Between Two Nerds: Why Is Kanye West's "Only One" so Good?
Eric: In the year 2014, a plane disappeared. This is a pretty good example of how weird 2014 was. On top of us actually losing an aircraft housing 227 passengers and a crew of 12, it was a year full of blatant racism, destruction, and general society distress. (We did get a pretty cool trailer for the upcoming Star Wars film, though). For the most part, most people think 2014 was a big, fat bummer. That’s hard to argue with. And before I go any further, I’d just like to state that I don’t think there is a real, actual answer for what happened over the past 12 months. And I definitely wouldn’t go as far to say that all of this happened and a plane disappeared from the face of the earth because Kanye West didn’t release new music in 2014. That would be an absurd and very stupid statement. But. That said. What if? The universe’s karma is pretty nasty sometimes and it really likes to fuck with those of us who inhabit it.
So, did 2014 suck because Kanye West didn’t put out a new song?
Well, no. It didn’t. But just in case, we made it through the year and now we’re here, in 2015, and the first thing that’s happened—literally the first thing that happened this year—is Kanye West put out a new song called “Only One.” It has Paul McCartney (who is that, by the way?) on the track playing a soft electric organ, and it features Kanye singing quietly in Auto-Tune, like a less unhinged, more modern 808s & Heartbreak. It’s written from the perspective of Kanye’s late mother Donda West. The story goes something like this, per Rolling Stone: Paul was messing around on the organ while Kanye sat there with his baby North on his lap, felt the presence of Donda, and started to sing what was on his mind.
Kyle: You can hear it. I was struck immediately by how intimate “Only One” is. Since his mother died, Kanye’s music has been nakedly emotional and completely raw and in no way short of sincere, but it’s always had a type of anguish that translates well to being performative. There’s something instantly different in the quality of emotional access we’re getting here, and that’s clear as soon as Kanye calls himself ‘Mari. He’s never referred to himself by this name, a shortening of his middle name Omari, on a track before, and doing so puts us on new terms with him. The version of his mom that we got nine years ago on “Hey Mama” was a story and a list of her accomplishments—it was powerful, but ultimately it was someone telling us how he felt. This is Kanye showing us how he feels. Gone are the specifics and the storytelling; instead it’s simple thoughts and pure emotion. It’s the way Kanye’s voice cracks on certain words. The lyrics are simultaneously more universal and more personal. In other artists’ hands, they could fall into the territory of empty platitudes, but instead I come away reassured that Kanye has never been realer, that we’re engaging with all of Kanye Omari West here instead of just some performance avatar. Instead of trying to be a god, he’s the complete opposite: He’s human, and he’s imperfect.
Eric: The song is definitely full of lines that are a mixed bag of poignant and corny. For a prime example, let’s look at the refrain:
“Hello my only one, just like the mornin’ sun / You’ll keep on risin’ til the sky knows your name / Hello my only one, remember who you are / No you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes.”
This is classic Kanye. It's confident (some would say arrogant) but earnest, honest and vulnerable, aware of itself but unconcerned with impressions. Think about some of his other ballads: “Runaway” is a toast to the douchebags, “Bound 2” is a love song that uses the phrase “spunk on the mink,” and all of 808s & Heartbreak exists (the final track of which, it should be noted, is a six-minute half-sing-half-rap freestyle called “Pinnochio Story” from a tour stop in Singapore during which Kanye has a near mental breakdown on stage; it’s horrible and awesome). This perceptive but DGAF songwriting style is one of Kanye’s greatest strengths. Kanye doesn’t always sing. He yelps inaudibly through Auto-Tune. And even though you might not understand it, you understand it. We shouldn’t be surprised he would run the ballad he wrote for his daughter through Auto-Tune. On a tangible level, when’s the last time you had a coherent conversation with a baby? But on a sonic level, Kanye views his voice as an instrument and a tool, and like any great craftsman, he knows how to use it and does so in an arresting and compelling way. “I love the fact that I’m bad at [things], you know what I’m saying?” he said in that famous New York Times interview while talking about his singing voice. “I’m forever the 35-year-old five-year-old. I’m forever the five-year-old of something.”
“Only One” is also probably the most Kanye song he could create right now. It completely abandons the trajectory of his musical career, which is something that’s been consistent with every new Kanye release (after you listen to “Only One,” just flip on “On Sight” and see if there’s any part of you that thinks these were made by the same person). But the song also fits perfectly within his canon. If Yeezus was a pre-marriage exorcism, “Only One” shows what happens after someone gets Bound 2ed. But even though it’s a calm song, it’s audacious. What’s a more Kanye move than asking a Beatle to do a song with you—a band that’s received more praise over the past 50 years of music than pretty much any other musical act—and having said Beatle not sing and play back up organ? Plus, Auto-Tuning the fuck out of his voice is a move that’s sure to piss of all those True Music Enthusiasts who can’t imagine a world in which “I Want to Hold Your Hand” isn’t a shoo-in to be near the top of another Rolling Stone list of the best songs of all time.
