Today marks the 35th birthday of Kanye Omari West — producer, shoe designer, Twitter user, Fendi intern, awards-show-ruiner, director, author of self-help books, and, lest we forget, rapper. We at Rap Genius are marking the occasion by giving you his 35 best lines, with explanations.
Kanye West is notable for many reasons. When it comes to his rapping, though, he wasn’t always the celebrated figure he is today. He had some fantastic moments in the early years of his career, many of which are below, but overall, his ear for beats and knack for unique song concepts outpaced his rapping ability. On his 2004 debut album The College Dropout, he was shown up by nearly every guest — who were, to be fair, some of the greatest rappers alive (Jay-Z, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, etc.)
Despite that, the record sold over four million copies and Yeezy established himself as a legitimate rapper. Most artists would take this as an excuse to sit back and make The College Dropout, parts 2-157. West had a different idea. Despite being a huge star, he continued to work on his mic skills and, by 2009, he was on a par with — and even sometimes besting — the same folks who had previously murdered him on his own shit.
Yeezy didn’t rest on his laurels stylistically, either. Each album has shown a distinct change and progression. The hip-hop world waits with baited breath for each new project– can he really make an album with Jon Brion? Can he make a record that will translate into stadiums and arenas? What’s this about a tour where he’s on stage by himself, talking to a spaceship and some puppets? Wait, he’s singing? How will he come back from Swiftgate? Year after year, he pulls off stunts that no other artist dares to attempt, never mind succeed at, and his music only gets better — we could have filled up half this list just with quotes from “Gorgeous” and “Power”. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the best of Mr. West:
35. Can’t you see, you’re like a book of poetry/Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni — turn one page and there’s my mommy — Hey Mama
Donda West was a huge, looming figure in her son’s life. Kanye’s first three album titles (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation) were all in their way answers to his mother’s wishes for him to move into the world of higher education. She also served as a muse, as in this touching number that remembers the hard times and ends with the son asking what type of Jaguar he should buy his mother as a thank you. The use of the word “mommy” here kills us every time with its child-like yearning and simplicity.
34. Immature adult, insecure asshole/If you fall on the concrete, that’s your ass fault/If you pass on a Kan beat, that’s your last fault — See Me Now
Kanye is for everyone — the backpacker, the soul music fan, the casual listener who just loved “Gold Digger”. With this song, he was apparently aiming for the usually overlooked hardhat market as well, as he makes an “asphalt”/”ass fault” pun.
33. I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go/And I’m looking pretty hood in my pink Polo — Barry Bonds
In 2007, Lil Wayne was the man to beat. Every thought out of his mouth made it onto a mixtape somewhere, and most of them were amazingly good. So Kanye was tempting fate by asking a man who was then believably billing himself as “the best rapper alive” to be the only rapping guest on his Graduation album. And in the first real indication that our caterpillar was growing into a butterfly, Yeezy pulled it off. He surpassed Wayne on this track, and more than earned the “genius” appellation he gives himself here.
32. For every inch they cut the nose off the Sphinx/I make my jeweler add a few more links/You can look at me today and fucking nobody think/And my face always looking like somebody stinks — Chain Heavy
This line is a stellar example of Kanye’s loyalty to both racial justice and Mammon. He sings the praises of his jewelry while referencing the Afrocentric theory that Napoleon’s troops destroyed the nose of the Sphinx during an eighteenth-century visit to Egypt.
31. “And don’t let nobody with the power to sign/Ever tell you you ain’t got the power to rhyme/They used to tell me toughen up, put some bass in your voice/They used to tell me lighten up, put some Ma$e in your voice” — Get By (Remix)
It’s hard to remember now, but Kanye’s early career had him constantly fighting for respect as a rhymer. The stigma of being a producer-turned-rapper followed him until The College Dropout‘s multi-platinum success. This 2002 remix of Talib Kweli’s Kanye-produced hit features amazing verses from Kweli, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, and Jay-Z. Yeezy, at this point in his career, was well out of his league rapping-wise. But he didn’t let that stop him, and came up with a sloppy but inspired verse that succeeds due to pure gumption and charisma.
30. Dog, just keep it right thurr like Chig-ay/Your girl don’t like me, how long has she been gay?/The Spanish girls tell you, “No habla Eng-lay”/And everybody wanna run to me for they sing-lay — Wack Niggaz
The modified Pig Latin that runs through this line is what sells it for us. Kanye is a man of many exaggerated pronunciations, not all of which are successful. Here, though, he adds just the right amount of goofiness to his brag about being the producer of the moment.
