Our country’s fascination with brackets for three weeks out of the year is one of our best national quirks, like not having the tax included on the price tag or firing National Security Advisors every six weeks like they’re grocery store clerks. Once the NCAA Tournament bracket comes out the timeline is instantly flooded with the dumbest and most useless made-up tournaments to decide literally nothing important. What’s the best fast food restaurant. What’s the best Pixar movie. What’s the best time that I texted a girl who ghosted me and I said “I thought we had something :/”. Us humans love to judge things and share our opinions and fight with people about what ACTUALLY is the BEST CHICKEN TENDER SPOT, DAVE. IT’S OBVIOUSLY RAISING CANES. ZAXBY’S IS AN AFFRONT TO CHICKEN. SHEESH.
One this year caught a lot of attention, as it was tweeted out by the lovely folks at JustJump Media, the ultimate Kanye West bracket. 64 selections ranging from eight different albums to decide what is the most Kanye-est Kanye song of all time.
It caught off like wildfire, as old heads and young uns alike used a variety of hackjob off-brand photoshop ads to all come to the inevitable conclusion that Clique is his greatest song of all time (I’m kidding. Please, I’m kidding so hard right now. I don’t even think it made the bracket). There was instant fodder for the twitter arguments that have replaced barbershop debates, as opinions swirled back and forth over what REALLY constituted his best work and what era did he peak in (my opinion: Kanye has simply always been peaking, his work is so varied and flexible that each new album is a new Kanye with it). Common themes and frontrunners emerged, but opinions still vacillated wildly, proving that Kanye is one of the few artists you can do this with. Plenty of musical acts have 64 good songs, but for many of them it’s easy to make a greatest hits album and distill it to a top 12 from there. It’s near impossible to craft a Greatest Hits album for Yeezy, as his discography is not homogenous and can cover so much in a single 20 minute session.
Regardless of me thinking it’s hard to pin down even a top ten of Kanye’s music, I’m gonna do it anyway, because it’s a trademark of Blymanwarrior Industries to do dumb things for dumb reasons. I won’t go through every single matchup in this bracket because of three reasons 1) some of them are absolute no brainers 2) you would stop reading like three matchups in yall got stuff to do I know that 3) I just don’t want to. Rather we’ll have selected passages in each round up until the final four, where we examine what each song means and how it measures up against its competition. The bracket itself is,,,fine, but the seeding is rough. I’m only mad about a couple omissions (Only One?? Where is it?? I’ve already sang it in my mind to my future daughter?? How do you not include that??), but all the heavy hitters are there, especially the ones that matter. People care about “which team is on the bubble” on selection Sunday, but by Monday morning we’ve forgotten everyone who didn’t make it. So now, Runaway with me.
1 Can’t Tell Me Nothing vs. 16 Amazing
This is the first matchup in the entire bracket, and it being a 1 vs 16 it seemingly should be easy. Can’t Tell Me Nothing is the epitome of Yeezy bravado and should smash its way through to the next round. But it’s not even that close to easy. I have half a mind to turn Amazing into UMBC and push them through, as the similarities of these two songs run deep. It’s a song featuring Young Jeezy about how great Kanye is. He has money, power, fame, and certainly no time to care what you think about him. Where’s the hairs to be split here? Couldn’t I pick either one and feel confident in that choice? Kanye IS amazing, and there’s nothing you can tell him, that’s all I need to go off of.
