Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we discuss recent hip-hop tracks.
Today, we focus our attention on only one song: Kanye West’s new single with Paul McCartney, “Only One”. As always, our distinguished panel consists of Marcus Dowling, Phil R, Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious, Clyde McGrady, Damion M, and Weird City Fest‘s Aaron Miller.
Kanye West ft. Paul McCartney: “Only One”
For almost half of 2014, the promise of a new Kanye West record loomed. But is as often the case with Yeezus, we ended up just waiting. (We’re still holding out for a Cruel Winter.) That doesn’t mean that Ye dropped completely off the grid. He didn’t. He stole the show from Rick Ross on “Sanctified” before the Bawse even showed up. He mowed another man’s lawn on “Drunk in Love (Remix)”. He strutted on Theophilius London’s “Don’t Stop”. He won him a trophy on Future’s “I Won”. He mumbled with Chief Keef on “Nobody”. And he had a hand in the production of a number of big songs: “Sanctified”; Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”, Pusha T’s “Lunch Money”.
But just when the year was winding down – and in a perhaps a shrewd attempt to dominate New Year’s Eve party conversation – Kanye West dropped the first single from his as-yet-untitled forthcoming album. The song is called “Only One”, and it’s pretty much the opposite of Yeezus‘ first single, “New Slaves”: It’s a tender autotuned ballad with – with Paul McCartney. The song was accompanied by a lengthy press release, which provides plenty of background:
In early 2014, Paul McCartney and Kanye West first began working together in a small bungalow in Los Angeles. The process that would result in “Only One” began with a simple brainstorming session between the two: With McCartney improvising on the keyboards and Kanye vocally sketching and shaping ideas in a stream-of-consciousness riff.
When they played back the recording afterward, something remarkable happened. Kanye sat there with his family, holding his daughter North on his lap, and listened to his vocals, singing, “Hello, my only one . . . ” And in that moment, not only could he not recall having sung those words, but he realized that perhaps the words had never really come from him.
The process of artistic creation is one that does not involve thinking, but often channeling. And he understood in that moment that his late mother, Dr. Donda West, who was also his mentor, confidante, and best friend, had spoken through him that day.
“My mom was singing to me, and through me to my daughter,” he said, astonished.
The small group in the room kept listening: “Hello my Only One…just like the morning sun…you’ll keep on rising till the sky knows your name.” To some, Kanye’s insight didn’t immediately register. But then he explained: The name Kanye, which his mother had chosen, means “only one.”
And then it dawned on everyone there: Something powerful and undeniable had occurred through the power of music and of letting go. A message had been passed down through generations.
Damion: Homey sounds like he’s about to off himself.
Marcus: You know, if music isn’t going to sell anymore, I’m totally okay with fashion mogul and dedicated father Kanye West sitting in bungalows with Paul McCartney and making stream-of-consciousness collaborations. Between this and tracks like Nicki Minaj’s “Only”, this is where I feel mainstream music is headed. Not so much folks feeling hyper-pressured to make “hit songs,” but really talented artists coming together and putting down music based around creative themes.
Can Kanye West sing? No. Is Paul McCartney an awesome composer? Certainly. I have this amazing image in my head of Kanye forcing Million $ Mano, Chief Keef, King Louie and Q-Tip to listen to the unmastered version in a hotel suite in Paris, and Mano purposefully fucking up on Kanye’s tour so he could get fired because he kinda knew that it was all over after this point. You know Keef totally scams on suburban white teenage cheerleaders with this story, too.
But, yeah, I also have the sense that Rick Rubin mixed and mastered this track as well. I get the sense that Kanye, now in possession of Paul McCartney’s cell phone number, texted Paul every day to tell him that Rick was going to mix and master it, no, “REDUCE IT,” and Paul responded with “Reduce? What in the hell does that mean, Kanye?” Kanye’s all like, “It’s dope – don’t worry about it,” and Paul just said, “K,” and Kanye got all up in his feelings (because who doesn’t get annoyed when someone responds with “K”?), probably re-recording the acapella for this thing like five more times. Of course, Rick doesn’t care, because, hell… imagine how much Rick gets paid for these “mastering” sessions. It’s probably insane.
I also think he emailed the track to Paul, but he’s Paul McCartney, and I can’t imagine Paul checking his email too much. Let’s imagine that Kanye ran into Ringo Starr at a charity dinner and was all like, “YOOOO, RINGO, YOUR HOMIE HASN’T HEARD MY SHIT.” One phone call (and a whole ton of laughs) later, Paul replies to the email with “This is cool, but why did you have to get Ringo involved?” Kanye doesn’t email, but texts back with “AWESOME.”
Thirty minutes later, “Only One” is released.
Jose: Kanye has dabbled in almost every form of art and expression at this point, with more hits than misses. As ridiculous as it sounds to say this, it’s almost unsurprising that he’d try his hand at writing a nursery song, with being father to the Chosen One and all.
This is a beautiful piece of music. I really have come to enjoy Kanye’s autotune croon. Sir Paul’s ear for an elegant and memorable melody remains unparalleled.
To echo Marcus’ point, I do love knowing that the best creative minds are out there making great art together, our expectations be damned. However, those expectations do exist, and as such, “Only One” is definitely not the track to get me excited about Yeezy’s forthcoming album. Too many feels.
