Kanye Madness

Happy March Madness everyone! If you’re a college basketball fan (and even if you’re not), I’m sure you filled out brackets for the tournament. I’m also sure that your bracket has probably been busted beyond recognition as we enter the championship round between Villanova and Michigan tonight. Anything can happen in the NCAA tournament, and underdogs upset top-seeded teams all of the time. This kind of unpredictability is exactly why so many folks love the tournament and the bracketing process. Truthfully, you don’t really even need to follow college basketball closely to create a successful bracket; you just have to go with your gut and see what happens. If your bracket ends up being accurate, good for you– you could win some money or bragging rights. If not, there’s always next year.   

Brackets are part of the magic that makes March Madness the phenomenon that it is, but their appeal need not be limited to the NCAA tournament. Carrington Harrison, a sports reporter from Kansas City, popped a wheelie on the March Madness zeitgeist prior to the tournament and revealed a bracket for a tournament of his own: Kanye Madness. The bracket’s basic premise is for sixty four of Kanye’s best songs to compete against each other, and after six rounds, one song will emerge victorious. In true NCAA tournament fashion, each of the songs are divided into four “regions–” North West, Donda, Chicago, and Saint– made up of sixteen songs. The most universally acclaimed Kanye hits tend to seed higher in their respective regions, and the less agreed upon songs receive lower seeds. The choices include work from Kanye’s seven solo albums as well as his collaborative album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne.

Kanye has attained a level of fame that few people in the world share with him. Whether you love him or hate him, you cannot deny that he has created an enduring legacy for himself. His ego and antics have contributed to his legacy without a doubt, but he owes his ascendence into pop culture’s collective consciousness to the music he makes that speaks to countless people. Kanye’s music has all the ingredients needed for successful hits: catchy hooks, prolific production, star-studded features, and an irreverent sense of humor. The sixty four songs included in the Kanye Madness bracket take these elements and utilize them to their utmost potential. These songs are Kanye’s truly are Kanye’s very best.

Choosing victors in each match proved to be exceptionally difficult for me as I agonized over many of these decisions. So many Kanye songs have been sanctified in the cult of pop culture, and it felt blasphemous to eliminate them (even when a similarly sanctified song eliminated them). Still, these songs had to fall for the best to rise. Some songs fought hard to get there, relying on their nuance and endearing individuality to carry them to scrappy victories. Other songs seemed destined to go deep from the start, coasting through their matchups with ease.  Eventually, only the Sweet Sixteen remained, and forty eight formidable foes lay in the wake of their victory. From here, the battles only got tougher.

The Sweet Sixteen

“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” vs. “Devil in a New Dress”

“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” has always been a crowd favorite. With its synth heavy beats and energetic delivery, it came into this matchup with the early edge. One of Kanye’s most memorable hooks carried it to a lead at the end of the first half, but “Devil in a New Dress” was determined not to go down without a fight. “Devil’s” emotionally charged beat kept the match competitive through the first half, but “Devil” could not win this round on the strength of the beat and Kanye’s verse alone. Lucky for it, the song made some clutch shots down the stretch. Mike Dean’s guitar solo provided the necessary spark of energy to give the song a slight edge over “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and Rick Ross’ verse to close out “Devil” fueled the run that would ultimately provide “Devil in a New Dress” with its upset victory.

Winner:  “Devil in a New Dress”

“Flashing Lights” vs. “Through the Wire”

Both of these songs were initially unlikely candidates to compete in the Sweet Sixteen. After successful seasons in their respective conferences, they were just happy to be in the tournament. No one expected Kanye coming back from an injury with his mouth literally wired shut to carry “Through the Wire” this far in the tournament, but the song rose to the challenge. “Flashing Lights’” lacked the star power of many teams that entered the Sweet Sixteen, but its solid execution and lack of clear weaknesses had carried it far. This matchup remained neck and neck throughout, but “Flashing Lights’” consistency prevailed in the end as its strings came through with the last-second buzzer beater to get the win.

Winner: “Flashing Lights”  

“Monster” vs. “Runaway”

Two standout songs from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, these songs’ conference rivalry encouraged much excitement for this matchup. I fully expected this matchup to be a nail-biter. In the end, however, “Runaway’s” melodic sensibility proved to be no match for “Monster’s” team of certifiable all stars. Led by a legendary verse from Nicki Minaj, “Monster coasted through this round with ease and left “Runaway” behind in the dust.

