Kanye West's "Last Call" is one of my favorite songs of all-time and I think I just finally figured it out.
First, some background. I'm one of those weird people who still downloads music (I know). No, I don't have Spotify and no, I don't care how great it is, and maybe after we get a few more Beyonce and Nicki music videos I'd consider renewing the Tidal subscription I cancelled after the free trial ended. I live and die by iTunes, it's expansive yet carefully curated, meticulously alphabetized and categorized, the musical channelings of both my ADD and OCD. Not so long ago, I took a step even further and started utilizing the rating feature, scoring everything between one and five stars.
Five star rankings are hard-fought, especially when space is at a premium. College Dropout is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time and one of my personal favorites as well. I can remember the first time I saw the video for "Through The Wire" on MTV when I was just an impressionable 12-year-old. The sped up Chaka Khan sample changed the game for me and my whole taste gravitated towards that more soulful sound. Kanye's car accident gave an emotional aspect to the song I could latch on, and what he was rapping about seemed honest and authentic. The album had a definitive effect on my life, and yet within my ever-changing, subjective, outrageous and stringent ranking system, it only currently boasts four songs at the coveted 5-star position. One of these is "Last Call," despite the fact that it runs nearly 13 minutes and is often more spoken word than rap.
The "Through The Wire" music video with its bulletin board of Polaroid-encased videos gave me personal insight into an artist I had never heard before and had me craving more. I got the full story once I bought the album and found myself on the last track. "Last Call" was more than a song, it was the journey of an artist told by the artist himself. It was an outro, but it was also the beginning of a career that already had its own beginning, middle and end. I was able to get a first-hand account of the ups and downs of the music industry, and best of all, it was set over one of the most glorious instrumentals to have graced my ears. This beat is still one of my favorites - from what I gather I'm far from alone - and the instrumental is a deciding factor in it earning "5-star" status. In a world where I need constant heat preloaded on my iPhone 5, with its 2010-esque 16GBs of memory, I still won't hesistate to fill valuable space with "Last Call."
I've loved the song for as long as I can remember, and yet I just read something the other day that added a brand new dimension to the listening experience. I was perusing Reddit, as I've been known to waste time with do, when I stumbled across this hidden gem, where some particularly awesome person stacked Bill Simmons' first person account of how he began working for ESPN over the "Last Call" beat. Bill Simmons set to a Kanye beat had me sold instantly, so naturally I pressed play, but as I scrolled down the comments I stumbled on something infinitely more intriguing.
Honest question.... Do other people realize how last call really works? That as his life starts getting better more samples start getting added, when things go bad samples fall off all the way until when he nearly loses the deal and it all nearly stops. Then when dame calls is the first time all the samples loop at once.
Is this common sense or did I just blow everyone's mind?
Wait, what? WHAT? WHAT?!?!?!??!!
I couldn't stop rereading that comment, and not just because the username was UUGE_ASSHOLE. According to this mystery person, Kanye’s career story in “Last Call” actually directly influences the instrumental’s usage of samples. Did everyone know this is the case? WAS THIS COMMON KNOWLEDGE?!?! Is it even true? Is this person just being a uuge asshole and sending me down this rabbit hole for no good reason? I had way too many questions, and not much definitive proof if a quick Internet search was any indication. *opens iTunes, scrolls to Kanye with the quickness and presses play*
Now I'll admit, even with its massive play count over the years, a direct correlation between the storyline and the instrumental hadn't really crossed my mind. I looked to see if anyone shared in my collective astonishment, but the comments followed typical message board protocol, ranging from "You just added a whole new dimension to an incredible track," to "Common sense, for a casual hip hop fan anyway."
I shared this new nugget of knowledge with people I knew. One person was extremely grateful for deeping their appreciation of the track, another was convinced the correlation didn't even exist, and another said, "So Kanye produced a song with the instrumental and the vocals supporting each other ... that's what songs are." (Looking at you Nathan!). Ok, well when you put it like that...
As is the case with everything on the Internet ever, some will be grateful for the new knowledge, some will think you're insane and others will criticize you for not knowing all along. In this case, some might just point to the fact that Evidence (of Dilated Peoples) really produced the song, of which he had to say the following:
"He told me to say that I did the music and he did the drums. Which is true. My drums are low. The kick pattern is my pattern. But then we were playing it and I was like, ‘That’s my shaker.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘That’s my chime, too. It’s still in there.” And, he’s like, ‘Yep.’ But, then the ‘Get By’ drums are in there. And, the loop I inspired, I would have given up at the point where the sample couldn’t clear. ‘Alright, let’s just put a whole new track to it.’ But, he didn’t give up. He deserves it. If it says Kanye West and Evidence, it should because what I brought to the table and what you hear is substantially different." - Evidence (via Complex)
Well...that settles nothing. Upon listening myself, I'll admit, it's not quite as mindblowing as I initially thought. I can hear the samples falling in and out, though I'm not 100% sure it's a direct result of Kanye's life story or because it can get tiresome listening to the same sampled sounds for 12 minutes - maybe both? I mean, he's gotta mix it up. Then again, this is Yeezus we're talking about, the genius and the perfectionist. Surely how the story and sound play off each other, how the thoughts fit the audible experience, wasn't complete coincidence. Maybe I felt a little let down because I thought the samples coming and going were going to be more distinct, but it seems to move along in larger pieces, following a more general arc as opposed to dropping out and in for a sentence at a time. On the other hand, right when the deal with Capitol falls through, at the 12 minute mark, that's when the beat stops entirely. That can't be an accident.
Looks like you're just going to have to listen again and make up your own mind.
Fans love to see or hear some sort of story within the story, a hidden meaning to the art they love, it adds to the intrigue and validates repeat listens. I guess you could count me in with that group as well. By no means am I going to make something out of nothing, but these kind of layered nuances (or "coincidences") make the listening experience more fun. Whether or not this finding is mindblowing to you is irrelevant to me, it breathed fresh life into an 11-year-old song that I've heard probably 100 times and gave me a reason to pay attention closer attention. I officially award "Last Call" a 5-Star rating forever and ever, amen.
[By Brendan Varan. A few more years and you can see him in a mayonnaise colored Benz. Follow him on Twitter.]