Kanye West received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award at the 2015 VMAs, which fits because he’s an icon but it’s also curious: he’s arguably never been a video-driven artist. That is, he’s made some great videos, but only a handful of them played a large part in his own legend.
Think about it, what would his iconic “Thriller” moment have been? Rocking the shutter shades in “Stronger” was perhaps as close as his videos have come to influencing the surrounding world, and “Runaway” was unquestionably his attempt to make a Jackson-sized opus, but videos never mattered to the Yeezus legacy the way they did for Madonna or Eminem or Lady Gaga.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have plenty of worthy ones, and it was curious from the get-go what a modest presence he played in his own work; his debut “Through the Wire” was recorded with his jaw wired shut (what a thing to imagine today) and the polaroid-and-surgery-filled clip was hardly an earth-shaking entrance. He’d eventually make such impacts with his videography, and here are ten times his cinema lived up to any of his other highest heights.
11. “Bound 2,” Yeezus (2013)
Kanye’s tribute to his beloved wife (who co-stars in “Bound 2”) was much-derided because…why exactly? It’s just as corny as the valentine you’d make your spouse if you had the budget to unleash horses in the wild and ride a motorbike with them accompanying naked and hair blowing in the wind. It’s fittingly as awkward and Kanye-esque as a paean with lines like, “I turn the plane around, your ass keep complaining” or “Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?” deserves.
10. “The New Workout Plan,” The College Dropout (2004)
A deeply silly song that deserved its deeply silly clip, “The New Workout Plan” shares very little with the rest of Kanye’s discography or any other rappers. It featured “hip-hop violinist” Miri Ben-Ari and Anna Nicole Smith, had kind of a four-on-the-floor workout dance beat, and it served as an exercise infomercial parody that both mocked and indulged in the ridiculous objectification of its subject. The clip itself could’ve been far more offensive, so blessedly it focused on what made the song funny: see onscreen text “Dude With a Car” or the woman who checks the whole class’ weaves before they continue the obstacle course.
9. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing [Zack Galifianakis Version]” Graduation (2007)
Graduation’s first single is more or less the Rosetta Stone for Kanye, a clenched claw of soundbites that would go on to define him: “I dreamed I could buy my way to heaven / When I awoke I spent it on a necklace,” “I felt the pressure, under more scrutiny / And what’d I do? Act more stupidly,” and especially the slant-rhyme “Don’t ever fix your lips like collagen / And say something when you gon’ end up apologing.” While it’s loaded with self-deprecation, it’s probably the most soul-baring metatext he’ll ever release, and its original clip is a little too on-the-nose for this kind of soul-searching.
Enter Zack Galifianakis and Will Oldham, whose bizarre, “Amish Paradise”-esque take from Funny or Die finds the two facially furry oddballs lip-synching the tune straight-faced while driving tractors and herding cows. It somehow makes a perfect song a little more perfect.
8. “Good Life,” Graduation (2007)
They say good artists copy, but great artists steal, and so when Kanye saw Jonas & François and So Me’s brightly colored, design-heavy video for Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” in 2007, he decided he wanted one of those. So the same team put together “Good Life,” which is virtually a carbon copy, only without the T-shirt concept. ‘Ye and T-Pain cavort in black and white while the lyrics to the song come to life and everything around the duo is rendered kaleidoscopic and eye-popping. The real question is whether it’s a total coincidence that “D.A.N.C.E” was a Michael Jackson tribute, while “Good Life” samples “P.Y.T.,” one of the many songs referenced in the Justice hit.
7. “All Falls Down,” The College Dropout (2004)
It takes almost a minute into the suspiciously Kanye-free “All Falls Down” clip before you realize the one-shot camera is actually him, when you see his reflection rapping in the window of the limousine Stacey Dash just exited. It’s incredible how different he looked then, dressed in decent-not-luxurious clothes and rapping in the mirror about material possessions with mustard on his shirt. But the innovation of the vid’s POV following Dash hurrying through the airport in slow motion really comes into full focus after he jumps into the airport scanner and raps as a skeleton through the x-ray. While he wasn’t yet portraying himself as the center of the universe, this was clearly a guy with new ideas.