Winner:  “Monster”

“Celebration” vs. “All of the Lights”

“Celebration” was the true Cinderella story of the tournament to this point. As a 14 seed, it faced two formidable opponents in “Good Life” and “Blame Game” to earn its spot in the Sweet Sixteen. After its strong showing in those matchups, it had clearly demonstrated its deservedness of its deep run, but it had not yet faced a juggernaut like “All of the Lights.” “All of the Lights’” epic energy and highly-touted features made quick work of “Celebration,” and it was simply another small hurdle for “All of the Lights” to jump over in its path to the Championship.

Winner:  “All of the Lights”

“We Don’t Care” vs. “We Major”

These two songs’ divergent energies made this a hard-fought round. “We Don’t Care’s” airy and youthful chorus made it a force to be reckoned with in the tournament, and “We Major’s” grander, more mature presentation had brought the song similar success. Each songs’ strengths seemed to capitalize on the weaknesses of the other, and the matchup remained back and forth for the majority of the round. Equally good for different reasons, the two songs grinded out a battle for the history books. Ultimately, youth conquered maturity as “We Don’t Care” progressed to the Elite Eight.

Winner: “We Don’t Care”

“Gold Digger” vs. “Good Morning”

I think that “Gold Digger” might be every non-Kanye fan’s favorite Kanye song, and it’s a crowd pleaser among Kanye’s most ardent fans as well. An oldie but a goodie, it exemplifies many of the aspects that make listeners miss the old Kanye. “Good Morning” came into the matchup coasting on its sunrise-evoking beat while also encapsulating the appeal of the old Kanye. However, it lacks the longevity that “Gold Digger” possesses. “Gold Digger’s” endurance ultimately allowed it to outlast its opponent in this round and progress to the Elite Eight.   

Winner: “Gold Digger”

“Touch the Sky” vs. “Ultralight Beam”

This was a true clash of titans. “Ultralight Beam’s” Gospel music inspirations set the tone for Life of Pablo in extraordinary fashion, and Chance the Rapper’s verse on it is among his very best. Any opponent matched against the song would tremble at the thought of competing against such a masterpiece. That is, any opponent but “Touch the Sky.” Anchored by a glorious sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” “Touch the Sky’s” infectious optimism cannot be dimmed. It’s uplifting vibes coupled with yet another iconic featured verse (this time from Lupe Fiasco) propelled the song to victory despite its worthy opponent.

Winner: “Touch the Sky”

“Gorgeous” vs. “N****s in Paris”

Where “N*****s in Paris” epitomizes everything audiences loved about Watch the Throne— Kanye and Jay-Z delivering standout verses over an endlessly catchy beat– “Gorgeous’” lyricism and message alone carried it to this point. “Gorgeous’” instrumentation blends perfectly with Kid Cudi’s featured chorus, but it lacks the dynamic nature of much of Kanye’s other work. The change up in the latter half of the song for Raekwon’s verse is nice, but it was not enough to carry the song to victory over “N*****s in Paris’” engaging and fresh energy.

Winner: “N****s in Paris”

The Elite Eight

“Devil in a New Dress” vs. “Flashing Lights”  

This matchup was over before it even started. “Flashing Lights,” despite the odds, had an impeccable run in this Kanye Madness tournament. Undeniably solid, it relied on sure-footed execution more than anything particularly impressive or unique to carry it through the first round. It‘s a great song with few flaws, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi that could carry it any deeper than the Elite Eight. “Devil in a New Dress,” however, felt distinct in Kanye’s catalogue, and confidently strode toward the W in this round. The fluid arch of its beat compliments the two halves of the song delineated by Kanye and Rick Ross’ verses. It signals a shift in Kanye’s style to a more experimental sound, but its introspection and artistry remains more accessible to casual listeners than anything from Yeezus or The Life of Pablo. For these reasons and more, “Devil in a New Dress” earned its place in the Final Four without much resistance.

Winner: “Devil in a New Dress”

“Monster” vs. “All of the Lights”

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s two most popular songs meeting in the Elite Eight was guaranteed to be a true battle. Each song featured a wide array of collaborators that characterized the creative process of their album, and the variety in each song gives them their oomph. From the start, I felt that this matchup would come down to the very end. The round went back and forth, back and forth as each song traded baskets with one another. At the end of the hard-fought matchup, “All of the Lights” won due to the strength of its beat. An urgency in the instrumentation of the song makes it feel larger than life, and this electric feeling gave it the edge it needed to vanquish “Monster” and move onto the Final Four

Winner: “All of the Lights”

“We Don’t Care” vs. “Gold Digger”

These two songs are just plain fun. They feature Kanye at his most optimistic, and with the progression of Kanye’s style trending toward darker tones as his career progresses, there is something refreshing about their brightness and youthful energy. Pit against each other, their shared cheerfulness made this matchup a difficult one to decide. However, “Gold Digger” has received far more playtime by the general public over the years, and its luster has worn over time.  “Gold Digger” lost its energy as time went on, giving “We Don’t Care” the opportunity to take the lead thanks to its relative sense of newness. “We Don’t Care” was able to take advantage of “Gold Digger’s” dimmed shine to get the victory and progress.