But that’s why the weeds are important in these songs. To be reductive of his lyrics and thematic changes, you could lump Kanye songs into 3–4 categories and just let them stay static. You’ve got early “happy to be here” work, you have Kanye brags, Kanye inner reflection, and then whatever you classify Bound 2 as. Both of the songs here are Kanye brags and you could lump them in that way if you wanted. But Can’t Tell Me Nothing isn’t just a bravado ballad, it’s a combination of what has always made Yeezy great — his ability to drill down 20 feet and see where his foundations come together. Yes, the chorus is him yelling about how you can’t tell him anything. But that’s not because you’re not allowed to, rather it’s because he’s heard it all and internalized it all before. In the first verse, he speaks of his Christianity, that he found a dream where he could buy his way into Heaven, that he’d been granted the ability to purchase piety. He immediately discards that ticket and grabs a new chain. Telling God that he’ll be back soon, but it’s just so hard not to act reckless, to be wild, to live it out. He sees his own descent from where he was, as he acts stupidly, buys more things, lives in the drama. His own mother couldn’t get through to him! This money, this fame, it was all embroiling his insides with debate. The same prominence that gave him passion was poison at the same time. He snips and snaps over the ensuing verses, calling out old heads and naysayers, refocusing his laser sharp energy on the fact that there’s nothing new you can tell him right now. He’s at the top of his game, and he himself is scared of where that is, but you won’t make him admit it, he’ll admit it when he damn well pleases. He closes his soliloquy with a placement of his status on a compact allegory-he resides somewhere between the devil and sainthood, and wherever that is he’s still better than both. He is Yeezy, don’t try hard, you’ll only die hard, and make sure the reminisce over you regardless.
And THAT is why this bracket exists and what will guide us in our journey today.
2 Through the Wire vs 15 No Church In The Wild
The toughest part of all of this is how to decide seeding for the bracket. What constitutes something above anything else? You’re telling me that No Church in the Wild, in all its haunting splendor, is somewhere between the 56–60th best Kanye song? It’s a complex tale of the sins within organized religion and the destruction wrought by hypocrisy and heretics. The chorus nestles itself all the way inside your bones and turns your hair straight up, as you hear Frank asks in anguish what anything means. What is power. Where is power. And where do we fit in to all this. You’re telling me this song is the equivalent of Lipscomb University’s basketball program? With how much preference goes into all these songs and how much subjection there is, the seeding becomes meaningless by the second round, if not the first.
Either way it doesn’t matter as its face to face with Ye’s first great work Through the Wire, so it’s lost by halftime. Wire automatically gets a punch card to the elite 8 without even looking at the rest of the bracket, because if you aren’t discussing the song where Kanye sang with his jaw literally surgically wired together as one of his top 10 songs of all time then you’re just unqualified to even be here.
8 Monster vs 9 Heartless
If we’re just talking about the merits of these songs on their own regardless of brackets well, then Monster waltzes through without a care in the world. Nicki’s verse is one of the greatest verses of the past ten years and created its own pantheon to reside in. Every word in her 30-line rap is perfectly chosen, not a breath wasted. Look at what you just heard, THIS is what you live for. Rap like THAT.
But if we circle back to how we got there we must remember that we’re in a KANYE WEST bracket, not a GOOD SONG bracket. There are no parameters given to this bracket other than the fact that I saw it on Twitter and saved the image immediately so I could fill it out over three weeks. Since there’s no guidance as to how this bracket is to be filled out then we must establish for ourselves a set of criteria for how we’re going to go through this. If you want to make it just any good song with which Kanye is on then fine, go ahead. But I think to truly define what encapsulates the Kanye experience is to isolate songs about who he is and what he purports. Monster still does that, but when you think of Monster you don’t think of him telling you about his assist-less triple double or of Jay-Z just listing off monsters from 1950’s movies, but you think of Nicki’s scene exploding and scene stealing 90 seconds. Does that factor in here to knock it down a peg?
Heartless is in itself a fine song. It’s sad and brooding, peppered with regret and anger throughout. I don’t think it’s stood up long, as it seems the rest of 808s has moved past to what its singles pushed forward and seemed to stand by itself as a complete work. When I want to listen to stuff like Heartless I need to listen to the whole album, it’s all or nothing. But if I want to listen to something like Monster I can do it all by itself in an isolated incident. And I don’t know exactly how or why, but that’s important here. Monster still moves forward easily here, but it’ll surely fall soon as its less Kanye’s track and more of track by Kanye (that makes sense and you know it).
