around in a ’70s Benz bumping tunes after a long week of work; spitting joyous, infectious melodies across the top.
Kanye’s opening verse is amazing and politically-charged — “Turn the radio down if they playin’ that bullshit. They don’t want black people to think at trial” — but it’s Big Sean’s juvenile tale of being led astray by his thirst for women at school that clinches the win: “Man, I always thought with the head inside my drawers. I guess that’s why in school, my grades went from As to Bs to Cs; all over double Ds, I be absent all week.” Enough said.
This track was from the Cruel Summer compilation, which was basically a showcase for the various artists that Kanye has signed, worked with, or simply likes. He released a number of great tracks on this compilation, including the searing ‘Clique’, in which Big Sean and Jay-Z each take a verse before Kanye knocks it out of the park with a sprawling 95-second run that touches on Kim K’s sex tape, him having the same car as CIA head George Tenet (“except mine’s tinted and his might have been rented”), references Spike Lee, Master P, and MTV Cribs, hints that Tom Cruise was drunkenly violent towards an unnamed woman (timeline-wise it suggests Katie Holmes), and sees finish by talking openly about his “deep depression” and suicidal talk after his mother died. It’s heady, brilliant stuff.
YOUNG FOLKS (2007)
One of the most underrated records Kanye ever released was his Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape, which dropped in the lead up to his third studio album Graduation, and features some of his strongest material. ‘Young Folks’ is him rallying against the press over the Peter, Bjorn and John hit of the same name. The first half of the song is fairly unimaginative — Kanye basically apes the whistling melody from the song and sings about the evils of the interview process — but the spoken word rant that fills the final three minutes is truly legendary, and serves as a fairly succinct dissertation on Kanye’s world view. To his credit, he hasn’t strayed far from this mindset – it’s shocking how prescient some of this really is, considering the past year.
SELF CONSCIOUS (2001)
Another mixtape track, although people on the internet love to argue over whether the Freshmen Adjustment trilogy of tapes counts as an official release or a bootleg. Regardless, they are all very easy to find, and one of the most interesting tracks on the first one is ‘Self Conscious’: an embryonic version of what became 2004’s ‘All Falls Down’.
This recording stems from 2001, and shows Kanye’s meticulous working process, which sees him swing through different iterations of songs over many years until he is satisfied. This is a completely different song to what it morphs into. A visionary showing his working out.
SEE ME NOW ft. BEYONCE (2010)
A standalone Kanye and Beyonce duet released during Kanye’s GOOD Fridays giveaway spree, yet not officially part of that swag – which was eventually included as an iTunes bonus track for MBDTF with an extra verse by Big Sean. Confused? So are we, moreso after finding out that this song has been completely scrubbed from YouTube due to copyright concerns.
Regardless of easy availability, this song is an undeniable triumph, with Beyonce and Kanye trading fierce verses over a Charlie Wilson hook. It’s one of the very best things that Kanye has ever recorded, which makes it a shame that it isn’t more freely available. Even the way Kanye launched it was underwhelming, bringing it into a Hot 97 interview the morning he finished mixing it. “Beyoncé finished those vocals at 5am this morning,” he told the station. “I couldn’t be the only person this summer riding around with that.”
Kanye’s other unassailable home run from the Cruel Winter compilation was a bona fide hit single, selling four million copies and reaching #13 on the US charts. Featuring Kanye’s go-to guys Pusha T and Big Sean (as well as 2 Chainz) Kanye is, in truth, the weakest link here, but this is a great display of how he can get out of his own way and let others take the shine – serving the song rather than his ego.
Although, he does threaten his label that he’ll walk unless he gets $50 million, so maybe there is some ego…
Only Kanye could record two songs with Paul McCartney and include neither of them on his next album. ‘FourFiveSeconds’ certainly didn’t slip through the cracks through, going top ten in most countries around the world, and giving McCartney a chart record as the artist with the longest break between top ten singles (29 years).
Songwise, it is a departure for all three artists, built from a chugging guitar line and featuring sparse verses from Rihanna and Kanye. The trio performed the song at the Grammy Awards a month later, then promptly moved on.
WHITE DRESS (2012)
Released on the soundtrack to The Man With The Iron Fist, this largely-overlooked song sees Kanye hearken back to previous production techniques while rapping about falling in love with his now-wife Kim Kardashian. It’s Yeezy at his most unabashedly romantic, spitting lines like “Even though I met you in a club in a tight dress, at first sight I could picture you in a white dress.” Of course, being Kanye and Kim, this courtship tale is not without plenty of sexual innuendo, fights with friends, and complications aplenty. The path to true love isn’t meant to be easy.
RUNAWAY LOVE REMIX (2010)
Kanye and Wu Tang’s Raekwon turned Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent pop song into a hip hop classic, built off the back of the beat from Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit because we truly live in a post-everything society. Bieber’s lovely falsetto is turned into a hip hop hook, with the two rappers coming hard while keeping their content strictly PG.
Raekwon said of the song: “I knew we wasn’t gonna go out there looking like idiots together, us three. When I look at the accomplishments Justin Bieber has in his career, and I look at ‘Ye’s career, and I look at mine, I’m saying to myself, ‘At the end of the day it’s gonna be hot.’ I don’t know what everybody’s all nervous about, but I could expect it only because shorty has a different kind of music that he makes. So it was more or less like your nephew coming to your uncle for some love. Come hang out with your uncles today. That’s how I kinda felt overall through it.”
YE VS. THE PEOPLE (2018)
Kanye is a master of media manipulation. He backed Trump, questioned the free will of slaves, and presto! 24 hour rolling coverage on CNN, Fox News and every other media outlet in the world. Now that’s how you do a pre-album roll out. ‘Ye vs The People’ saw T.I. and Kanye trade lines in one long discourse, in which West attempted to explain his recent outbursts and where his head was at during that time while T.I. offered a more measured counter argument to these points. It operated more as a press conference then a single, but was ultimately successful as both.
He opens with “I know Obama was heaven-sent, but ever since Trump won, it proved that I could be president” and it doesn’t let off from there.