As sustained, goodwill-generating rap publicity stunts go, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Fridays series is almost entirely without precedent. Other rappers, guys like Freeway and Crooked I, have given away free music in regular installments, but those guys are B-listers and supporting players, and they didn’t exactly bring out a head-spinning guest star with every new installment. Other big names like Lil Wayne have given away vast amounts of free music, but they’ve never turned it into a ritualistic, cohesive project the way Kanye has. Ten weeks in (about halfway through), we’ve got 55 minutes that’d make a pretty incredible album in their own right after minimal sequencing tweaks.
These tracks tend to be big, ominous, portentous, piling on the sinister sonics and weird little production details. And every week, Kanye’s Hawaii studio retreat gets a little bit more mysterious. Is he really just flying all these guys down, letting them talk shit over whatever he came up with this week? Part of his initial charm was that he seemed like an everyfan suddenly given absurd access: Plenty of people might’ve wondered how Mos Def and Freeway would’ve sounded next to each other, but only Kanye had the position and the inclination to make it happen. That’s back in play here. He’s putting Raekwon on a Justin Bieber remix, or tossing Rick Ross right next to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for the fuck of it. And now that we’ve got a nice round number of G.O.O.D. Fridays tracks to work with, it’s an opportune time to check back through what he’s given us so far and pick out some standout verses.
1. Nikki Minaj, “Monster.” An honest-to-god contender for verse of the year and a real star-making moment for someone who was already well on her way. On a track with three of rap’s biggest names (and, uh, Bon Iver), Nikki’s the only one who really took Kanye’s darkly funky track for all it was worth, using it to furiously tweak her spazzed-out style in every direction she could imagine, giving a monolithic and ponderous song a serious shot of adrenaline. It reminds me of another iconic early guest appearance: DMX roar-spitting his way through the cleanup spot on the Lox’s “Money, Power & Respect.” Like X on that track, Nikki’s all shtick, but she commits entirely to her own ridiculousness. Again and again, she sounds like she’s about to wrap her verse up, but then she pulls back, switches up, darts off in another direction. The best lines feel iconic: “Pink wig, thick ass, give ’em whiplash/I think big, get cash, make ’em blink fast.” There’s a fun little gossip-column moment when Nikki proposes a threesome with Kanye’s ex-girl Amber Rose, and Kanye blurs out Amber’s name; elsewhere, Kanye helps out the verse with all sorts of little production tricks, putting the dropouts and echoes in all the right places. And that scream at the end? I mean, Jesus. An absolute tour de force.
2. Kanye West, “Power Remix.” The first track in the series was also the first indication that the man would take some risks here, tossing out standard rap-song structure in favor of prog-informed wanderings, letting the songs end only when he felt like they were done. Even before the track explodes, this is a pretty powerful remix, Kanye tweaking the storm-stomp beat of the original into something altogether new, Jay taking the opportunity to dispense some old-man wisdom and a baffling literary reference or two. But the song really catches fire in the final two minutes, when Swizz Beatz suddenly interrupts, rips the record off the turntable, and subs in a mutated version of Snap’s Euro-cheese classic “The Power.” Kanye takes that great moment and runs with it, snarling hard and fast over the ugly dance jam for way, way more than 16 bars. “Don’t even think you can allude to the rumors, I’m immune to the boos, I’m a prove it to you losers.” The message: Please, stay off his back. Or he will attack. And you don’t want that.
3. Kanye West: “Take One for the Team.” The latest entry finds Kanye dispensing with the vaguely indulgent epic sensibility he brings to most of these songs so he can instead play the same goofy-funny dickhead role he embodied on “The New Workout Plan”–except now with the ego that comes with global superstardom and the defiance that comes with global-pariah status. Great opening here: “You know what? I figured out I’m not a nice guy/Shook hands, kissed babies, gave it a nice try.” Then he goes on to air out a ton of pet peeves: baby pictures, plastic couches, shit-smelling apartments, Bath & Body Works. Shape up, world! Kanye West is holding you to a higher standard! Then, just for the fuck of it, he steals his friend’s girlfriend, unapologetic like LL Cool J on “I’m That Type of Guy.” “Take One for the Team” is also notable for CyHi da Prince’s revelation that he and fellow nobody Big Sean carry themselves like Pauly D and the Situation. And if the evil, Zombi-sounding keyboard solo from Houston production legend Mike Dean counted as a verse, best believe it would’ve made this list.
