When Kanye West takes the stage to accept his Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Video Music Awards this Sunday, it’ll be as an artist who has been notoriously shut out when it comes to actually winning. Three Video of the Year nominations, no wins. Nine Best Hip-Hop Video nods (10 if you count in supporting roles), zero victories. A singular win for Best Male Video in 2005 with “Jesus Walks,” but five losses in the category, too.
Those facts should surprise quite a few; after all, West is known for creating some of the quintessential clips of the past decade. He’s entertained. He’s shocked. He’s warned us about potential epileptic seizures triggered by watching his videos. He’s one of the few artists today where a new video is still a moment, an event, something that’s sure to get people talking no matter where it ranks in his overall career arsenal.
Now in his 12th year of releasing music videos (2003-2015, with 2014 the only holdout), we’ve ranked the 12 videos that best encapsulate why Kanye West is getting this award, joining artists like Beyonce, The Rolling Stones and even his frequent collaborator, Hype Williams. Many of them are also among his best, and all are certainly the types of clips many artists would kill to get their hands on. Bow in the presence of greatness.
At under two minutes long, the music video for “Power” isn’t even for the full song. Did that stop Kanye from creating one for the ages? Oh, come on, you already know the answer.
Watch it again; you’ll discover tiny details you never noticed the first time around.
Graduation-era Kanye put out an insurmountable crop of music videos, including the Hype Williams-helmed “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” simplistic in its approach but with sensational imagery of West in a vast desert, pronouncing his me-above-the-rest mentality. Special mention must be made to the Zach Galifianakis version (below), which may actually be better.
Hip hop music videos of the era were chock full of women flaunting their features, whether the song lyrics called for such visuals or not. “Gold Digger” changed it up a bit, casting ladies as pin-up girls against sets resembling magazines of yesteryear. That this clip lost the hip-hop video VMA to Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” is tragic.
Yeah, yeah, the best-known version of “Jesus Walks,” with its desolate, barren imagery of drug traffickers, Klansmen and more, is a gem in its own right—witness its accolades around that time. But what West proved with the final version, shot in Chicago and featuring the rapper with a man dressed as the savior himself, was that even on a guerrilla $40,000 budget, he could work wonders when millions-costing clips could barely look the part.
We’re talking the 34-minute version that’s actually 1) a "full-length" film (according to its Vevo description), and 2) a combo of multiple songs off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with “Runaway” as its centerpiece. Was it a masterpiece? Maybe, maybe not. But worthy of a Video Vanguard Award, well, that’s a no-brainer.
An early inventive clip in the West canon that takes the POV route as the rapper drops his girlfriend, played by a pre-Fox News Stacey Dash, at the airport. Imagine, though, you were just trying to get to your flight and you stumbled upon Kanye West rapping in the airport bathroom. Dude, just let me wash my hands.
A music video on steroids, and quite possibly the one you’ll see the most in advertising material for West’s VMA honor this weekend. Hype Williams took Kanye’s love for anime and Japanese culture and crafted a Daft Punk-featuring, robo-futuristic visual that boasted West as somehow more than human, stylized with Japanese words plastered intermittently over the rapper and his iconic Graduation sunglasses.
The first time Kanye West ever hooked up with Hype Williams for a video may very well be the moment the rapper officially threw his hat into the ring for copping a Vanguard award one day. The harrowing black-and-white clip came with a message, presented at its end: “Please purchase conflict-free diamonds.” It was confrontational imagery, something with which Kanye West became synonymous.
As this list has revealed, you don’t necessarily need Kanye West to make a damn good Kanye West music video. In the case of “Flashing Lights,” he’s barely there, popping up only for a cameo in his own clip, otherwise relinquishing control to Rita G in a highly cinematic, slow-motion video. The end-of-the-video payoff is not only the best in Kanye’s career, but also among the greats of all time, period.