Editor’s Note: This March marks the two-year anniversary of the Kanye West Oeuvre. And, while I’m proud overall of what I’ve accomplished in that time, one thing I will not miss is the pacing. Beholden as I am to a strict chronological sequence–and trying as I am not to kill myself with any more 13,000-word posts like this one–it’s inevitable that every once in a while, I’ll get stuck with a post occupied almost entirely by stuff I don’t care about. This is one of those posts. Not unlike the period between 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the period between Yeezus and The Life of Pablo was pretty uninspiring as a whole. I realize that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the post to come; but if we want to see the end–and holy shit, am I ready to see the end of this project–we have to soldier through the boring parts. So let’s get to it. Here’s the story so far: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. – Z.H.
Hard as it may be to believe, we’re actually nearing the end of this little vanity project within a vanity project: next month, on or around the first anniversary of The Life of Pablo, the Kanye West Oeuvre will be retired for the foreseeable future. It’s weird, after almost two years of digging into the past, to be writing now about more recent events–events, in fact, that transpired while I was already working on this series. I remember the long, dramatic, sometimes exasperating build up to Kanye’s seventh solo album almost too well: the initial announcement, the spurt of single releases followed by months of radio silence, the title changes, that goddamn track list. Maybe that’s why I’m honestly not all that eager to write about it: I want to do it justice, I want to bring this series to a strong end, but I also don’t want to dig through the mind-numbing, extratextual minutiae that, frankly, overburdened the album when it finally dropped.
Fortunately, we’re not quite there yet–that’s for me to worry about next month. This month, it’s the calm before the storm: we begin with the smattering of guest features and productions released in the wake of 2013’s Yeezus, and end with the trio of early 2015 songs that (we thought) gave us our first look at Ye’s new album. Think of it as a journey back to a simpler, more innocent time: a time before Kanye decided to torment us with threats of a 2020 presidential bid, before we had to contend with his weird man-crush on Donald Trump; a time when we all thought his next record would be released as a Beyoncé-style surprise, not as a Rihanna-style catastrophe. If you miss those days as much as I do, come along with me. I can’t bring President Obama back, but I can at least bring back So Help Me God.
Kanye’s first post-Yeezus release was Love in the Future by his old pal John Legend, for which he was credited as co-executive producer with another longtime Legend collaborator, Dave Tozer. It’s…definitely a John Legend album, and kind of a dull, middle-of-the-road one at that; but it’s also definitely a Kanye West album, and that’s where we’ll focus our discussion. “The Beginning…,” co-produced with Hit-Boy, is (literal) baby-making music, but with a surprisingly melancholy feel, thanks to its sample from Sara Bareilles’ “Winter Song.” “Open Your Eyes” is a mostly straightforward cover of the 1980 song by blue-eyed soulman Bobby Caldwell, but with some prominent Mike Dean guitar noodling to remind us that this is still (at least in part) a Kanye West joint. Even more “Kanye”–though also benefiting greatly from collaborators Tozer, Nana Kwabena, and Da Internz–is single “Made to Love,” which pairs tribal-sounding drums and icy synthesizers in a manner highly reminiscent of “Love Lockdown.”
Indeed, Love in the Future is a good example of how Kanye can have his creative fingerprints all over a project, even if the credits list him as a “co-producer” at best. Legend himself is on record saying he “worked with Kanye more on this album than I had before”; and, while West’s name tends to appear toward the bottom of the album’s lists of producers and co-writers, his influence is obvious nevertheless. Hell, I even see a lot of Kanye in the music video for “Made to Love” (Video 3 above): its alternating shots of CG-created and “real” (but still oddly mannequin-like) copulating lovers are the exact kind of high-art smut Yeezy had been dabbling in since the 808s era. Did he actually have anything to do with the video? Not from the looks of it; the concept is credited to Yoann Lemoine, and direction was handled by fashion photographer Daniel Sannwald. But I would still point to it as evidence of how, through proxy endeavors like G.O.O.D. Music and his “creative content company” DONDA, a “Kanye West aesthetic” has been created that no longer requires Kanye’s actual input to exist.
