Long before Calabasas, the man in the pink polo was putting in work.
It’s hard to believe there was a time where people didn’t take Kanye West seriously. Before he became one of the most divisive figures in pop culture, he was an in-house producer at Roc-A-Fella Records. Even when Jay-Z's The Blueprint took off, with his production playing an important role, Kanye still held aspirations of being a rapper. By the time he took his turn on the mic for “Through the Wire,” Kanye had been working as a producer-for-hire for seven years, all while putting the finishing touches on the album that would make him a superstar.
In later years, Kanye’s production process has undergone a drastic change, executively producing his solo albums while working with emerging producers. It’s one of the great disappointments in hip-hop, but when he does occasionally resurfaces with a beat or two, it’s marked with plenty of excitement. As his seven-song made-in-Wyoming album series from 2018 proved, there aren’t many producers better than Kanye when it comes to chopping soul beats.
In honour of The College Dropout turning 15 this year, we ranked the best Kanye production from this era (2002-2004), both for himself and others. Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments.
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Kanye West - “Through The Wire”
The song that started it all. Kanye’s self-mythology summed up in a few short minutes. Flipping Chaka Khan was a bold master move; Kanye needed all the gravitas he could get to sell Roc-A-Fella, Jay, and the general public on what he was all about. Turns out Kanye’s touch with soul and spoken word was all he needed, making “Through the Wire” both poignant and propulsive.
Jay-Z – "Lucifer"
For Hov’s "retirement," Kanye gave him the equivalent of a fine cognac – built around a clever flip of Max Romeo's "Chase the Devil" and energetic drums. Kanye had a tendency to provide hooks with his productions in this era, giving Jay the “I’m from the murder capital where we murder for capital” line that he built into a meditation on death and the afterlife. Kanye produced plenty of highlights in Jigga’s canon but none quite so masterful as “Lucifer.”
Ludacris – "Stand Up"
The first #1 Billboard hit for Ludacris and Kanye. For Luda, it was the culmination of everything he had worked for up until that point, successfully revitalizing the South with his charismatic bark and launching album Chicken-n-Beer to the pop stratosphere. For Kanye, “Stand Up” suggested the Chicago beatmaker had the makings of a golden touch for hits.
Scarface (feat. Jay Z & Beanie Sigel) - "Guess Who's Back"
The Fix was Scarface’s first album as president of Def Jam South, and the stakes were high. Fortunately, he came through with his arguable magnum opus. On this tender, dreamy cut, Scarface sounds hard, conjuring some of his wildest imagery to eclipse one of Jay’s best performances, marking one hell of a comeback in the process.
Mos Def - “Brown Sugar (Fine)"
You probably missed this unless you watched the 2002 Brown Sugar movie starring Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan. The hip-hop love story benefitted from Mos Def starring in the role of an upcoming rapper, and a star-studded soundtrack featuring Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Common, Black Star, Jill Scott, and the Roots. Kanye produced three different versions of the title track, including a (Raw) version which featured Black Star in stellar form, but it’s the solo (Fine) iteration that deserves notice here. Evoking ‘70s R&B, Mos Def sounds perfectly at home on the airy production, delivering it raw and bittersweet.
Freeway - "Turn Out The Lights"
The spiritual successor to Jay-Z’s “Takeover,” Freeway takes Kanye’s dirty guitars and fuzz bass and turns it into a declaration of war, perfectly straddling the line between arrogant and self-assured. Kanye joins in on the chorus, making this a singalong suitable for both the boxing ring and the work commute.
Trina (feat. Ludacris) - "B R Right"
“B R Right” marked the reunion of Ludacris and Trina after coming correct on "What's Your Fantasy," but make no mistake – this was Trina’s coronation moment, throwing down on a bedrock of strings and Timbaland-inspired drums that wouldn’t be out of place on The College Dropout.
Mos Def - “Sunshine”
Built on a fantastic flip of Melba Moore's "The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In)," Kanye gave Mos plenty of room for him to do his thing, exuding Brooklyn vibes on a classic ‘Ye foundation of vintage gospel soul and hard-knocking rhythms. It's the kind of rap song that doesn't strive for dopeness - it is already dope by merely existing.