4 Runaway vs 13 Blood on the Leaves
Did I already say that I know Runaway is going to win this whole thing anyway? This bracket feels perfunctory now because even when I first saw it, blank and pristine online, I immediately searched for Runaway so I could pencil it all the way through to the championship. Not many other songs had a chance to stop it, and especially not its first-round matchup.
But I still had to write about this matchup specifically because can we all just remember Blood on the Leaves? My word. That song. It slaps so hard. Those horns. THOSE HORNS. We’ll miss you.
4 Stronger vs 13 Black Skinhead
I don’t know what to do with either song here. I’m at a loss. I like both of them but I also want both of them to lose somehow. The seeds are also wrong. Stronger is fun and hype and loud but he also copped it from Daft Punk and we just don’t like that. It accomplishes its purpose. When you strip it down and think about the song and read it and look at it it loses its luster a little bit. Kanye is just telling this girl why they need to get together. That’s it.
But is that a bad thing? It feels odd juxtaposed against Black Skinhead, a song that sharply and explicitly critiques the usage of black Americans in art and life (and yes I understand the irony in me saying that as I’m literally doing something similar). Skinhead just…means more. It is brash and loud, but it’s at least SAYING something. Although it feels like New Slaves says it better, and there’s other songs that are brash and loud while still better, but that doesn’t disqualify it. It’s important. But is it good enough to move past Stronger, because this bracket isn’t solely what I like, it’s about what the song means, and Stronger meant a lot. A lot of people list it as their favorite song and the most recognized song and the song that’s streamed and listened to the most often. How can I kick it out solely because it’s about a club encounter? Kanye doesn’t need to be the modern philosopher on every song, sometimes it just needs to be about things that happen and fun things that happen. Not every song can be meal prep asparagus, sometimes I need funfetti cake. So congrats, Stronger, for being the current funfetti cake in this matchup.
7 Say You Will vs 10 Good Morning
The whiplash swing between the albums of Graduation and 808s is strong and most noticeable here. Sure, you could choose Good Life or Champion to represent a more noticeable example of the joys of Graduation, but the content locked within Good Morning sells it as the antithesis to 808s. I’m in no way making light of why 808s sounded the way it did. Kanye lost his dearly beloved mother Donda West before this next album, and his pain and requisite searching is valid and good and wanted. We support that. But it still lies true that there was a noticeable change in how he created and what he created. For the most part his first three albums bleed together in a growing fashion. Dropout and Registration hum together in a harmony, and Graduation crowns a completed sound upon what was being worked on earlier. But from 808s on things change, and these songs are the standard bearer.
In Good Morning we hear of his successes but in a much more subdued tone. The bravado of other songs within this very album is gone, replaced by a simple matter-of-fact tone. “I was told in high school I wouldn’t be good at anything. Now here I am, being good at everything.” You can practically hear a shrug emoji as Kanye strolls through the verses. He literally sounds like he just woke up. There is no frenetic yelling of a 2am track, there is only the calm conversational 9am “how are yous”. Here he is. He’s good. And good morning to you.
…and good night to that former feeling. Say You Will. Please say you’ll do it. Please say you’ll be there, that I won’t be alone, that all those things I don’t want to happen won’t happen. Please say that you will. I can’t explain why Say You Will is so good, it can only be felt by hearing it. The song technically has four verses but each verse is about two lines long. We’ve gotten more out of from what Ye has said about it at concerts, that the core of the song is what the core of it feels like-you invited someone over, they said they were coming and then you wait all night to never hear that knock. It’s brief, it’s basic, but it’s there. It’s familiar. As Kanye croons out towards the end, “I wish this song would really come true…I admit that I still fantasize about you…”, you see the pain masked behind the autotune. And you see it in yourself. I’ll never feel the exact feeling that Kanye puts forth in good morning, I won’t be at his stature enough to scream out that I’m Amazing, So Amazing, but I do know these feelings of love and loss. And that’s why Say You Will moves on.