Kanye was also credited as a co-producer on the first single from Love in the Future, “Who Do We Think We Are” featuring Rick Ross–this time with Norfolk, Virginia’s Bink!, who you might recall was also behind the beat for “Devil in a New Dress” from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And in many ways, the song feels like “Devil in a New Dress, Part 2”: from the lush, velvety production, prominently sampling Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” to Ross’ “eggplant double breasted suit from Tom Ford,” presumably from the same collection as the lavender “nigga shoes” he rapped about in 2010. “Who Do We Think We Are” obviously isn’t as good as “Devil in a New Dress,” but it’s still probably my favorite song on the album.
One song Kanye doesn’t seem to have been closely involved with is the intimate, Todd Rundgren-esque ballad “Hold on Longer”–though that track’s principal producer, 88-Keys, is of course no stranger to the Kanyeverse. I hear Ye’s influence a lot more clearly on the following track, “Save the Night,” with its grandiose strings, acoustic piano, and militaristic 808 snare; but the only bit that feels especially “Kanye” in either the “What If I Told You?” “interlude” or the Joe Jonas (!)-written “Dreams” are the warbled, Auto-Tuned backing vocals on the latter. I think it’s also safe to assume that Yeezy’s contributions to the second “interlude,” “Angel,” were minimal at best.
The producer does make his presence felt once again on “Asylum”: with its industrial-style, white-noise snare hits, it’s arguably the first track on the album to feel directly informed by Yeezus. Meanwhile, closing track “Caught Up,” like the aforementioned “Made to Love,” evokes the more tuneful moments of 808s. According to Tozer, we can also thank Kanye for a few of the lyrics: the line about making “some little tax write-offs” in particular, which definitely does sound like his handiwork. Last but not least, there’s bonus track “We Loved It,” a Jeff Bhasker co-production (featuring Seal!) that melds 808s’ moody minimalism with a some of the orchestral bombast from Dark Twisted Fantasy and Late Registration. Weirdly, Travis Scott also gets a credit on this one; I would love to know what role he played, as the song feels way outside his wheelhouse.
Love in the Future is a fine enough effort for fans of John Legend; but listening to it right after Yeezus, it almost feels anachronistic in Kanye’s oeuvre, like it should have come out in August of 2009 rather than August of 2013. Fortunately, I can’t say the same for Ye’s next project as an executive producer: My Name is My Name, the solo debut album by Pusha T and, as far as I’m concerned, the first “post-Yeezus” record in hip-hop. At times, the connection is overt; opening track “King Push,” for example, includes an uncredited sample from the 2012 song “Nothing Bad” by Latvian electronic producer Madza–the same sample Kanye had previously used for the outro of “New Slaves.” At other times, however, the albums share only a sense of brutish, rough-around-the-edges minimalism: single “Numbers on the Boards”–actually released before Yeezus, in May of 2013–is all negative space, punctuated with chopped-up vocal samples and what Rolling Stone writer Jon Dolan called “a contusive bass blur with percussion that’s like bamboo sticks on a busted radiator.”
Not all of Kanye’s work on My Name is My Name is as compelling as its opening one-two punch; “Sweet Serenade,” a co-production with Swizz Beatz, comes close to squandering the potential of its stark, eerie verses with a radio-ready (and boring) hook by Chris Brown. A little more interesting is the Hudson Mohawke– and Rick Ross-assisted “Hold On,” both for its near-unrecognizable sample from “Ghet-to Funk” by Duralcha and for its (uncredited) sad robot gargling by Yeezus himself. But I’m personally most partial to “Who I Am”: a vicious slice of industrial rap that would have fit right in on Kanye’s album.