Winner: “We Don’t Care”

“Touch the Sky” vs. “N*****s in Paris”

While many (myself included) would have expected “N****s in Paris” to compete ferociously in this round, “Touch the Sky” took the lead early on and maintained it all the way to the end. “N****s in Paris” is a fantastic song, and many brackets had it going all the way, but those brackets severely underestimated the power of “Touch the Sky.” In a tournament dubbed “Kanye Madness,” the songs that epitomize Kanye’s most Kanye qualities will rise to the top, and with that in mind, “Touch the Sky” easily takes the cake for this round.    

Winner: “Touch the Sky”

The Final Four

“Touch the Sky” vs. “We Don’t Care”

Yet another duel between two “Old Kanye” classics. This matchup would ultimately come down to the songs’ relevance in the collective cultural consciousness more than ten years after their release. While both remain popular in the public opinion, “ Touch the Sky” demonstrated greater endurance. Ironically, the prominence of a Curtis Mayfield sample from 1970 gives the song a sense of timelessness. It can be listened to in era and those horns will still inspire the same feelings of confidence and ambition that it evoked when it Curtis Mayfield first composed them. “We Don’t Care” admittedly elicits a similarly inspiring atmosphere, but not to the same degree of “Touch the Sky.” The inspiration of “Touch the Sky” simply shone brighter than that of “We Don’t Care,” and for that reason, it advanced to the championship round

Winner: “Touch the Sky”

“Devil in a New Dress” vs. “All of the Lights”

It seems like tracks from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were pitted against each other time and time again over the course of the tournament. This matchup would decide once and for all what song from the landmark album is truly its best. The two songs worked their way through difficult battles to reach this point, and they were not going to go down without a fight in the semi-finals. While the matchup was certainly competitive, the frenzied personality that had carried “All of the Lights” so far would eventually overcome “Devil in a New Dress’” slow and deliberate burn.

Winner: “All of the Lights”

Championship Round: “Touch the Sky” vs. “All of the Lights”

This was the moment that we had all been waiting for. After 62 grueling matchups, the tournament was finally coming to a close. Kanye’s two strongest songs remained, ready to go to war one last time for the glory of earning their place officially as Kanye’s best song. While some may not have picked these two songs to progress as far as they did, they had more than proven their worthiness to compete in the championship by this point. They had made it here for different reasons. Representing two distinct eras and tones in Kanye’s musical career, the song that emerged victorious would signal which of these eras or tones resonated most deeply.  

“Touch the Sky” finds Kanye explicating his ambition as he strives for greatness. It is bright, optimistic and bold in its presentation. Conversely, “All of the Lights” captures Kanye in a moment of shame as he searches for redemption. Frantic and vulnerable, the song belies a sense of paranoia and instability within Kanye that starkly contrasts with the impenetrable braggadocio of “Touch the Sky.”  “All of the Lights” is among the more unique songs in Kanye’s catalog, and “Touch the Sky” illustrates the ego and playfulness that gave Kanye his superstar status. The songs’ differences make for a difficult comparison, but one had to be crowned champion. In the end, “Touch the Sky” triumphed. “All of the Lights” deserves its runner-up position without a doubt, but “Touch the Sky” epitomizes the very best of Kanye. We can now all say conclusively that we miss the old Kanye.

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In all honesty, if you had asked me what my favorite Kanye song was prior to filling out this bracket, I don’t think I would have had an answer for you. Even after completing the bracket, I’m not positive that I would call “Touch the Sky” my favorite Kanye song. That said, it is certainly one of my favorite Kanye songs, and I do feel confident that I would pick it to win against every opposing song it faced in its matchup. I encourage everyone to fill out their own Kanye bracket, and send it to me on The Listening Party’s social media. I have had so many fantastic conversations discussing hot takes and differences among brackets, and I am really curious to see what everyone else’s thoughts are. If you’re intimidated by the sheer number of songs included in the bracket, I promise it’s not as overwhelming as it seems. Take a moment to listen to five to ten seconds of the songs you can’t quite remember and I’m sure you’ll remember them nearly immediately. If they don’t ring any bells, your choice is easy: eliminate that song. If you enjoyed this post, let me know because we may fill out brackets like this for other artists in the future!

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