The new year of 2015 rang in with the sound of music. And it was coming from a somewhat surprising source. Kanye West began his career as an important post millennial game changer for hip-hop. And he did so by bringing the increasingly electro-pop oriented commercial hip-hop genre back to it’s black American roots in. He did this by integrating cinematic orchestration,gospel choirs and especially sampling Ray Charles’ own game changing “I’ve Got A Woman” as the key element in his 2005 smash hit “Gold Digger”. Not to mention his racially confident stance lyrically-both in his music and public appearances. For the next two years Kanye was known primarily for his musical accomplishments. But this was about to change.
A series of controversial events in Kanye’s life from 2005 onward made him out to seem like a self serving narcissist-someone more interested in the notoriety his creativity could bring him than any healthy outward expression of it. More over? His presumably egocentric antics,especially following the sad loss of his beloved mother (and biographer) Donda after a botched surgery and his madcap adventures with wife Kim Kardasian,re-focused the attention onto the visual end of his media exposure and took energy away from why he was originally so musically revered. And that brings me back to the turn of 2014 over to 2015 when Kayne West revealed his long discussed collaboration with international pop music icon Paul McCartney entitled “Only One”
The song begins with Kanye’s singing as opposed to rapping over a a light and simple electric piano courtesy of McCartney,what sounds to be a Wurlitzer playing a counter melody to the one in which Kanye is singing. On the chorus another electronically derived melody features a symphony of vocal parts singing in a soaring choral fashion with an electronically auto tuned spin that additionally counters the only very light auto tuning of Kanye’s lead. Lyrically speaking the song deals with Kanye dreaming of his deceased mother sending a message to him and his daughter North (nicknamed Nori) with words of meaningful familial wisdom. At the end of the song,again over McCartney’s light touch on the Wurlitzer Kanye again channels his mother by repeating,as if at the end of a dream,”tell Nori about me,tell Nori about me”.
One theory I’ve had about Kanye’s behavior in the past several years is that much of it stems from the deep,unspoken connection in the mother/son bond. Especially the very close family bond Kanye and mother Donda had. Paul McCartney’s presence on this song is meaningful too because it was the passing of his own mother that inspired one of the Beatles most iconic songs “Let It Be”. Musically it also makes some hugely important statements. When iconic music figures are so often collaborating with newer artists on a vocal level? McCartney’s contributions to this song,much as they were with Stevie Wonder on his “A Time To Love” a decade ago, are solely musical-providing the stripped down electric piano melody. The fact that Kanye sang this song rather than rapped bough him back to his previous explorations that hip-hop and rap aren’t mutually exclusive-that conventional sung vocals should be used more. Considering this songs gentle but soulfully jazzy and funky musical statement? This points to a possible new years rebirth from the heart,mind and soul of Kanye West for 2015.
Filed under 2015, auto tune, electric piano, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Jazz-Funk, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Uncategorized, Wurlitzer
Ever since he unleashed his magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life in 1976, Stevie Wonder’s musical output has been extremely erratic. During the 1980’s his admirers were now waiting several years between his new album releases. This culminated in the decade long absence after his 1995 album Conversation Peace. As the 1990’s dragged on with no new Stevie Wonder albums,I personally assumed by the turn of the century that he was basically retired from recording. At the time it seemed that some of the implicit edicts of rock writers of the 90’s declared that Wonder would not be allowed to do anything contemporary unless it fit with the hip-hop based soul/funk sub-genres popular at the time.
Stevie Wonder was always an artist who grew musically within the context of his own established compositional and rhythmic framework. And when that rhythm stiffened during the hip-hop era? I sadly assumed Stevie’s “place in the sun” had been co-opted. While I found much to enjoy in this modern sound as well? Stevie’s approach was starting to seem more and more important to popular music’s stalled progression at the time. After many false starts,his new studio album A Time 2 Love finally arrived in September 2005. And the song on the album that made the most immediate impact on me was “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby”.
Starting out with a tumbling rhythm,Stevie sings about “such a happy couple” whose relationship begins to disintegrate due to the fires of suspicion that begins to build up. Lyrically the rest of the song plays out the declaration of trust issues,and the fact that both parties should tell each other about their other suitors who are “just using them like a toy”. The refrains of the songs all feature that tumbling drum sound of the intro-making a very creative use of sampling as the Hannah Barbara cartoon-style percussive effect (used when a character would start running) shows up as a rhythmic element before the chorus comes in.
This chorus showcases Stevie’s trademark,grinding bass synthesizer playing very bluesy “Superstition”-style parts accentuated by bouncy,dancing horn charts and a choir of multi tracked Wonder vocals chanting “whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” repeatedly-as if somewhat in shock of the affairs occurring out of the lyrics. The second refrain of the song,which also closes out the song,is the part where Wonder provides the solution to the lyrics dilemma, features Stevie’s well known slogging drum style punctuated only by demanding horn blasts and ending with a rather boastful chant of “WHO-HA,WHO WHO-HA!”.
Some online articles I’ve seen in passing seem to have suggested this song was based on a leftover jam from Stevie’s massive 1972 production that resulted in the albums Music Of My Mind and Talking Book. Indeed it is filled to the brim with instrumental and melodic references to both “Superstition” and “Sweet Little Girl”. So on that level? This song marks a full on return to strong live band type horn funk of Stevie’s early/mid 70’s heyday and a break from feeling as if he had to be musically “new” on any particular level. Lyrically this song could not be more on time. While romantic discord and betrayal had been a big part of Stevie’s lyricism through his salad days,it was on a more individual level.
The early 2000’s represented an American pop culture built around what many refer to as “trash TV”. So called reality shows that seemed to function only for the purpose of breaking up romantic relationships for the purpose of winning a contest had become convention. So had lie detector based talk shows regarding paternity tests. Stevie was setting the couple in this song within a modern sociological framework that seemed to be nothing but cynical and suspicious about romance. And through the happily yet trepidatiously melodic funk of this song,advises honesty between people over any romantic types of conspiracy theories. It is romantically inclined funk with a modern message-with its “heard it through the grapevine” blues style lyrics and melody firmly updated for that contemporary ethic. And from where I stand? Just what Stevie’s inner Doctor Funkestein ordered!