Another song that could have worked on Yeezus–but was ultimately better off in the hands of King Push–was “Nosetalgia”: a collaboration with veteran Norfolk producer Nottz that deftly marries Pusha’s no-nonsense street rap aesthetic with Kanye’s art-school minimalism. With little more than a whining guitar riff (sampled from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “I Don’t Want to be Right”), sparse Latin percussion, and a few barked vocal samples from Boogie Down Productions’ “The Bridge is Over,” Ye and Nottz provide a deeply evocative backdrop for the sordid verses by Push and guest Kendrick Lamar, reflecting on their respective experiences growing up with the drug trade. In retrospect, it’s hard not to view a song like “Nosetalgia” as a self-conscious move by Kanye: a bolstering of his “real hip-hop” credentials during a time when they were as under siege as they’d been in the wake of 808s & Heartbreak. Certainly, this seems to have been the tack he was taking at the listening party for My Name is My Name, when he passionately proclaimed Pusha T to be “the only nigga spitting that wild muthafucking hip-hop shit right now, that’s why I stand next to this nigga.” Nor does the involvement of Kendrick, a rising star rapidly being christened as the second coming of hip-hop’s golden age, feel like an accident: less than two weeks after the release of My Name is My Name, he would embark on the grandiose Yeezus Tour as Kanye’s opening act.
But Kanye’s final contribution to the Pusha T album was arguably the most Yeezus-esque of all: “Pain,” featuring another of 2013’s rising stars, Future. The ominously descending electric piano line–paired with a chopped sample from “Bôdas De Sangue” by Marcos Valle, the same one used previously in “New God Flow”–heavily recalls the one that begins “New Slaves”; and the gunshot-like percussion that accompanies Pusha’s verses is thrillingly assaultive. But it actually might be more accurate to say that Yeezus resembles “Pain,” rather than the other way around: the song was actually released as a single in October of 2012, a full year ahead of the album and at least two months before Kanye began work on Yeezus. This, then, is an impressive blueprint for both of the records to come.
Kanye spent the last two months of 2013 on the Yeezus Tour, a commitment that understandably slowed his appearances on record. But he did have one more feature to get out before the end of the year: an appearance on Busta Rhymes’ “Thank You” that sounds like it took about as much time to record as it takes to listen to. It was apparently Q-Tip’s idea to get Yeezy on the track, along with a similar cameo by Lil Wayne, to quell rumors of a beef between G.O.O.D. Music and Wayne’s Young Money; which is cool, but now that it’s 2017 and any real or imagined G.O.O.D./YMCMB beef has been long forgotten, Kanye’s appearance is a curiosity at best. Still, he did show up for the music video, so I guess that’s something (Video 20).
Much more substantial was his and Mike Dean’s official remix for “Drunk in Love,” the smash hit Beyoncé and Jay-Z had surprise-released back in December. As usual, Ye’s take on Bey doesn’t improve on the original–unless you think the original was missing lines like “you a MILF and I’m a motherfucker” or “I’m pa-rum-pa-pum-pummin’ all on your stomach” (ew). Still, Dean’s new beat is nice, and the callout to Kanye’s own “Flashing Lights” is cute. Amidst the surplus of “Drunk in Love” remixes released in late 2013 and early 2014, Kanye’s may not be the best, but at least it’s far from the worst.
I can give a more ringing endorsement to “Sanctified,” a highlight from Rick Ross’ Mastermind album produced by Kanye with Mike Dean and up-and-coming “ratchet music” auteur DJ Mustard. It’s easy enough to listen to the song and identify what parts Kanye had the most to do with: the hook by gospel singer Betty Wright is obviously his handiwork, while Mustard brought the synthesized club beats. As usual, though, Kanye also made his presence felt in less obvious ways: he took Mustard’s original beat and “slowed it all the way down,” the producer told Hardknock TV. “Then all of my sounds, slowed them all the way down. And then he put the sample on top of it, which made it dope as shit… when he did it, I didn’t even know it was my beat.”
Kanye also left his unique mark on the guest verse, an early example of a new paradigm for his rapping: it’s less a traditional hip-hop verse than it is an extension of his infamous stream-of-consciousness rants. Right off the bat, he addresses one of the obsessions he’d be carrying through to his next album: the gap between his fans’ expectations of who he should be and the person he actually is. “Niggas be lovin’ the old Ye, they sayin’ the new Ye, that nigga be spazzin’,” he proclaims, adopting a Migos-esque triplet flow. “But when Ali turn up and be Ali, you can’t ever change that nigga back to Cassius.” By the end of the verse, he’s back in “I am a God” territory, receiving divine messages only to clap back at them: “God sent me a message, said I’m too aggressive / Really!? Me!? Too aggressive!?”
