“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Roger Ebert, Life Itself
Last year, Kanye West made his angriest album to date – Yeezus. Known to be a perfectionist, West made Yeezus sound un-polished, disruptive, almost ugly in comparison to his previous, pristine My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Critics liked it, but fans less so, and while many figured Yeezus was yet another album where Kanye was talking about his ex-fiancée Alexis Phifer, they also predicted the album after Ye’s breakup with Kim would be truly monstrous.
‘Ye hasn’t broken up with Kim, and for his own good health, I hope he doesn’t, but the only music we’ve gotten from Kanye West since Yeezus is “Only One,” his new single with Paul McCartney. It is bare, soft, gentle, almost child-like, to use the idealism Andrew Nosnitsky described. It sounds nothing like Yeezus, yet it comes from as pure a place as any song on that album. Most of Yeezus sounds angry, practically hellish. “Only One” sounds like shining, unadulterated love.
In the eyes of many, Kanye will never do right musically because he’s too arrogant. I’ve heard this exclusively from white people, as if they’re afraid of his charisma, and when I’d ask them what they thought about Yeezus, they’d tell me how they felt about Kanye’s personality, not his music. So when he releases a song on New Years Eve with a member of the Beatles – a band now competing with Migos in the Irony As Hilarity sphere – singing about his only child, naturally people will say it sucks. Except it doesn’t. It’s the best song of 2015 so far.
“Only One” has been likened to Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak period, but it sounds more like Late Registration to me, what with McCartney acting as Jon Brion on the keys and Kanye favoring his natural voice over the subtle use of AutoTune. But “Only One” is the best song of 2015 so far simply because of how emotive it is. My body gets hot every time Kanye, singing as his mother to himself and his daughter, says “You know I never left you / ‘Cause every road that leads to heaven’s right inside you.” That Kanye could step outside of his own shoes into those of his deceased mother who he loved so dearly, sing about his daughter (who Donda West will never meet), and still remain composed is a feat unto itself. He isn’t even sure if his mother would be proud of him today, but he wants so badly for her to be, he imagines it – “And if you knew how proud I was, you wouldn’t shed a tear, have a fear, no you wouldn’t do that.” To mix pain and love like that will gut you every time. It’s as if Kanye is giving himself some closure. Singing from different perspectives is nothing new, and making songs for your daughter isn’t that innovative, but do you remember Jay Z’s song to Blue Ivy? Didn’t think so.
Kanye understands the power of melody. That’s why there are only background vocals on select areas of the song, like the chorus, where the song’s strength clearly lies. He bolsters that part because it’s the centerpiece of the track, and it’s the centerpiece of the track because Kanye has been campaigning on behalf of love for a long time now. “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself,” he told Zane Lowe in 2013. Love of self is what drives Kanye West to be the genius that he is. He has called ego his “drug,” and clearly it’s a performance-enhancing one.
Now, Kanye is showering his daughter with that love. “Bound 2” felt like a cheesy wink at the end of a satire. “Only One” feels emotionally raw, like Kanye laid it down in a dark studio, all alone, at once weighing the duality of his dead mother and the precious life in his beaming Nori. How could heartless cretins say he shouldn’t have released this song, a dedication to his daughter with a member of what is widely recognized as the greatest band to ever live?
We’re only five days into 2015, I know, but “Only One” is already the best song of 2015 because it hones in on what every one of us in the world needs right now: love. The human experience is a complex, multifaceted one: we hate, we love, we laugh, we cry. The way Kanye distills his feelings for his daughter and his mother, with the help of McCartney on keys, is what makes this song so powerful.