In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Before “Stronger” reached MTV and YouTube, Kanye West rented out a Manhattan movie theater and held a glitzy premiere for the song’s video. I know because I was there. I got the email invite a few hours before the event was set to kick off, and I cancelled whatever plans I had that night and headed out to take in this cinematic vision. I wanted to see the video, but that wasn’t why I devoted my night to this display of indulgence. I went because Kanye West was, at that moment, the most interesting person in all of popular music. He knew it, too. If anything, he knew it too well.
Before that night, I’d never even heard of a music-video premiere event. But this kind of display was typical of Kanye West. Kanye was getting ready to release Graduation, his third album. The first two, College Dropout and Late Registration, had been critical and commercial smashes, and Kanye had emerged as a new evolution of the A-list rap star — the middle-class striver who produces his own tracks, who’s more interested in fashion and tastemaker business than the sometimes-hermetic rap world, and whose insecurity and egomania often melted together into one enormous whole. Soon afterward, Kanye rented out an off-Broadway theater for a Graduation listening party, and I was there for that, too. It seemed like an extravagant display, but that sense of spectacle had not yet reached its final form. Years later, Kanye would hold his album listening parties in football stadiums.
The “Stronger” video was good. Kanye West made that clip with Hype Williams, the greatest music-video director in history. I didn’t pick up on the video’s allusions to Akira at the time, but the flashy, jarring sci-fi sensibility was still arresting. It was like Kanye had used a blockbuster budget to make a Squarepusher video. The video had the desired cultural impact, too; the shutter shades that Kanye wore in that clip soon became an all-purpose douchey cool-guy signifier, sold as $5 knockoffs at malls and gas stations around the world. Maybe that wasn’t the exact outcome that Kanye wanted, but when you’re making mass-culture spectacle, authorial intent is the first thing to go. I wonder if Kanye West knows that.
At the Graduation listening party, Kanye West went up in front of the crowd and spoke excitedly, at great length, about how he’d landed on the sound of the album. After Late Registration, Kanye had toured stadiums, opening for U2 and the Rolling Stones, and he hadn’t gotten the rapturous response that he’d wanted. Here’s how he put it: “My job, at least 200 days out the year, I’m onstage in front of 50,000 people. So I did this album to make my job easier.”
Playing those shows, Kanye figured out that dense wordplay and meditations on internal conflict simply couldn’t work on that big a scale. Instead, Kanye wanted to make theme songs for people — songs that would sound enormous, songs that could trigger mass singalongs. “Stronger” might represent the biggest, loudest, most successful example of the form, but it’s not my favorite version of the superhero-music sound that Kanye was chasing on Graduation. That’s still “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” the album’s first single.
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” wasn’t supposed to be a chart-conquering hit. Instead, it served the same basic purpose as “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” did in the Late Registration rollout — the single before the single, the indication that something big was coming. Kanye worked with T.I. producer DJ Toomp, whose work will eventually appear in this column, to capture some of the blaring synthetic grandeur that he heard in the music of Atlanta rappers like T.I. and Young Jeezy, and he added a singsong melody that, he told us at the listening party, was his version of a Led Zeppelin kind of thing. I don’t get Zeppelin from that song, but it’s got its own kind of majesty that didn’t translate to the pop charts. (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” peaked at #41.)
“Stronger” was a different story. Kanye West had big plans for “Stronger,” and the song did everything that it was supposed to do. A lot of that comes down to the sample — and, just as important, to the timing of the sample. You probably already know this, but “Stronger” is built around the French house duo Daft Punk’s almighty 2001 track “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”
At that “Stronger” video premiere, when he was talking to the crowd, Kanye admitted that he hadn’t been the first rap producer to sample Daft Punk; Swizz Beatz had done it before him. Swizz, sitting in the audience, boomed out a reply: “I ain’t do it like that, though!” Both of those things were true. In 2005, Swizz Beatz, who’s already been in this column for his work on Beyoncé’s “Check On It,” produced the Busta Rhymes single “Touch It,” and he built that song from a sample of “Technologic,” a track that Daft Punk had released earlier that year. “Touch It” peaked at #16 on the Hot 100, and it was all over New York rap radio for months.
Kanye West liked “Touch It,” but he apparently didn’t recognize that Daft Punk sample. At the time, Kanye West’s tour DJ was A-Trak, a former DMC champion who later became a big deal in the dance-music world. A few years ago, A-Trak told the whole “Stronger” backstory to Genius: “Kanye heard ‘Touch It’ and thought that beat was cool. I said, ‘He just swooped up Daft Punk.’ And Ye said, ‘Who?’ I just couldn’t believe that Kanye had never heard Daft Punk.” A-Trak played Kanye some Daft Punk, and Kanye flipped for “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” He told A-Trak that he was going to sample the song. A-Trak thought that this was a terrible idea, that the sample was too obvious. Kanye didn’t care.