Even as he continued to project an unhinged image, however, Kanye was also settling into domesticity. He and Kim Kardashian were engaged in October of 2013, and married in May of 2014: an event that was widely covered in tabloids and, eventually, on Kim’s E! reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The nuptials also inspired no less than two separate songs. The first, “Awesome,” was never officially released–though Kanye did preview it live at the 2013 Met Gala, and a short snippet was played on the wedding episode of Keeping Up, before a full-length version eventually leaked in 2015. There’s a reason why “Awesome” never made the cut on an album: simply put, it isn’t really meant for public consumption; it’s just a simple, sweet (albeit cloying) piano-and-Auto-Tune ballad about how “awesome” Kim is, no more, no less.
But as indifferent as I am to “Awesome,” I’d take it any day over the Kimye marriage song we did get: “I Won,” a goopy Future-led ballad that is only slightly less creepy than it would have been had it been released under its original title, “Trophy Wife.” It’s hard to single out just one distasteful lyric in Yeezy’s verse full of whoppers: from one of the weirdest euphemisms I’ve ever heard for making a baby (“I put an angel in your ultrasound”), to his repeatedly-stated desire to “dip that ass in gold,” to his bizarre pride in the fact that Kim chose him over the NBA and NFL players she’d dated before. If I have to choose just one, though, it’s the verse’s concluding reference to “Kylie, Kendall, Kourtney and Khloe”: an intended compliment that crosses the line into both uncomfortable leering at his soon-to-be-wife’s sisters and crass reality show cross-promotion. If I were Kim, I’d have called off the wedding the moment I heard “I Won”; as a matter of fact, that might have been what happened to Future, whose own fiancée Ciara gave him the boot just four months after the single released.
Back in November of 2013, Kanye had announced he was going back to the studio to work on a new album, which he hoped to have out by the following summer. Yet the summer of 2014 came and went, with no new music–unless you count “Flicker,” a moody “rework” of “Yellow Flicker Beat” by New Zealand singer Lorde, recorded for the Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack. He did, however, find time to executive-produce another album by a new protegé, Trinidadian-born rapper/singer Theophilus London.
London’s Vibes is another solid record in the “post-Yeezus” vein, though Kanye’s direct input appears to have been pretty minimal: his only real credit beyond “executive producer” is his feature on the 88-Keys-produced “Can’t Stop.” It’s a decent verse, though not as memorable as his appearance on “Sanctified”; the most noteworthy line is “Everything she was doin’ was cool, but it ain’t Ralph though,” a reference to one of the most-memed exchanges from his infamous 2013 radio interview with Sway Calloway. More interesting, to me at least, is “Nobody”: a surprisingly tender Chief Keef track, to which Kanye lent both his production influence (sampling the blaxploitation classic “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” by Willie Hutch) and his Auto-Tuned crooning.
Finally, on the very last day of 2014, a bona fide new Kanye West song was released–with no less impressive a guest artist than Paul Fucking McCartney. As you might imagine, the international community of white dads lost their collective shit over the beloved ex-Wing sullying himself by association with some rapper guy. And I can’t imagine that hearing “Only One” won over many of the skeptics: it’s as unadorned, even unfinished-sounding, as the leaked version of “Awesome,” with little going on in the mix besides McCartney’s electric piano and some of Kanye’s roughest-sounding Auto-Tune to date. But while the rawness of “Awesome” made it feel like an incomplete demo, the same qualities work to the benefit of “Only One,” a heartfelt expression of familial love written from the perspective of Kanye’s mother; when he chokes up at the line “tell Nori about me,” I defy you not to feel something. And the presence of McCartney undeniably classes up the song: not only because of his instantly-recognizable playing, but also because of the implicit connections to another gospel-flavored, piano-led ballad about a dead mother, the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
McCartney’s influence is even clearer on the next of his and Kanye’s collaborations: “FourFiveSeconds” featuring Rihanna. I don’t have much to say about this song, except that it’s hugely underrated: the acoustic soul-pop arrangement is perfect for both Rihanna’s and Kanye’s limited vocal ranges, and a testament to the effortlessness with which Sir Paul can write hits when he puts his mind to it (though, to be fair, he had some help: including Kanye, Mike Dean, producer Dallas Austin, Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors, and um, Ty Dolla Sign). My only hope is that Paul was the one who came up with the line, “I’m ’bout four, five seconds from wildin’,” because that would be dope. I would also be remiss not to mention that the original logo for this series, designed by Kia Matthews, was taken from Kanye’s performance of the song at the 2015 Grammy Awards: specifically, the moment when he shot a dramatic look at the sky after singing the line “Sun was shinin’, I’m positive.” It’s still one of my favorite absurd Kanye West moments.
