Over the past few years, Kanye West’s outsize persona has eclipsed his music-making ability in the public consciousness. When someone is married to a Kardashian, can’t stop dissing Taylor Swift, and tweets whatever idiosyncratic musings come to his head, it’s not surprising when that person’s extracurricular activities consume all the attention. But to me, Kanye’s legacy will always rest on his brilliant production work.
One of my favorite aspects of Kanye’s music is a bit random — his outros, i.e. the way he ends his songs. He has a gift for knowing what sample will hit the spot, or what groove will bring the whole track home. He’ll either ride whatever beat he already has going for just the right amount of time, or he’ll switch it up in an invigorating or even beautiful way.
On Kanye’s latest album, the messy and overwrought but sporadically dazzling The Life of Pablo, one of his outros gave me chills: Frank Ocean’s pained voice singing out into the night on “Frank’s Track,” coming right after “Wolves.”
“Wolves” is constructed in a way that gives Ocean’s outro maximum impact. The portentous aura of the song builds until everything is stripped away except for just an electric piano and Ocean’s raw, passionate voice. You can hear his voice catch when he sings “BLACKENED” and “LIFE IS… precious.”
Let’s take a look at the other masterful outros in Kanye West’s catalogue. I’ve broken the songs/outros into three categories: (1) Riding the Groove; (2) Switching it Up, Subtly; (3) Switching it Up, Dramatically. As I mentioned, Kanye’s best outros can either be built on the already-existing beat (Category 1) or on a subtle (Category 2) or dramatic switch-up of the beat or production (Category 3).
Before jumping in, I should give honorable mention to “Runaway”, which has an iconic outro (and, not to mention, is one of the best songs of the decade), but the outro goes on a little too long. Another small note: the tracks that I’ve listed here from Yeezus and The Life of Pablo can have fairly explicit language, but the rest are SFW.
CATEGORY 1: RIDING THE GROOVE
Heard ‘Em Say (feat. Adam Levine) | Late Registration (2005)
Outro start time: 2:24
I’m not a huge fan of Adam Levine, but he has some great guest spots on other people’s music (especially when he sang on SNL with Andy Samberg about former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Levine fits in quite nicely on the soothing “Heard ‘Em Say.” He sings the hook throughout the song, before “ooh-ing” and “oh-ing” in the outro. The beat is busy yet calming, and the xylophones and bells provide just the right amount of flourish.
Welcome to Heartbreak (feat. Kid Cudi) | 808’s & Heartbreak (2008)
Outro start time: 3:03
Eight years later, it’s still hard to believe that Kanye released 808’s & Heartbreak, an album that trades in rapping for singing and relies on desolate, engaging soundscapes. It’s a far cry from his joyous soul-sampling on his first three albums. On the outro to “Welcome to Heartbreak,” Kanye erects a wall of synths and drum machines, singing “Oooh-oooh / And I can’t stop / No, no, I can’t stop.” It’s despondent and other-worldly.
Hey Mama | Late Registration (2005)
Outro start time: 3:42
Time for some happy Kanye. On the outro to “Hey Mama” (Kanye’s tribute to his mother), the way he sings “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” is beautiful, especially with the backdrop of marimbas and bells. It’s soulful and full of meaning. It’s hard to believe this is the same person that made the hardened, industrial beats on Yeezus. As a bonus, here’s a heartwarming clip of Kanye West singing the song with his late mother.
Never Let Me Down (feat. Jay Z and J. Ivy) | The College Dropout (2004)
Outro start time: 4:11
“Take them to church!” Right after J. Ivy’s verse, Kanye’s command kicks off the outro, followed by a gospel choir singing the Michael Bolton-penned hook: “When it comes to being true, at least true to me / One thing I’ve found, one thing I’ve found, oh no you’ll never let me down.” Jay Z brings the track home as instruments are gradually, artfully stripped from the beat.
Family Business | The College Dropout (2004)
Outro start time: 3:14
“Family Business” has another inspiring, heartfelt “early Kanye” beat. It’s one of those beats that fully envelops you — the piano loop, syncopation, and sound effects feel warm and welcoming. Kanye wisely lets it ride, bringing in choirs and individual voices to close it out.