4. Pharrell, “Don’t Stop!” Lupe Fiasco says “Don’t Stop!” is actually three years old, and it makes sense. Especially compared with the most recent G.O.O.D. Fridays tracks, it’s a brisk little workout: no chorus, no big theme, no churn to the beat, just three guys talking slick shit for four minutes. And Pharrell comes off the slickest of the three, something I didn’t think would happen this year. None of the three skinny-jeans overlords on “Don’t Stop!” exactly sound convincing when they’re trying to come off tough, but Pharrell has the most fun with it: “That ape behind me still got the burner/Yes, the Enzo is still black like Sojourner/Truth/I might’ve just loosened a tooth/Spitting what I did in the booth/I’m out, poof.” The way those cowbells fall all over each other doesn’t hurt, either.
5. Pusha T, “Good Friday.” Pusha seems to be Kanye’s new favorite rapper–he’s on like half of these tracks. But sadly, we’re not dealing with We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2-era Pusha, a rapper who came up with alarmingly great little turns of phrase every couple of seconds. On most of his appearances here, he works as a sort of ballast, his ice-cold delivery counterbalancing Kanye’s raging passion. And on this song, the warmest and prettiest of the series, that contrast works perfectly, Pusha’s deadly sneer contrasting beautifully with the soul-gospel pianos and classic-rap drums. Also, bonus points for making fun of Stephon Marbury, which is still funny. And: “I’m 2012 in 2010, which makes this a time machine, not just any Benz.”
6. Ryan Leslie, “Christian Dior Denim Flow.” Leslie’s not even a rapper–he’s a visionary at building r&b jams out of old-school video-game sound effects. And other than a couple of anono-verses on Cassie songs, I don’t even remember hearing him rap, ever. And yet here, he overwhelms Kanye and Pusha and Lloyd Banks and Kid Cudi with a heavy, seen-it-all aging-gunslinger flow that I never would’ve guessed he had in him. It helps that the beat suddenly strips back and slows down right before Leslie makes his entrance, but the simple sound of his voice does the heavy lifting. More than anyone else on the song, he sounds disappointed.
7. Kanye West, “Runaway Love Remix.” You can just hear it: Kanye can’t believe he got away with this shit. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ ta F’ Wit” beat, Justin Bieber chorus, Raekwon shouting out Kanye and Justin in his ad-libs. And the single greatest moment of the track doesn’t come from any of those unlikely triumphs: It comes from the sheer dizzy happiness you can hear in the verse Kanye gives himself. So out come the gratuitous Wu-Tang references and the charmingly awful lyrical clunkers that Kanye doesn’t deliver too often anymore: “When you meet the parents, you tell DeNiro/Her boyfriend a zero, she need to cut the weeeirdo.” This must’ve been so much fun for Kanye.
8. Jay-Z, “So Appalled.” The best of Jay’s three appearances, though his “Monster” verse gets something of a bad rap. (The beginning, where he’s just listing off monsters, is dumb as shit, but “All I see are these fake fucks with no fangs tryna draw blood from my ice-cold veins” is just good writing.) On all three verses, Jay feels content to play the elder even more than he ever does on his own, and “So Appalled” finds him particularly bitter. Even though Jay has basically the most enviable life in rap history, it must’ve actually hurt his feelings when Beanie Sigel started targeting him with increasingly unhinged dis tracks. A nerve, in any case, seems to have been struck. So: “All these little bitches, too big for they britches, burning they little bridges/Fuckin’ ridiculous.” Also: Hammer’s mad.
9. Raekwon, “Lord Lord Lord.”The single weakest track in the series is the one where everyone gets too contemplative and Swizz Beatz, unaccountably, gets an actual rap verse. But even here, Raekwon gets to come in, all raw-throated authority, ignoring the rest of the song and going all guttural mafioso: “I’m zooted down, rollin’ a spliff, maxin’, flamin’ like wheels got traction.” It’s pretty stark when Kanye’s rich-guy hall of mirrors gets a dose of actual grounded paranoia.
10. Lupe Fiasco, “Don’t Stop!”I thought about making all three “Don’t Stop!” verses one entry, since everyone just crushes it, there’s no break between tracks, and it seems silly to drop Kanye’s verse from the list after he says, “I pop too many corks to let you dorks offend me.” But Lupe deserves recognition for leaving behind the conceptual silliness that’s derailed so much of his recent work, using that liquid flow to just sound cool instead. He should do more of that.