29. One thing I gotta call out, boy/Take a look at Fall Out Boy/Just seems like when they get money they don’t ball out, boy/They just buy tight jeans til they nuts hang all out, boy — This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race (Remix)
Emo poster children Fall Out Boy were beloved by rappers. Jay-Z appeared on their fourth album, and they enlisted Lupe Fiasco, Lil Wayne, Paul Wall, and more to appear on this remix of their 2007 hit. Yeezy appears nonplussed by the whole thing, admitting in his opening lines that he has no idea what the original song is about (and, despite being avowed FOB fans, we really don’t, either). But he does know how Pete Wentz and co. dress, and gets his licks in here.
28. You trying to stab one like Jack the Ripper/I’m trying to stab two like Jack the Tripper — Stand Up (Remix)
This line was one that Kanye was extremely proud of in his early days, working it into seemingly every freestyle. He was right to do it. The couplet is in the style of all the best Kanye jokes — short, unpredictable, and bawdy. This could occasionally go awry — see his “I always had a PhD — a pretty huge dick” groaner in some songs of this period.
27. Add this, we blazin’ — Nicki, what you think?/We got two white Russians but we also need some drinks — Blazin
If he decides to give up this whole rapping thing, Yeezy could kill as a standup comic. This line sounds great on the song, but could work equally as well at some Borscht Belt lounge. Should Kanye ever tire of, you know, riches and fame and world-beating success, we suggest he hit the Catskills.
26. Spitting fire on the PJ in my PJs/Fire Marshall said I took it to the max like TJ/Y’all aint peep? I said “Marshalls,” replay/I guess I’m like the black Marshall meets Jay — Kinda Like a Big Deal
We at RG are not really a fan of the “Get it?” style of punchlines. We even wrote a whole blog post criticizing the practice. Leave it to Kanye to get us to go back on our word. This succession of clothing-store puns knocks us out every time, even if we admit that Yeezy’s Eminem-plus-Jay self-assessment is, er, a bit overstated.
25. I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary/Detroit Red cleaned up — Good Morning
While much attention has been paid to Kanye’s mother and her tragic loss, it’s a lesser-known fact that his father was a Black Panther. This legacy comes through in West’s music and thinking in unexpected ways, and this is one of the most unusual. Malcolm’s famous “By any means necessary” cry for justice is a long way from the high-fashion world West finds himself in, but a part of him always wants to reconcile the two outlooks, thus giving this line meaning beyond the obvious wordplay. Kanye didn’t call himself “Malcolm West” on “Gorgeous” just because it sounded good, after all.
24. In the club, always the flyest/Always got her hand the highest/She stopped drinking Diet Coke/She on that coke diet — Everyone Nose (Remix)
Rap Genius is always a sucker for a good poetic device, and epanados (repeating words in reversed order) is one of our favorites. Shakespeare may have made it famous with “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” but leave it to Kanye to one-up the original Big Willie with this line about, as the hook puts it, “All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom”.
23. We gonna do like Sonny Bono and hit those trees soon as we get alone/I’m doing beats for pro bono soon as we get to bone — Half Price
Kanye is in a light, playful mood here, and has fun with his newfound super-producer status. In addition to the tone, we’re suckers for the “Bono”/”bono” homophone and the “bone”-centric wordplay.
22. ‘Cause when the Jesus pieces can’t bring me peace/Yo, I need at least just one of Russell’s nieces — Put On
This 2008 Jeezy collaboration came at a tough time for Yeezy. His mother died in late 2007, and his relationship with fiance Alexis Phifer ended in the spring of 2008. But all of those emotions were channeled into one Auto-Tuned verse in this song. Between rants about “bitches that owe me sex”, laments about losing his one true love, and cries that all his success “don’t mean shit”, “Put On” represents a frighteningly open look into the psyche of a depressed rap star. But in the middle of all that, and without losing the intensity, he manages to work in a great joke about Vanessa and Angela Simmons — which shows that, even at his lowest point, Yeezy still had a thing for Run’s House.
21. And I’m through spitting these rappers my most heartfelt flow/Cause they be like, “That’s cool — you got some beats for me, though?” — Dreamkillers
As we mentioned above, the main battle in the early years of West’s rap life was getting taken seriously as a rapper. The more popular he got as a producer, the more being pigeonholed as “that dude with the soul beats” became a huge risk. “Dreamkillers”, a pre-College Dropout number, recounts these struggles, and these lines encapsulate the problems he faced better than anything else he ever wrote.
20. They take me to the back and pat me/Asking me about some khakis/But let some black people walk in/I bet you they show off their token blackie — Spaceship
To get a measure of how long ago 2004 was in hip-hop years, remember this — Kanye West could make a song about working at The Gap, and no one batted an eye. This reminiscence of his time being alternately mistreated and tokenized is a great piece of writing. It makes issues of labor rights, racism, and the struggle of an artist in a dog-eat-dog society tangible by making them personal. It’s a story first, and a piece of social analysis second, but it works equally well as both.