Phil: I still tear up whenever I listen to “Hey Mama”, so please note that my heart is not made of stone, but writing a song from your dead parent’s perspective to yourself is fucking weird. It just is! I don’t care if Kanye blacked out and channeled her spirit like Oda Mae Brown. A significant chunk of this song is Kanye telling himself he’s awesome from his deceased mom’s vantage. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a therapist’s exercise. And if you’re really going down this road, you need to hit it our of the park lyrically. “Only One” is a Bob Ross painting on the front of a Hallmark card. There’s nothing here. I think that someone called Kim Kardashian an angel.
Musically, it’s fine. It’s not breaking any new ground for Ye. It feels like “Good Night” with a dash of “Bittersweet Poetry”, while obviously being paired down. But note: Those songs were relegated to b-side status. And note: Their hooks were assigned to other people. Which leads us to…
The autotune. This is clearly a modest song, so I don’t want to go overboard, but it might be where the rubber starts to hit the road with Ye and the vocal crutch. Now, I have no qualms with autotune itself, as everyone here knows. I do think that it needs to be used creatively, though. Maybe I’ve been making excuses for Kanye, but I thought the use of autotune paired with the overriding themes of 808s and Heartbreak and the funhouse aesthetic of Yeezus. “Only One” just sounds like a guy who can’t sing.
Kanye was better at making songs about his children before he had one.
Also, fuck “Nori” as a nickname for “North.” There are more syllables. The point is to subtract syllables.
Clyde: I woke up hungover on New Year’s Day at the crack of noon. I rolled out of bed, grabbed my iPhone and headed to the bathroom. While I sat on the toilet reading the Economist scrolling through Facebook, I clicked on an article Marcus shared about this song. And as I listened to Yeezy’s autotuned warble, a tear actually welled up in my eye thinking about my own dad who died a little over three years ago and whose birthday is next week. So needless to say this song resonates with me and hits me right in the feels.
I think it’s pretty common among those who’ve lost parents to wonder what wisdom they would impart if they were still around. Of course Kanye’s dead parent is telling him how awesome he is. (I wondered what my dad would’ve said to me while I listened to “Only One”: Hey son, you’ve been sitting there a while. Your legs have to be pretty numb by now right? Why don’t you go ahead and hop your lazy hungover ass in the shower and try to be productive today, OK? I believe in you.)
Next to Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney is my favorite composer and that trademark melodicism is all over this track. I would argue it’s the strongest part of the song.
And about that autotune, I completely agree with Phil. I defended its use on 808s and Heartbreaks because I thought it matched that album’s theme of isolation and detachment. Not so much on “Only.” It’s just a terrible singer trying (and failing) to mask his voice.
I am an unrepentant Yeezy-stan and believe to my core that 808s is tragically underrated. And of course 808s is the album this song hearkens to. It’s not an original observation to point out that without Kanye/808s you don’t get Drake, Cudi, Gambino or even Kendrick. Some people would argue that he deserves blame instead of praise for that influence. But I’m thankful for the non-thug, non-gangsta, emotionally vulnerable blueprint that he laid out for mainstream rappers.
I also think people underestimate the impact his mother’s death had on him. Donda was his best friend, and next to his own inflated ego, his largest cheering section. He still sometimes gets choked up in interviews when it comes up. This song is a 37-year-old global icon taking stock of his life, wishing his daughter and mother had the chance to meet. But because it’s Kanye, it’s about as subtle as the Kool-aid™ Man. And it’s still really about him which isn’t that surprising. Even in “New Day”, Kanye’s verse to his then unborn kid was really just him throwing himself a pity party reflecting on all the mistakes he’d made.
Overall, I like the song OK. It isn’t bad, but I really hope this new album has some drums on it, because I can’t do Yeezus II: The Yeezoning.
Aaron: GODDAMN MACCA’S A BEAST IN THE BOOTH. TAKE THAT, TAKE THAT. AIRHORN GUNSHOT.
But seriously, fuck this song.
I know that there is a long-ass German word somewhere that describes the exact 60/40 mix of disgust and fascination that I feel right now.
I recognize that everyone has feelings, but we have got to draw the line somewhere.
I cannot, with a clear conscience, hate on the fact that Kanye loves his deceased mom. That’s a dick move.
I can, however, hate on the fact that this warbly, pitch-corrected mess feels like Ye licking a mirror while Sir Paul plays keys with one hand, daydreaming about castles and piles of gold (which, by the way, are the only two things these cats have in common). Sure, the melody is charming and sophisticated, and the message is heartfelt – even if the disembodied delivery is a bit creepy – but this team up makes essentially NO FUCKING SENSE.
It’s just one famous-ass dude using his relevancy tractor beam to pull another really famous dude in just to prove he can do it.
Plus, it’s probably cheaper to get Paul in the studio than it is to get clearance on a Beatles sample.
I simply cannot tow the Kanye-as-genius line at dinner parties anymore. He is not. Fame is not genius. Talent, in and of itself, is not genius.
Paul McCartney may well be an actual genius with a well earned place in history. Kanye is just kinda good at a couple things: making beats and rapping about himself, both of which he is getting progressively worse at.
You can’t force a legacy.
It is easier to drive a camel colored Bugatti thru the eye of a needle than for a mainstream fashion poser to enter the Kingdom of Legends.
Kanye West is in the early stages of Fat Elvis.
The only genius in Yeezy’s camp is his publicist. This team up would be a lot cooler if they just smoked some of Paul’s illuminati weed and did Wings karaoke.
Marcus: Fat Elvis Yeezus is going to be so great, though. The rap version of “Suspicious Minds” could even be on this forthcoming album. At least as Fat Elvis he’ll have an excuse for his insanity. Here’s to hoping that Jaden Smith and North West do the MJ/Lisa Marie and get married, only to have a child via some sort of weird Australian surrogate, too.