Kyle: As touching and innocent as this song is, I love that it still finds a ton of ways to needle people’s expectations. One of the reasons people hate Auto-Tune so much is that they think it makes music sound overproduced, that by using this digital effect the artist is leaning on some unfair crutch to compensate for a lack of natural talent. But here the song is so stripped down it would be ridiculous to call it overproduced, and Auto-Tune only makes Kanye’s voice more fragile. In the end, the most synthetic-sounding thing is our precious Beatle’s organ, which sounds almost fake when paired with Kanye’s voice.
While we’re talking about Paul’s playing, it’s worth pointing out that recording with a Beatle and relegating him to backup organ isn’t just a flex on Kanye’s part. It’s also a very pointed advancement of the same politics Kanye has been aggressively selling for the last year and a half. Kanye wants to be mass culture in the same way The Beatles are. You can buy Beatles T-shirts at Target. They are understood to be everyone’s culture, not just a band for aging anglophiles. Kanye wants the world not to be shocked that teens don’t know who Paul McCartney is but rather to be shocked that people don’t know who Kanye West is. He doesn’t want to be the best rapper, he wants to be the best artist. He doesn’t want to be the best black artist, he wants the world to be comfortable with the best artist being black. He wants to be given the same respect as a Beatle, and he knows what a radical idea that is to so many people: On “Gorgeous,” off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he mused “what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?” This song puts that theory to the test. Check the reviews on iTunes.
Photo via Kim Kardashian on Instagram
Eric: With “Only One,” there isn’t much of the blatant, conflicted self-deprecation that we’re used to seeing from Kanye—he doesn’t aggressively call himself an asshole while also pounding his chest that he’s the greatest that’s ever lived. “Only One” looks forward, to the new beginnings life will always provide for us, even when we think it won’t. There wasn’t a more perfect time for a song like this to release than when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. It’s full of hope: The sun does always rise and maybe the world isn’t quite that bad and you definitely aren’t perfect but you definitely also aren’t your mistakes. He uses the lens of the past to look to the future, which is whatever we want it to be, a future that in his eyes is without his mother but not without the idea of his mother. And now, with his child, he has the opportunity to teach her about the world, about what might happen when the waterfall of humanity and existence kicks the shit out of you.
“Only One” suggests that the Kanye who wore shutter shades is no more. Growing up is cool. It’s a brand new ‘Ye—one that’s happy and content with being a family man. “Not wearing a red leather jacket, and just looking like a dad and shit, is like super cool,” he told GQ. “Having someone that I can call Mom again. That shit is super cool.”
Kyle: That forward-looking optimism is the most radical act of this song, and the one we need to stick to most. One of the major reasons suckiness was so palpable in 2014 was the way cynicism crept into so much of our conversation about each other. Whether it was Republicans passing voter suppression laws to help ensure political victories, GamerGate trolls taking up the cause of “bullying” to pressure companies into pulling ads from publications that were critical of GamerGate, or Twitter users piling on in dragging other Twitter users through the gauntlet for some problematic comment as a form of self-righteous validation, the concept of discourse was so frequently just a pretense for some cynical endgame. I’ve felt that, too, in the way that the conversation about this song so quickly went from excitement over its existence (a glorious thing!) to dumb kvetching over whether or not people know who Paul McCartney is. Approaching this song as a marker of the degree to which the culture is in decline isn’t just stupid or short-sighted, it’s deeply cynical. It’s a view that supposes that the song doesn’t hold value for anyone because its entire significance is tied to whether or not the people listening to it “get” that Paul McCartney is a big deal—and by extension it fails to “get” the song in any meaningful way.
Photo via Kim Kardashian on Instagram
This song is wonderfully uncynical. It is optimistic. It reminds us that “the good outweighs the bad, even on your worst day.” It reassures us that “you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes.” It offers us a vision of rebirth, a testimonial of love restored in life after a loss. It’s unafraid of being direct and personal, which becomes a deeply unselfish act that lets it be universal. I hear echoes of my own family’s history in it; I’m reminded of my grandfather, who survived World War II and who would always remind us that every day is a good day, it’s just that some days are better than others. It’s safe to approach this song with cynicism—that’s our 2014 habit, after all—but it’s better to approach it with optimism, with the bold idea that maybe 2015 will be the year that we have the world because we have love in our hands.
Eric: I spent the holidays with my family in Colorado—in particular, my twin five-year-old nephews. At one point during the trip, I played Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” over the loudspeaker because my brother told me it was their favorite song and they would always sing along and bounce their heads to the radio in the car. He was right. The two kids danced around my parents’ living room, smacking the coffee table with their hands and giggling in a way that makes it possible for reindeer to fly. Then I came back to New York and spent New Year’s Eve with all of my friends. I didn’t kiss anyone at midnight, but it didn’t matter because as I stood in the middle of the living room, hugging my friends, Kanye put out a new song, and we listened to it. And then we listened to it again. And then again. Over the next few days of the new year, it’s all we listened to. We sang. We danced. We hugged. Eventually—and this is corny as fuck—two days into the new year, I cried with two fellow grown men at 4:30 AM listening to “Only One” on repeat. “Tell Nori about me,” he repeats at the end of the song, his voice slightly cracking. Don’t worry Kanye; you just did—and you told the whole world while doing so. 2015 is here, everyone. Don’t lose your dinosaur.
Eric Sundermann is not perfect. Follow him on Twitter.
Kyle Kramer is not perfect either. Follow him on Twitter.