It had been awhile since we had heard new music from Kanye West and over a year since the release of Kanye’s latest studio album Yeezus. However, to kick off the new year Kanye surprised us all by dropping a new single, one nothing like Yeezus, and the one we had all been waiting for. Last year, rumors circulated that Kanye and The Beatles legendary frontman Paul McCartney were recording together and now we know the reports were true. Kanye’s newly released ballad ‘Only One’ features Sir Paul McCartney, as Kanye sings from the perspective of his late mother, Dr. Donda West, about Kanye and his new wife and daughter. If combining the talents of one of the greatest rappers of all-time and the leader of the most influential band of all-time were not enough in itself, the track as it stands could not be more beautiful. Only time will tell, but ‘Only One’ may likely be known as one of the best songs ever recorded.
With thousands of talented artists working past midnight almost everyday of their lives, you are bound to have a number of amazing songs in the world, more than any one person could ever have the time to listen to. The truly amazing songs though are the ones that are unique and stand out. It is not enough to have astonishing production and great lyrics, instead a song needs “that something” that makes it different than everything else that is out there. When I think of such songs, especially in the rap world, I think of Eminem’s ‘Stan’. Like many great Em songs, Stan has great production, great flow and great lyrics. However what makes ‘Stan’ shine is its storytelling and structure. Not only is Eminem telling the story of an obsessive fan, but he does it through a series of letters (verse-by-verse) from the perspective of the deranged fan, followed by a suicide tape as the fan kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend, and finally Eminem’s reply letter which is unfortunately too late. This is what make ‘Stan’ unique, and what separates other amazing tracks from the ones that are the greatest of all-time.
Kanye has his share of amazing tracks and no one puts out albums that are closer to perfect than Mr. West, certainly not with such consistency. Singles like ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, ‘Stronger’, ‘Heartless’ and even B-side tracks like ‘Devil in a New Dress’, ‘Late’ are all A+ tracks. Although it always seemed like “that one” stand-out track was missing from Kanye’s catalog. Until now, as ‘Only One’ has the potential to be viewed as one of the greatest songs of all-time. No song is perfect, no song can be, however even the imperfections of ‘Only One’ help make it amazing. The first thing anyone will say to discredit how great this song is, is that “Kanye can’t sing” and that “autotune sucks”, and this is just flat out false. Kanye certainly does not have the pipes that a Frank Ocean has, but his singing is certainly not bad. Kanye’s raw singing in his early work like ‘Spaceship’ and ‘Hey Mama’ is beautiful and is with an unmatched level of emotion. In fact, it is only these emotional and personal tracks which Kanye decides to take on the singing himself, as opposed to outsourcing the work to John Legend or Kid Cudi. Kanye’s deepest and most emotional album, 808s & Heartbreak, wasn’t even a rap album and was entirely made of 12-tracks of Kanye’s autotuned singing. The emotion in this album is unparalleled and even the biggest hater of autotune can’t change the fact that 808s was originally misunderstood but is now viewed as a classic and one of the most influential albums of all time. And now, ‘Only One’ is Kanye’s deepest track which features his singing more than any of his songs before. His singing is good, but not perfect, but again it doesn’t have to be. Kanye is singing for his mother on this one, and that is something that John Mayer, Sam Smith, or no one else but Kanye can do.
Like ‘Stan’, ‘Only One’ is beyond great because of its uniqueness. Singing from the perspective of his late mother, who died just years ago after surgery complications, ‘Only One’ has a theme that no songs before it have had. Kanye already broke traditional rap norms through his track ‘Hey Mama’, written before his mother’s passing, and now he has broke norms even further. Next, it is not just that Kanye is singing as his mother (giving new meaning to the word ‘ghostwriting’ as some fans have pointed out), but it is what Kanye and Dr. West are singing about. Throughout the song, the lyrics (complemented by Kanye’s emotion) are likely to make you cry. Even if you cannot relate to the passing of your mother and raising your first child without her, anyone with a sense of empathy can get emotional during this song.
“And if you only knew, how proud I want… You’d never shed a tear, have a fear, no you wouldn’t do that.”
As we listen, we can almost begin to imagine the heartbreak Kanye has been dealing with the past few years. However, ‘Only One’ is uplifting and turns the page from ‘Coldest Winter’ from being about the sadness surrounding his mother’s passing to the silver lining that she is still with him. Singing about the two new women in his life, his wife Kim and his daughter North (Nori), Kanye sings “I talked to God about you. He said he sent you an angel. Look at all that he gave you, you asked for one and you got two”. Although Kanye is often portrayed as a villain in modern day music, it is lyrics like this that remind us of how great of a guy Mr. West is. And as his mother tells him throughout the song, “no you’re not perfect, but your not your mistakes”, something we need to all remember about Kanye and also about ourselves. From the song’s metaphors about the sun and the sky, to its line-after-line of inspiring messages, to its vivid imagery, ‘Only One’ is a beautifully written song that ends with Dr. West telling Kanye to tell Nori about her.
Finally the song’s production, which is produced by Kanye and Mike Dean, is also beautiful. It is minimal and simple, but it complements the lyrics and the song’s message perfectly. This track didn’t need a heavy bass-line or perfect drum-work, rather Paul McCartney on the keyboard with an amazing outro was exactly what ‘Only One’ needed to shine. Sometimes less is more, and such is the case with ‘Only One’ as it is hard to the imagine how the emotional effect of the song would survive if it was drowned out by over-production.
Kanye has referred to himself as the “Black Beatle”, which the public views instead as “a f*cking roach”. He is probably right, which is unfortunate, but to those who already haven’t picked up on the type of person Kanye really is, since his debut with The College Dropout, hopefully they see it now. The man isn’t an a**hole, rather he is a misunderstood genius. He cares about family, and always has, as you can feel it in his music. No artist in music today is arguably as passionate about anything as Kanye is about his music and his family. Kanye has over a decade of hits and amazing tracks under his belt, with such a deep and acclaimed discography that a double-LP greatest hits album couldn’t even fit his near perfect tracks. And this year that hypothetical LP just got its lead track as ‘Only One’ is not only in the discussion for Kanye’s greatest song yet but after a couple years may be viewed as one of the greatest and most beautiful songs ever recorded.