19. Now everything I’m rhyming on cause a Ramadan/Been a don, praying for the families lost in the storm — Power (Remix)
Kanye’s politics, Malcolm X references aside, have always been hard to parse. But well before he made his sympathies clear by visiting Occupy Wall Street, he was dropping gems for his careful listeners. Here, on a song that explicitly calls for keeping our “troops out of Iran”, Yeezy mentions Ramadan not only as shorthand for a powerful, all-encompassing event, but as a way of explicitly siding with his Arab and Muslim listeners, a stance that he enhances in the next few bars by briefly rapping in Arabic. The Katrina imagery at the end rounds out his stance and reminds us that perhaps Mr. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”‘s worldview has been clear all along.
18. Act like I ain’t had a belt in two classes/I ain’t got it, I’m going after whoever — who has it/I’m coming after whoever, who has it?/You blowing up? That’s good, fantastic — Gorgeous
Hip-hop, whatever the editors of The Yale Anthology of Rap may tell you, is primarily an oral art. These lines are a prime example. The final phrase here is dripping with such contempt that what reads as a mild, if backhanded, compliment on the page comes across to the ear as the ultimate dismissive insult.
17. I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven/When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace — Can’t Tell Me Nothing
Spirituality is not a subject Kanye has ever been shy about addressing. From “Jesus Walks” on his debut to the permissive “new religion” he creates on “No Church in the Wild,” Yeezy is constantly hungering for some connection to forces greater than himself. However, he is continuously drawn back to the need for worldly success. It is this contradiction that fuels most of his great art, and this couplet captures it in all its paradoxical glory.
16. Dress smart like a London bloke/Before he speak, his suit bespoke — American Boy
“American Boy” could have been a throwaway. A cheesy song by a British singer about her love for the colonies, the tune is made into a near-masterpiece by West’s guest verse. Here, he puns on the British word for “tailored” in a way that is, unlike most guest verses, both funny and appropriate to the song’s subject matter. It’s worth noting that his verse also contains a great homophone, a trick that we at RG are suckers for. When he rhymed “U.K.” with “You, K”, grammar freaks on both sides of the pond went nuts.
15. Screams from the haters got a nice ring to it/I guess every superhero need his theme music — Power
“Power” was the first single from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it delivered an unapologetic West, ready to reclaim his throne after his time in the post-Taylor Swift pop cultural wilderness. Here, he literally turns hate into fuel for his art, and lets the public know that, love him or hate him, his ambition and ego remain intact.
14. You know how long I been on ya/Since Prince was on Apollonia/Since O.J. had Isotoners/Don’t act like I never told ya — Stronger
Hip-hop, or at least its mainstream side, is by and large a youth music. The latest radio-ready singles all seem aimed at the same 8-18 demographic. This is why those of us who are (ahem) more mature were ecstatic at the outro of this 2007 number. Yeezy nodded to the 70’s babies — like himself — who remember Purple Rain and the OJ trial, and old heads around the globe cracked a wistful smile.
13. As kids, we used to laugh/Who knew that life would move this fast?/Who knew I’d have to look at you through a glass?/And look — you tell me you ain’t did it, then you ain’t did it/And if you did, then that’s family business — Family Business
The first several Kanye West albums had introspective, soulful songs about the West clan — his mother (“Hey Mama”), his grandmother (“Roses”), and this one about the whole crew. This part of the song, addressed to a jailed cousin, is an emotional look at the price of incarceration, as well as a meaningful example of loyalty to those you love.
12. The Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme/That’s Dior Homme, not “Dior, homie”/The crib Scarface, could it be more tony?/You love me for me — could you be more phony? — Devil in a New Dress
Few things excite Kanye West more than fashion. The man did an entire song made of nothing but the names of models, after all. So having a chance to correct his uneducated antagonist about the proper name of a menswear line is not a chance he is likely to pass up, and he does the job with gusto here. Plus we love the pun on “tony” — few people, rappers or not, ever use the word properly.
11. They say I’m crazy, but I’m about to go dumb again/They ain’t see me ’cause I pulled up in my other Benz/Last week, I was in my other other Benz/Throw your diamonds up ’cause we in this bitch another ‘gain — Otis
Kanye rarely matches up to his big brother Jay-Z’s contributions on their duo album Watch the Throne. Even on this song, he’s far outclassed by Hova’s multi-layered, heavily political lines. But his “other other Benz” formulation is an absolute classic, one that will live on in the culture as long as there are people bragging about cars. It should be noted that this song also contains West’s single greatest brag — “I made ‘Jesus Walks’ — I’m never going to hell”.