8 Champion vs 9 Otis
First off let’s make sure that everyone understands that there is NOT an “s” at the end of the eight seed. We’re talking about Kanye’s success anthem off of Graduation, not that 5-man single where 2 Chainz inexplicably feels the need to say “I put the real in gorilla” to finish off a verse. We’re not talking about Champions. In fact, we’re NEVER talking about Champions.
Graduation has a very obvious common theme, the gist being that Mr. West is now successful. He’s reached the pinnacle of his craft, he’s getting Grammys and selling records, touring with U2 and buying his mother Mercedes. Within the three verses of Champion, Kanye encapsulates all that he’s saying throughout the record, declaring his status as a champion and a victor, while simultaneously saying that real champions have a duty to uphold.
It’s somewhat funny to look back at Graduation, because you can almost feel a sense of “Okay, I did it” coming from the album. It seems conclusive, final, celebratory and achieving. Not that Kanye was going to quit after it or leave rap, but just that in three albums and four years he had done what he needed to do to prove himself. He practically says exactly that for 12 straight songs. But we (and especially in this case, he) didn’t know what the future could hold, and that there were other heights to rise to. Otis is the example of further peaks, a song of opulence and decadence, a song that has ZERO pretense. There is nothing and nowhere to hide on Otis, as Hov and Ye spit back and forth about money, what money can buy, and what money can do. It’s an anthem of nth degree, dedicating itself to the strength of being on top of the world and being untouchable. It’s different in its own way from what we discussed earlier, the brags of Kanye, rather it’s just a declarative statement. These two men are obscenely rich, and they got rich off of making songs that you bump with your friends on a Friday night, and because of all you doing that, they’re going to buy their 6th Rolex this week. It’s strong and inspiring, as it can uplift and hype up anyone regardless of current mood. Sampling soul legend Otis Redding’s sublime song Try A Little Tenderness was a master stroke, providing an old school background to a new found flavor. Redding himself couldn’t have dreamed of what Kanye and Jay-Z have. And they probably would’ve been sure to let him know too.
They’re both psalms that proclaim Kanye’s status on a pinnacle, but Champion wins out because of the turn and inflection. He’s packing it up and bringing it back to the crib, not driving away.
6 Heard Em Say vs 11 I Wonder
A hip-hop lullaby is rare indeed, but these two songs both find each other in the opening round squaring off for the comfort title. I Wonder brings the thunder more, but its melodic and enchanting hook still lulls the listener into a state of security and serenity, as you daydream effortlessly into what you yourself wonder about. You wonder like the character of the song, that are you part of this big city, are you really making it out here, are you just another shooting star or can you stick. It should scare, but instead it does the exact opposite, as the rising chords strike up a swooning melody and Kanye himself reminds you-”[you’re] a star how can [you] not shine?” Your questions and fears are cradled away as you too think that you can find what it all really means. Kanye himself seems to have gotten it at all, but he still wonders right there with you.
I Wonder is fun and enjoyable and memorable, but what Ye did on Heard Em Say carries gravity beyond its own single track. It humanizes Kanye further, gives him a heart and gives him a bouncing piano track to trickle down. Adam Levine’s falsetto hearkens back to younger days, of songs sung for safety. The lyrics dance through a household of extended family members, as they’re all reminded again over and over that nothing is ever promised for tomorrow, today. It’s calming and soothing, as you begin to power down as well, trusting that good times come soon. Heard Em Say is a very early release in Kanye’s discography, but it stands the test of time as the feeling strikes through to all ages at all times.
First round is officially DONE. Next couple rounds will be up tomorrow, and if I’m feeling it we’ll finish it tomorrow. But for now I’m tired. Gonna Ultralight beam myself all the way to sleep.