A-Trak, incidentally, is Jewish. Last week, Kanye went on Instagram and wrote, “Watching Jonah Hill in 21 Jump street made me like Jewish people again.” This was after months of deeply antisemitic rhetoric and Nazi sympathy, which utterly torched Kanye’s legacy and which made the world a shittier place to live, for Jewish people and for everyone else. And look: 21 Jump Street? Funny movie! Jonah Hill is good in it! But Kanye West has had actual Jewish people in his life, in his inner circle, for many years. They’ve been close friends, close collaborators, and that didn’t stop Kanye from saying terrible shit about an entire religion. Kanye doesn’t get to write this shit off as a misunderstanding.
Anyway. “Stronger.” Kanye West knew about house music. He grew up in Chicago, the birthplace of house, and he used to listen to it alongside rap music. You can hear echoes of house on an early Kanye track like “The New Workout Plan.” But latter-day European house existed outside of Kanye West’s experience. Daft Punk were a huge deal in Europe and in the UK, where “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was an actual chart hit. Before 2007, though, Daft Punk had only had two Hot 100 hits — 1997’s “Around The World” and 2000’s “One More Time,” both of which peaked at #61. That would change. (Now, Daft Punk’s highest-charting single is the the 2013 Pharrell collab “Get Lucky,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8. As guests, Daft Punk will eventually appear in this column.)
Thanks to years of word-of-mouth cult success, Daft Punk were about to experience a moment when Kanye sampled them. In 2006, both Kanye and Daft Punk played Coachella on the same day — Kanye performing on the main stage before Depeche Mode and Franz Ferdinand and Sigur Rós, Daft Punk headlining the dance-music tent. This was the debut of Daft Punk’s brain-wrecking Pyramid show, which became a cultural phenomenon when the duo toured across the world for the last time ever. In August of 2007, a month before “Stronger” topped the Hot 100, I saw Daft Punk’s Alive show at the minor-league ballpark on Coney Island, and it remains the greatest stadium show I’ve ever seen in my life. The mass excitement around that tour fed into the “Stronger” hype, and the “Stronger” hype fed into the mass excitement around that tour.
Daft Punk loved being the focus of “Stronger.” They either appeared in the “Stronger” video or sent the masked actors from their movie Electroma to appear in the video; accounts differ. (At the video premiere, Kanye insisted that it really was Daft Punk in his video. Also in the video: Cassie, looking ridiculously beautiful. Cassie’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “Me & U,” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) Later on, Daft Punk worked directly with Kanye, co-producing three tracks from his 2013 album Yeezus. (The only one of those songs that made the Hot 100 was “Black Skinhead,” which peaked at #69.)
Like “Stronger” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was itself built from a sample. Daft Punk were just transitioning into their new robot-mask personas when they recorded their 2001 masterpiece Discovery. On “Harder,” they did their vocodered robo-rumbling over a sample of Edwin Birdsong’s 1979 funk obscurity “Cola Bottle Baby.” As a result, Birdsong got a songwriting credit on Kanye’s “Stronger,” as did both members of Daft Punk.
Kanye West arguably did more with his Daft Punk sample than Daft Punk did with their Edwin Birdsong sample. Daft Punk chopped up “Cola Bottle Baby” a bit, but they mostly left the groove intact. Kanye, on the other hand, slowed “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” down to a crawl, and he did everything in his power to make the original track sound even bigger and more cinematic. He had help. Kanye’s co-producer on “Stronger” was Mike Dean, a white longhair from Houston who’s 12 years older than Kanye and who’d already had a wild run in the music business. Dean was into ’70s hard rock as a kid, but he got his start playing guitar for Selena in the ’90s. Dean quickly found a place in the Texan rap underground, producing and mixing tracks for towering figures like UGK, Devin The Dude, and the Geto Boys.
In 2001, Kanye West produced “Guess Who’s Back,” a track for the Geto Boys legend Scarface that features Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel. (Great song.) Mike Dean mixed that track, and Kanye liked the work that he did on the song enough to bring Dean in to work on College Dropout as an engineer and mixer. As time went on, Dean became a more important part of Kanye’s process, and Dean’s reputation within rap grew. We’ll see his work in this column again. On “Stronger,” Dean co-produced and played guitar. Dean and Kanye chopped up the Daft Punk sample, layering and rearranging, building their own crescendoes. Kanye kept remixing the song over and over, even after the single first came out.
