In a matter of hours, Kanye West’s upcoming studio album The Life of Pablo (fourth title and counting!) will be released. Even though West has had an impressive and significant solo career spanning 12 years, he also contributed beats and worked as a producer long before he recorded The College Dropout, and will always be regarded as producer first, rapper second. Here are five of my favourite Kanye West beats from non-Kanye West songs, arranged chronologically.
Jay Z – “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (The Blueprint, 2001)
One of Kanye’s earliest beats to be featured by a major artist (this predates The College Dropout by three years) and arguably his first major stepping stone towards further commercial success as a producer. Still to this day one of Jay Z’s most popular songs, utilising the intro from the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” coupled with a catchy vocal hook. The use of 1960s & 1970s soul music would become something of a trademark for Kanye’s beats throughout his career.
Talib Kweli – “Get By” (Quality, 2003)
This is among my all-time favourite beats, period. I think it’s sampling and beat crafting at its best, though the source material is typical Kanye (Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” from 1965) it’s how he took three, separate and isolated segments from a 10-minute bluesy soul piece and transformed them into a pulsating gospel-infused banger. Tie in Talib Kweli’s superb verses articulating the day-to-day struggles of working-class Americans with the empowering, uplifting soulful hook, bam it’s a Kanye classic.
Common – “Be (Intro)” (Be, 2005)
This 2-minute introductory piece is a Kanye gem, from Common’s Be which was primarily West-produced (J Dilla produced 2 tracks). It’s a brief but beautiful composition, utilising a live double bass (reminds me of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin’ Out”) overlayed with some groovy keyboards and Albert Jones’ string-heavy and soulful “Mother Nature”. It lays the platform for the rest of the album, as all good intro tracks should, a swirling mix of soulful production and poetic lyricism.
The Game – “Wouldn’t Get Far” (Doctor’s Advocate, 2006)
This is probably the catchiest of the lot – with the primary sample being “I’d Find You Anywhere” from 1970’s soul group Creative Source, the vocal loops of “baby, I’d find you”, “wouldn’t get far” and “it’d be just a waste of time” have been circulating around in my head for the past 24 hours! Kanye even drops a short but humorous verse on this track, “Pop quiz, how many topless black foxes / Did I have under my belt, like boxers”.
Travi$ Scott – “Piss On Your Grave” (Rodeo, 2015)
Apparently this track was slated to appear on The Life of Pablo, and it does share a few stylistic elements with Yeezus. The upbeat, cheery soul samples are nowhere to be heard in this emphatic diss track to corporate America, the wailing blues-rock riff courtesy of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” gives it a darker, menacing edge, similar to “Black Skinhead”. Likewise, the thumping rhythm track turns it into an absolute banger, admittedly with one of strangest hooks you’ll ever hear – “Piss on your grave / Piss on your grave”.