But for me, at least, the most fruitful of the early 2015 West/McCartney collaborations was the one that sounded least like a Paul McCartney song: “All Day,” a drill-flavored heater released in March. Indeed, if I didn’t know Paul was involved with the song, I probably never would have guessed: maybe, as a recovering Beatles fanatic, I would have recognized his whistle from the outro, but I doubt I would have put two and two together and realized that was his Auto-Tuned voice on the closing hook. That’s kind of the charm of “All Day,” though: it prominently features one of the best-known musicians of all time, but there are so many other co-writers, producers, and guest artists in the mix that you might not even notice.
Even among latter-day Kanye West tracks, “All Day” is a veritable Frankenstein’s monster: its list of collaborators includes not only West and McCartney, but also Allan Kingdom, Kendrick Lamar, French Montana, CyHi the Prynce, Vic Mensa, fuckin’ Diddy, Mike Dean, Travis Scott, and a bunch of other people whose names I barely recognize. Basically, everybody who was in a room with Kanye at some point in 2014 contributed to “All Day”; either that, or the song was recorded in a gymnasium–a theory I actually support, as it has the same “sirens blaring in an abandoned warehouse” aesthetic as “Send It Up” from Yeezus. The song’s patchwork construction may be one reason for its lukewarm critical reception: probably the most lukewarm for a pre-release Kanye West single since “H•A•M” in 2011. But I liked “H•A•M,” and by god, I like “All Day” too. The beat is fire–again, I’m a sucker for the whole “abandoned warehouse” aesthetic–and Kanye’s rapping is some of his most technically impressive, with lyrics that are way too clever than they ought to be, seeing as every other word begins with “n” and ends with four other letters that as a white person I’m not supposed to say.
Which, I suppose, brings me to my next point: one of the reasons why I still love “All Day” is because I indelibly associate it with Kanye’s performance of the song on the 2015 BRIT Awards, flanked by a massive entourage of grime musicians blasting flame throwers in the air (Video 30). The spectacle was as striking as it was controversial: all those “n-bombs” were censored, which meant that television audiences heard roughly 40% of the song; Liam Gallagher of Oasis tweeted that it was “utter shit” (a ringing endorsement, if you ask me). As you might have guessed, I fucking loved it.
In the wake of the anti-police brutality uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri–and within a month of similar events in Baltimore–it was thrilling, bordering on radical, to see a major recording artist so thoroughly embrace the signifiers of criminalized Black masculinity: just try and count the number of black hoodies on stage. And, much like “Niggas in Paris” before it, Kanye’s liberal use of the “n-word” sends its own kind of message. To use such flagrant “in-group” language on live television, in front of an audience highly unlikely to understand, makes an undeniable statement: namely, that it doesn’t matter whether we understand, because it isn’t “for” us in the first place. I suspect I’m in the minority on this, but as far as I’m concerned, “All Day” is in its own way as unapologetic a statement of Black identity as Beyoncé’s “Formation”–it’s just that Kanye, being Kanye, makes his point with the most inflammatory choice of language possible.
So, there we have it: in March of 2015, we had two new Kanye West singles, and the promise of an album that could drop at literally any moment. Would more McCartney songs be on it? Would it have that same cool, vaguely occult cover art as the “All Day” single? And what the fuck would it sound like, anyway–seeing as there could scarcely be two songs by a single artist more stylistically distinct than “All Day” and “Only One”? As it turned out, of course, none of these questions were even a little bit relevant: the album we finally got, almost a year later, was basically unrecognizable from the one Kanye was “finishing” in early 2015. We’ll talk about the long, weird 11-month journey to The Life of Pablo when we pick up again next month.