At one point, Kanye West heard “Stronger” in a club next to former Number Ones artist Timbaland’s “The Way I Are.” (“The Way I Are” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) Kanye thought his own drums sounded weak next to the drums on the Timbaland track, and there really had been a longstanding rap-head gripe that Kanye’s drum sounds weren’t hard enough in general. In an effort to achieve the the sound that he wanted for “Stronger,” Kanye actually brought in Timbaland to program the drums for the album version of the song. In a video from the studio, Tim seems baffled that Kanye doesn’t think “Stronger” is good enough already, but he still works his magic.
Kanye did not, however, give that same obsessive attention to his “Stronger” lyrics — or, at least, I can’t imagine that he did. “Stronger” is basically a song about being great. The chorus paraphrases a famous Nietzsche quote, and most of Kanye’s lines are about his own greatness. Some of those lines are really effective: “Bow in the presence of greatness/ ‘Cause right now, thou hast forsaken us/ You should be honored by my lateness/ That I would even show up to this fake shit.” Those lines are nonspecific, and they fit with Kanye’s stated mission to make songs that people can use as their own anthems. That’s why “Stronger” has persisted on workout playlists even after Kanye’s public image has gone straight to shit. But some of those lyrics are also just bad.
I don’t understand how someone can obsess over a track’s drum sound while also rhyming “Klondike” with “blonde dyke.” It just doesn’t compute. Whenever the Daft Punk sample comes in, Kanye says, “Baby, you’re making it!” As in: You’re making it harder. In that context, Daft Punk’s robotic mantra becomes Kanye talking about his dick. That’s dumb, and it’s also derivative, since Busta Rhymes did the exact same thing on “Touch It.” It’s easy to ignore those lyrics, since “Stronger” really does work as a colossal anthem about personal empowerment. But some of those lyrics have always grated on me, and it’s not like the past 15 years of Kanye West have given me reason to reconsider that feeling.
In the run-up to the Graduation release, the big story was the release-date battle with 50 Cent, an artist who’s been in this column a bunch of times. 50 released his third album Curtis on the same day, and both artists had fun with the hype during the build-up. 50, who’d sold more records than Kanye to that point, was dismissive of Kanye, and he said that he’d retire from rap if Kanye outsold him, though he later took that promise back. The two rappers appeared together on the cover of Rolling Stone, posing as if it was a prizefight, and they did the same thing at the VMAs.
The whole release-date battle was a good gimmick, and it drummed up a whole lot of hype for both albums. Kanye and 50 were both signed to Universal subsidiaries, so the same company made money no matter who won. But people, especially in the press, took it seriously. 50 Cent was an old-school rap bully, a great heel, while Kanye West, years away from his own heel turn, was a new archetype; their face-off could be read as a battle for the soul of a genre. I bought Graduation at Best Buy on its release day, even though I’d already downloaded the leak and even though I knew that the whole battle was a kind of empty story; I wanted to participate in the moment. So did hundreds of thousands of other people.
Ultimately, Kanye West and 50 Cent were on opposite trajectories. 50 Cent had burned up his goodwill by chasing easy hits, while Kanye was continuing to evolve his sound and persona. Kanye was in touch with the zeitgeist; 50 Cent was not. Both albums sold a ton of copies in their opening weeks, but Kanye sold a lot more. Graduation eventually went quintuple platinum. Kanye’s follow-up, the T-Pain collab “Good Life,” peaked at #7. (It’s a 9.)
Two months after the release of Graduation, Kanye West’s mother Donda died suddenly and unexpectedly after cosmetic surgery. She was 58. Donda’s loss seemed to send Kanye West into something like a permanent tailspin. Around the same time, Kanye broke up with his fiancee. The next year, I saw Kanye play Madison Square Garden on his Glow In The Dark tour, a wild and ambitious spectacle that reworked Kanye’s whole catalog into a sci-fi storyline. During the show, Kanye talked to a spaceship computer instead of the audience, and the whole show became a narrative about Kanye’s journey through the universe. The show hit an emotional climax when Kanye performed “Hey Mama,” his Late Registration salute to Donda.
A year after Graduation, Kanye released 808s & Heartbreak, the sad and bitter and exhausted album about Kanye’s breakup. I loved it. 808s was a relatively difficult and experimental album for a star at Kanye’s level, but it was also hugely influential. It was popular, too. The pounding, meditative lead single “Love Lockdown” debuted at #3. (It’s a 9.) Kanye also reached #2 with the seething-but-catchy “Heartless.” (That’s another 9.)