10. I ain’t here to argue about his facial features/Or here to convert atheists into believers/I’m just trying to say, the way school need teachers/The way Kathie Lee needed Regis/That’s the way I need Jesus — Jesus Walks
“Jesus Walks” is an iconic Kanye song for a reason. It’s powerful, anthemic, and perhaps overstates its case just a little bit, as he claims that radio will play songs about anything except Jesus. This song’s success showed that talking about the big guy in a largely Christian country doesn’t really take away from your spins after all. These lines are the best in an excellent tune, and reveal that one of Kanye’s best qualities has always been his humor, which he uses judiciously to make his serious messages stick.
9. Tell me what I gotta do to be that guy/Said her price go down, she ever fuck a black guy/Or do anal, or do a gangbang/It’s kinda crazy that’s all considered the same thing — Hell of a Life
While Kanye would be the first to admit that he’s self-involved (“immature adult, insecure asshole”, he once rhymed), this song shows empathy for that most-maligned of hip-hop’s stock characters, the sex worker. The porn actress Kanye dates in the song explains the rules of the game to him here, and he comes back with an extremely on-point critique of racism in the sex industry — not, to be sure, most rappers’ first reactions when hearing about their girlfriend starring in a porno.
8. Something’s wrong, I hold my head/M.J. gone, our nigga dead — All of the Lights
Michael Jackson is a natural touchstone for an artist as ambitious as West. It goes deeper than that, though. The key word here is “our” — Kanye manages, in just a few words, to get at the loss that the black community felt when Jackson passed. He was theirs in a way that the singer’s white fans couldn’t experience, and Yeezy gets to the heart of that while creating a catch-phrase worthy of the ages.
7. Got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson — Slow Jamz
The second in Kanye’s trilogy of great MJ lines (the third is “Knock Me Down”‘s “This is bad, real bad, Michael Jackson/Now I’m mad, real mad, Joe Jackson”), this couplet functions like a great joke. The set-up and the delivery of the inevitable punch line are just masterful.
6. I went to the malls and I balled too hard/”Oh my God, is that a black card?”/I turned around and replied, “Why yes/But I prefer the term ‘African-American Express'” — Last Call
Yeezy’s pun on the American Express Centurion Card, commonly known as the “black card”, has taken on a life of its own over the past seven years, migrating eventually into the place all slang aims for, Urban Dictionary. Few puns by any rapper stand the test of time, so we salute Mr. West for this one.
5. She’s so precious with the peer pressure/Couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis — All Falls Down
An early Yeezy classic and still one of his greatest songs, “All Falls Down” deals with materialism in an incredibly nuanced way. It is sympathetic to the female middle-class protagonist of this verse, who is stuck in a college where she doesn’t belong and drawn to flashy material things that she can’t afford. The “Alexis”/”a Lexus” wordplay is funny, but the real takeaway of this song is Kanye’s empathy for a woman who, in many other songs, would be nothing but a joke.
4. They rewrite history, I don’t believe in yesterday/And what’s a black Beatle anyway? A fucking roach?/I guess that’s why they got me sitting in fucking coach — Gorgeous
Kanye West has never been shy about his place in the pop pantheon. As early as his 2008 Glow in the Dark tour, he was calling himself the number one artist in the world (and, having seen the incredible spectacle that was that show, we were right there with him). Here, he goes at the neck, not of the Beatles exactly, but of racist music critics who will never place him on that level, no matter how incredible his art. This song is, we should say, Yeezy’s single best work lyrically. He truly does succeed in making, as he puts it, “End-of-century anthems based off inner-city tantrums/Based off the way we was branded”.
3. The plan was to drink until the pain over/But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?/Fresh air, rolling down the window/Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your wins low — Dark Fantasy
Like many artists, Kanye West has had problems with alcohol. His notorious 2009 VMA’s incident was fueled by booze and led to reports of alcoholism and rumors of rehab jaunts. In addition, the metaphoric hangover from that fateful night permeated the album that followed, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The title track alludes to his drinking problem and the issues that brought it on, but then masterfully lightens the mood with, of all things, a Family Matters joke.
2. They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation — Power
When the President calls you a jackass, people are bound to take notice. Kanye had to address it in rhyme, and does so powerfully here. He notes correctly that Swiftgate brings up a lot of issues worth discussing — about race, gender, celebrity, and the public’s often fevered and contradictory ideas about all three. West points out that by simply calling him an idiot, you are, consciously or not, sweeping a lot of ugly stuff under the rug that would be better served by open, honest discussion.
1. Killing y’all niggas on that lyrical shit/Mayonnaise-colored Benz, I push miracle whips — Last Call
The fix was in for our number one line. This is not Kanye’s best lyric, nor his favorite (that honor goes to his verse in “Lost in the World”). However, it was his first great rap line. As he says it, you can practically see him beaming with delight. His pride in the pun is evident — he chose, after all, to end his debut album with it. Yeezy would have plenty of better and more elaborate lines to come, but this one stands out for the touching pride he has in it.