The Definitive List of Kanye West's Most Art Music Videos
Pop culture nuts everywhere were already in high-gear excitement for this weekend’s VMA’s—nominees include Queen Bey, (Greatest Rapper Alive) Nicki, and heir to the West Coast Kendrick. Between Jeremy Scott unveiling a new design for the ‘Moonman’ trophy, and Miley Cyrus making videos of herself riding cats through rainbows to promote her new gig as the mistress of ceremonies, the excitement got turnt up to some next level shit. The announcement of this year’s recipient of the Michel Jackson Video Vanguard Award (the VMA’s version of a lifetime achievement award) has us more hyped than ever. Most deservedly, this year’s honoree is the man, the God, the legend—Kanye West.
Despite all of the concert rants, the controversies, the Twitter sermons, and the oft-memeable quotes, Kanye is recognized for being first and foremost a true artist. Across a career of six solo albums and a myriad of production credits, Kanye’s left his mark through the stunning attention to detail in his visuals, a grand total of 93 music videos, equal to no others in their utter perfection. How can one possibly begin to compare one to the other? Surely not by greatness, as everything Yeezus makes turns to gold. But we could certainly try to evaluate each one by artistic merit. We were crazy enough to do it, so here is Milk Made’s highly fact-based list of Kanye West’s 8 Most Art Music Videos.
When Yeezus dropped in the summer of 2013, it was abundantly clear that Kanye had never made anything darker. Then the video for ‘Black Skinhead’ dropped, leaving us with the closest thing to a waking, hellish nightmare we’ve ever seen. Already an angry song, the video clip, directed by Nick Knight, was like a piece of glitch art made by the Cenobites from Hellraiser. Nothing feels safe or familiar as Kanye dances naked in a Matrix-like box of cyber-terror, his limbs morphing and growing to terrifyingly abnormal lengths. Art is made for reactions, and this piece of art has us ducking for the covers and whimpering louder than the dogs snarling from every corner of the video.
808’s & Heartbreak, with all of its depressive melancholy, is without a doubt Kanye’s ‘sad album. Despite the video’s Technicolor wonderland, no one could watch ‘Heartless’ and feel happy. Yeezy transforms his search for a loving companion into a magical animated world, leaving us with a spectral cartoon version of himself rapping his relationship blues. While one might think that a trippy cartoon collage would serve to lighten the mood, thematically it only heightens the alienation and isolation that are expressed in each verse of the icily cold song. Artistic? Good Lord, yes.
Is there anyone else who could weave together footage of Ku Klux Klan members with mining on a mountain with a cocaine bust in the desert? Expertly navigating these separate storylines while proclaiming his religious affiliation to be as strong as when “Kathy Lee needed Regis,” Kanye also finds time to navigate a hallway that becomes both hell and heaven in a dizzying, brisk stroll. Though the imagery may be far less subtle than in some of his future endeavors, this is Kanye the artist’s first exercise in maximalism, and does it ever work.
While there are technically three versions ‘Flashing Lights’ visuals in existence, there is only one definitive version that is both ample in craftsmanship and shock value—the one that ends in his murder by shovel. Part Goodfellas, part fashion film, and all gorgeously shot by Spike Jonze, watching the music video feels like a fever dream. A gorgeous and scantily clad model waltzing through the desert becomes a cold blooded killer, and our pop star hero Yeezy becomes a hapless victim of his own excess. It is both visual and thematic excellence, the closest he’s come to a David Lynch feature.
Through the Wire
It’s the first song that put Kanye into the public conscious and so, understandably, it’s also one of his most personal. Kanye made a scrapbook of the near-death experience that profoundly changed his life, then brought said scrapbook to life Harry Potter style, where figures in his life flit back and forth between the Polaroids taped to a corkboard. It takes a true artist to take a personal tragedy and transform it into a triumph. ‘Through the Wire’ is Yeezy’s glorious testament to living, and he was nice enough to take us along for the ride.
A great piece of art is supposed to raise a lot of questions in the eye of the beholder. By those standards, ‘Bound 2’ is the goddamn Mona Lisa of the 21st century. Did Kanye want the greenscreens of nature behind him to be that obvious? Did Kim really want to straddle him on a motorcycle in the nude? Is this entire video an elaborate joke? Is the James Franco version better? Like all great pieces of art, no one will ever know.
The New Workout Plan
Any artist who incorporates critiques of consumerism gets a gold star in our book, but Kanye’s biting satire of both gym culture AND telemarketing takes the cake. Kanye typically raps to perfection, but his performance as an oddly excitable gym trainer is next to none, maybe even the acting performance of his career. And to make it even more meta, Kanye gives Anna Nicole Smith a star turn as one of his fitness trainees, lending the video an even more razor sharp slice of our 1-800-Buy-Now culture.
There is no better example of artistry from West, or really any other musician, than the epically long, gorgeously shot, 40-minute wonder that is his ‘Runaway’ film. Essentially a megamix of his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye seamlessly blends nearly every single track from the album with a storyline of falling in love with a phoenix/bird girl. Like many interspecies couplings, tragedy ensues, but before the inevitable end, we’re taken through a funeral parade on the beach for Michael Jackson, a dinner party that turns into a ballet, and the hottest sex scene featuring feathers and a Bon Iver sample ever filmed. Is it art enough? The world still doesn’t even know what to do with this masterpiece.
Photo by Nick Knight for the New York Times