Let it Be: Collaboration in the Post-Modern Era
Rarely does an individual song stir up such commotion – but then again most tracks don’t feature the combined talents of Kanye West and Paul McCartney.
Climactically presented on the morning of New Year’s Day, West debuted the first single from his yet-to-be-titled new album, billed as the first of “several” tracks from his fraternization with Macca.
Called “Only One,” it’s a gorgeous, emotionally loaded work where West sings from the voice of his late mother, Donda. Speaking to her son from beyond the grave, she says, “Tell Nori about me,” referring to his 1-year-old daughter, North, also offers encouragement to Kanye, solacing him, “you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes.”
Sir Paul is heard manning the organ, his distinctive fingerwork lending the song its tender tone and contemplative pace. Despite his ostensibly background stance, his mere presence in the room clearly shaped the fruits of the collaboration. (When McCartney sang, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,” he was talking to his own late mother, Mary McCartney, rather than the Virgin Mary.)
If “Only One” it indicative of the album to come, West is trending toward his most soulful, mature and downright beautiful work to date. Kanye’s biggest asset is perhaps his skill in surrounding himself with fellow greatness using their influence to press his own work in new directions (See: “Lost in the Woods” feat. Bon Iver).
The full story is most romantically rendered in a press release for the song:
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.
The most fascinating (and amusing) “controversy” around the collaboration is how upset many people became, not at the song, but at the notion of Paul and Kanye working together at all.
Young listeners (and some sarcastic trolls), questioning who this old white guy was, have been scrutinized (perhaps unfairly) for being more familiar with West than the Beatles. On the other side, the old guard was indignant that Sir Paul McCartney, a musical god on earth, would deign his supreme nobility to make music with this hollow, egotistical rapper from the tabloids.
In both cases it’s the classic drama of two groups criticizing worlds they don’t understand, not to mention judging something before even hearing it. Any hip-hop fan appreciative of the most delicate work of Tupac or Kendrick Lamar can appreciate the overflowing sensitivity of “Only One,” as can any older fan of Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder who’s willing to expose their ears to a tasteful sprinkling of auto-tune.
We’ll go out on a limb and challenge the outdated perspective that condemns collaboration, experimentation and creative commerce.
The most wonderful thing about this post-modern age is that a listener can, in equal parts, appreciate artists and music styles as disparate as Paul McCartney and Kanye West, the Beatles and Beyonce, Stravinsky and Run the Jewels, Woody Guthrie and Aphex Twin.
It’s progress after looking back and realizing that the raised voices, arguing the primacy of the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones, or East Coast versus West Coast rap, could have been playing for the same team. And even if the next song from McKanye is not as perfect as this one, that doesn’t mean we should discourage open exchange – artistic, idealogical or otherwise.
In our full-fledged approval of this meeting of minds, we’ve put together a playlist with some other classic duets that prove that the unlikeliest of combinations can sometimes yield the best results.
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