CATEGORY 2: SWITCHING IT UP, SUBTLY
Robocop | 808’s & Heartbreak (2008)
Outro start time: 2:52
“Robocop” is built on powerful 808 drum samples, a staccato string ensemble, and a Disney-like run of strings and bells (listen to it, it first comes on at 0:43 — it sounds like it should be the soundtrack to Cinderella coming down the stairs). At 2:51, Kanye removes the drum samples, leaving just the string orchestra. He then sings, “You spoiled little L.A. girl, you’re just an L.A. girl” and brings back the Disney phrase.
I Wonder | Graduation (2007)
Outro start time: 3:14
The outro here is simple — Kanye just lets the bass drum-heavy beat go, removing the synths that permeated most of the song and bringing in some strings to cap it off.
Drive Slow | Late Registration (2005)
Outro start time: 4:03
True to the song’s name, Kanye chops and screws the beat at 4:03 until it slows to a crawl. “Driiiivvveee slooowwwww hooomieeeee.”
Gorgeous (feat. Kid Cudi and Raekwon) | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Outro start time: 4:30
Kanye lifts some of the mud that clogs the song at the beginning (let me be clear, I love the clogging mud) just in time for Raekwon’s verse. The electric guitar becomes more piercing, especially once Raekwon’s verse ends. The guitar shreds on a bed of cellos and pianos.
Send It Up | Yeezus (2013)
Outro start time: 2:33
The minimalist, abrasive electronica of “Send It Up” serves as an odd backdrop for a reggae-dancehall singer, but one of Kanye’s talents is making weird juxtapositions work. As the track comes to a close, Kanye rides the beat and adds a sample of a song called “Memories” by Beenie Man, from Kingston, Jamaica. Beenie Man sings, “Memories don’t live like people do, they always ‘member you / Whether things are good or bad, it’s just the memories that you have.” I don’t know how, but it works perfectly.
Lost in the World / Who Will Survive in America | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Outro start time: 3:27 of “Lost in the World,” extending into “Who Will Survive in America”
“Lost in the World” is nothing short of amazing. I’ve always had an appreciation for it, but now I think it’s one of Kanye’s greatest songs ever. The song is heavily based off of a sample of the indie folk band Bon Iver’s “Woods”, utilizing its warped, unique vocal harmonies. Kanye, who was recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in Oahu, flew out Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to collaborate on tracks for the album, including “Lost in the World.” Vernon fleshed out the vocals in Oahu, in between pickup basketball games with Kanye. The song is anchored by a propulsive beat throughout, providing the backbone to some of Kanye’s most poetic lyrics.
The outro begins at 3:27 of “Lost in the World” — the drums are removed, leaving a conglomeration of voices, all acting independently of each other. Then at 3:43, tribal drums appear with a chorus of “HEY, WOAH-OH. HEY, WOAH-OH.” It’s completely invigorating. This leads into “Who Will Survive in America,” which continues the original beat and adds understated piano chords and synth flutes, while a sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word piece “Comment No. 1” plays. Scott-Heron was a jazz/soul poet in the 1970s — “Comment No. 1” speaks on “the African-American experience and the faded idealism of the American dream.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy shows all of Kanye’s vulnerabilities, anxieties, and uncertainties — “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America” serve as a fitting conclusion.
CATEGORY 3: SWITCHING IT UP, DRAMATICALLY
Famous | The Life of Pablo (2016)
Outro start time: 1:49
“Famous” should probably be called “Infamous.” One of the leading storylines when The Life of Pablo came out revolved around the lyrics to “Famous” and Kanye’s inability to stay on Taylor Swift’s good side. I think the lyric in question is stupid (I think most of the lyrics on The Life of Pablo are stupid), but man, the beat on “Famous” is killer. It’s nothing short of glorious when Kanye switches it up at 1:49 and bumps a sample of a song called “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy. Please enjoy the “unofficial official” video, featuring Aziz Ansari and Master of None co-star Eric Wareheim frolicking in Paris.
New Slaves | Yeezus (2013)
Outro start time: 2:50
“New Slaves” is built off a spare, aggressive, synth-based beat. But at 2:50, out of nowhere, Kanye samples the most random song of all time: “Gyöngyhajú lány”, a 1969 song by the Hungarian rock band Omega. I have no idea how Kanye finds these songs and then successfully incorporates them, but let’s be grateful that he does.
Wolves / Frank’s Track | The Life of Pablo (2016)
Outro start time: 3:19
And now we’re back to where we started. To reiterate my feelings on “Wolves,” I can’t think of a better way to end a song than with Frank Ocean’s passionate croon.
Related post: “The Similarities Between Kanye West and Kobe Bryant”