6. “Mercy,” Cruel Summer (2012)
There’s not a ton to say about “Mercy,” even though it’s certainly one of Kanye’s best videos — and easily his most stylish clip, gorgeous and ominous in black and white, side-scrolling in a garage while the man and his A-list posse skulk around in occasional leather. (Possibly as a sideways homage to “Bad,” as the Jackson-obsessed rapper is wont.) It’s almost enough to distract from some of Kanye’s douchiest lines, like “My bitch make your bitch look like Precious.” Fool Gabourey is beautiful.
5. “Jesus Walks [Version 2,]” The College Dropout (2004)
“Jesus Walks” was probably the moment when it became clear that Kanye West was more than just a great producer who scored a great solo debut. “Through the Wire,” “All Falls Down,” and “Slow Jamz” were strong, funny, soulful singles given memorable visual treatment, but the second and most well-known clip for “Jesus Walks” was West’s first unforgettable video. The stark contrast of his blinding white suit up against the dirt-yellow, pre-Breaking Bad desert car chase, jump-roping adolescent girls, and gritty, O Brother, Where Art Thou-styled chain-gang imagery throughout made for a larger-than-life coronation when combined with the song’s militant beat and religious themes.
And none of that prepares for the shock of the Klansmen and burning crosses that arrive at the end of the video, around the time West exclaims “If I talk about God, my record won’t get played!” Oh, how wrong he was. And when he performed “Jesus Walks” with a marching band in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (and with a full gospel choir at awards show appearances), he almost brought the whole crazy video to life.
4. “Otis,” Watch the Throne (2011)
Watch the Throne was blown off in some corners by fans who were fed up with Kanye and Jay Z’s crass materialism and back-slapping. But as the video for its first true single “Otis” shows — unlike with the frightening billionaire class about to enter the White House — there is no darkness in black wealth. The two icons smile their way through Spike Jonze’s wondrous, simple clip, racing around in a doorless, windowless Maybach (with some lucky passengers) in front of our grand old flag. As Nov. 8th showed, this isn’t America. But it’s a sweet reminder of what we want it to be.
3. “Flashing Lights,” Graduation (2007)
One of Kanye’s best-ever songs and an even better visual, “Flashing Lights” sounds like nothing else in his catalog, like a film score with rave-synth accompaniment, and its desolate clip is appropriately barren and haunting to match. A Playboy model drives out to the desert, strips down to her designer skivvies, pops the trunk to reveal a beleaguered, bound-and-gagged Kanye, and the camera pans away as she bludgeons him with a shovel multiple times. Then it ends. It serves as both a self-deprecating fever dream (one of the rare instances of co-ed violence in a Kanye work where he ends up on the losing end) and one of his usual, disturbing conflations of sex and death. It was a harbinger of the beautiful dark twisted fantasies to come.
2. “Runaway,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
This is the big epic: 34 minutes of groundbreaking, legend-cementing short film incorporating every single track on the crowning My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy culminating in graceful ballet dancers on red and teal backdrops while our perpetually-white-suited hero plinks a piano and sings about dick pics and being gifted at finding what he doesn’t like, all while a Last Supper-esque dinner party remains frozen in tableaux. And let’s not forget the man’s date, a beautiful and hapless phoenix who elicits the best sequence in the whole thing:
“Your girlfriend is really beautiful.”
“Do you know she is a bird?”
“No, I never noticed that.”
1. “Monster,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
“Monster” is probably Kanye’s best video and one of his definitive works all around. It was nowhere near as large as “Thriller,” but it’s comparable as a sequence of stunning, disturbing visual after stunning, disturbing visual. There’s Mr. West holding a model’s severed head and arranging dead-appearing women in a bed to have one’s arm around another. There’s Jay Z at his flashiest in a suit and shades with another beautiful corpse behind him. And best of all, fanged and vampiric brunette Nicki Minaj torturing a pink-coiffed victim Nicki Minaj, as she annihilates what’s possibly the verse of the the decade. The only thing that ruins it is the absurd suppressive disclaimer at the beginning insisting the clip is to be in no way interpreted as misogynistic. Even the greats have no say in how we process their work.