Kanye West was still in the 808s & Heartbreaks album cycle in the fall of 2009, when he sat, drunk, in the front row at the VMAs. Early in the show, Taylor Swift, an artist who will appear in this column many times, won an entirely meaningless award. In the process, Taylor’s video defeated the clip for a Beyoncé track that will appear in this column. Kanye West objected, interrupted Taylor, and then shrugged at the boos. This would basically serve as the 21st-century pop-music equivalent to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. We’re still living with its goofy-ass consequences today.
Jesus Christ, we could not stop reliving that moment. There were diss tracks. There were truces. There were more diss tracks, more bitterness. Public opinion swung one way, then another. It went on for many years. The morning after the VMAs, though, the image seemed pretty clear: Even if Kanye was right about the Beyoncé video, it was a dick move. There was also a racial component to the public backlash: Kanye, a famous and glamorous Black man, taking the moment away from Taylor Swift, a younger and less-famous white woman. It’s wild to be living in a moment now where Nazis seem to like Kanye a lot better than Taylor.
The backlash was, uh, swift. Jay Leno dragged Kanye West onto TV to apologize and asked Kanye what his late mother would’ve thought. Obama called Kanye a “jackass.” (Kanye had campaigned for Obama, and I truly think that this offhand comment was ultimately what pushed Kanye Trumpward.) An arena tour with Lady Gaga, another artist who will appear in this column a bunch of times, was cancelled. And Kanye’s days as a reliable hitmaker were over.
We’ll see more Kanye West in this column; he’ll be here as a guest-rapper and (much later) as a producer. He’ll lurk as a background character for a long time. But “Stronger” remains Kanye West’s last #1 hit as lead artist. Since then, Kanye’s top-10 hits have been infrequent and random, and they’ve usually come as a result of big-deal collaborations. In 2011, for instance, Kanye and Jay-Z got to #5 with “N***as In Paris.” (It’s a 10.) In 2015, Kanye, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney all reached #4 with “FourFiveSeconds.” (It’s a 9.) In 2018, the team of Kanye West and Lil Pump made it to #6 with the ridiculously goofy “I Love It.” (That one is a 6.)
During that whole stretch, Kanye West albums remained hugely important media-circus deals, partly because those albums were great. But despite all the laurels for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus and The Life Of Pablo, none of those albums produced a top-10 hit. (“Runaway,” from Twisted Fantasy, and “Bound 2,” from Yeezus, both peaked at #12. “Famous,” the biggest hit from Pablo, only reached #34.) When the whole streaming revolution created an atmosphere where a big-deal album could really impact the pop charts, Kanye West was well past his peak. In 2018, he released the slapdash Ye, and he got to #8 with “Yikes.” (It’s a 7.)
You really don’t need me to recap the past few years of Kanye West, do you? The embrace of Donald Trump? The gospel phase? The half-assed presidential campaign? The marriage to Kim Kardashian and the subsequent divorce? The thing where he changed his name to Ye? The long antisemitic bender? You know all that stuff, and if you don’t, I envy you. It’s been tragic and dispiriting and exhausting. When Kanye released his album Donda in 2021, he still had enough goodwill to push two tracks into the top 10. “Jail” had two versions, one with Jay-Z and one with DaBaby, both future Number Ones artists, and it peaked at #10. (It’s a 4.) “Hurricane” had Lil Baby and future Number Ones artist the Weeknd, and it made it to #6. (It’s a 5.)
Kanye West has made so much music that I love. He’s pushed rap stardom and pop stardom into exciting new directions. He’s one of this century’s defining artists. He’s also a walking car crash, a permanent fucking disaster who clearly regards himself as the main character in all of popular culture. Kanye spins the fuck out when the world doesn’t bow in the presence of his greatness, and he doesn’t seem to realize that all the other people on the planet are not characters in his ongoing internal psychodrama. He can get fucked.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the absolutely ridiculous and endless rock version of “Stronger” that Thirty Seconds To Mars released in 2007:
(Thirty Seconds To Mars’ highest-charting single, 2006’s “The Kill,” peaked at #65.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Stronger” soundtracking a rising-action moment in Never Back Down, the dumb-fun 2008 sports movie about high-school MMA fighters:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Stronger” scoring the slow-motion walking-through-an-airport scene in 2011’s The Hangover Part II:
(Bradley Cooper will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The most uncomfortable scene in all of prestige-TV history might be the moment where Marnie, Allison Williams’ character, sings an emotional version of “Stronger” at her ex-boyfriend’s work party, on a 2013 episode of
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s pop-rap goofball G-Eazy heavily interpolating “Stronger” on “Let’s Get Lost,” his 2014 track with Devon Baldwin:
(G-Eazy’s highest-charting single is the 2017 A$AP Rocky/Cardi B collab “No Limit,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 7.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. I don’t know if you got a man or not, if you made plans or not, if God put my book in your plans or not, but you can buy it here.