Kanye West (feat. GLC and Consequence) – “Spaceship”
Maybe it’s because the lens was focused directly on himself, but the bluesy waltz vibe on “Spaceship” seems to have enough room for every side ‘Ye we know today: the artist with a chip on his shoulder, the soul fan, the everyman with an eye for social commentary and the egomaniac crafting his success story in real time. It’s an underdog tale meant to evoke every throwback rags-to-riches story you’ve already heard.
Janet Jackson - "I Want You"
For 2004's Damnita Jo, Kanye took Janet on a trip down memory lane, supporting her balladry with a backdrop of vintage soul. A welcome change for a singer used to sensual, envelope-pushing R&B. It’s old-school ‘Ye, going down sweet and fizzy.
Kanye West - "All Falls Down (Original)"
“All Falls Down” is one of Kanye’s best songs, filled with moments of genuine reflection and humor. The original version, sampling Lauryn Hill from her MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album, feels even more sparse as Kanye opted to let Lauryn take center stage. It’s a move Drake and Cardi B used to great effect fourteen years later.
Monica - "Knock Knock"
Why didn't Kanye make more R&B beats? Pink Polo ‘Ye’s beats seemed to bring the best out of performers and here, Monica takes this break-up ballad and injects it with a layer of tender melancholy, fitting right at home over the chiming keys.
Jay-Z (feat. Beyonce) - "'03 Bonnie & Clyde"
One of Kanye’s most enduring productions. Immortalizing rap’s first couple with flamenco guitars and hard-knocking snares, Bey and Jay trade verses akin to a vulnerable declaration of love, without feeling saccharine.
Janet Jackson - "Strawberry Bounce"
While “I Want You” felt traditional, “Strawberry Bounce” was the beginning of Kanye exploring his more experimental side. Consisting only of finger snaps, pitch-shifted bells, a Jay-Z sample and Janet’s breathy vocals, it’s an album cut that has aged like fine wine.
T.I. - "Let Me Tell You Something"
Ye had a knack for crafting tender thug ballads and with T.I, he took to the ‘80s. Borrowing R&B’s obsession with vocoders, the pair created something that absolutely knocked, while still letting T.I soften his edges a little bit.
Kanye West (feat. Mos Def, Freeway and the Boys Choir of Harlem) - "Two Words"
“Shoulda been signed twice,” Kanye raps on “Two Words,” making sure to remind listeners of his impact before he, Mos Def and Freeway trade hood tales over a beat that foreshadowed Late Registration approach of mixing high and low. By the time the choir shows up, the show’s already over, the listener beaten into submission by the overwhelming combination of heavenly vocals and strings.
Cam’ron - “Dipset Forever”
It’s surprising to discover Kanye only has production credits on a handful of Cam’ron songs. The Dipset aesthetic – bright colours, chipmunk soul samples and New York shit-talk – emerged from production built by Just Blaze and Kanye’s work for Jay-Z. When Kanye and Cam linked up on “Dipset Forever,” it sounded like two familiar friends catching up for the first time forever: warm and triumphant. Makes you wish Kanye did more work behind the boards for Dipset, right?
Talib Kweli – “Get By”
With Kweli dropping conscious bars over a hard-hitting, piano-flecked backdrop, “Get By” sounded like a cold day in Brooklyn. Kanye matched Kweli's fire with his own, juxtaposing Nina Simone with drums that could have been on a Wu-Tang album. The beat was so hot everyone wanted to get on it, and Kweli ended up releasing remixes featuring Kanye himself, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes and Jay-Z.
John Legend - "Let's Get Lifted"
One of the first signees to G.O.O.D. Music, John Legend had all of Kanye’s production talents at his disposal. Ye believed Legend was the future but wise to his credit, he made sure to stay out of the way on “Let’s Get Lifted,” only adding chops and a simple loop to Legend’s piano. It’s the simplest of touches, but enough to give Legend the shine he needed.
Kanye West - “Family Business”
When people talk about missing the old Kanye, they often refer to one on "Family Business": the vulnerable, nostalgic rapper detailing a sentimental send-up to family over the Dells' "Fonky Thang.” The piano and vocal chops feel absolutely bittersweet, imbued with the kind of sadness-mixed-up-with-soul that people weren’t used to hearing from rappers. No matter. As Kanye’s rise proved, they’d figure it out soon enough.