One was said to be enough for JAY-Z. The Brooklyn-born mogul intended for his career in rap to be a grand opening, grand closing affair after his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. The plan to only deliver one album shows how different his mentality was compared to his protégé Kanye West, who foresaw his future in hip-hop stretched throughout a tetralogy.
In both cases, the roads diverged in directions far from what the two imagined for themselves. Kanye's life would be severely altered if Reasonable Doubt were followed by Jay’s early retirement; hip-hop as a whole undergoes radical shifts caused by the removal of an icon’s irreplaceable catalog and presence. Harder to quantify as a potential groundbreaking event is Good Ass Job, the unreleased fourth album meant to complete Kanye’s College series. Instead of delivering the album he had referenced as far back as June 2003, West broke from the itinerary.
Moving away from the College series allowed Kanye a transformation without connection to past work―a new beginning for an artist who built his creative brand on the avoidance of stagnancy and repetition. The decision ultimately gave life to the genre-morphing 808s & Heartbreak and the chef-d'oeuvre My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but the wonder of what could’ve been has continued to linger. Albums aren’t promised. Announcements, titles, and release dates mean nothing until projects manifest in the physical (or in 2018, the digital).
Kanye has an entire alternative catalog of anticipated albums that became nothing more than musical myths. Good Ass Job is the biggest, especially for fans who consider his musical peak to be the era of The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation. But there was also Pharrell, Kanye, and Lupe Fiasco's Child Rebel Soldier project, which was promised as a full-length offering. Diehard G.O.O.D. Music fans have continued to believe in the possibility of Cruel Winter, the sequel to the 2012 Cruel Summer compilation. Recent developments have buried any chance for a second Watch the Throne, or Wolves, the title of a vaguely detailed joint project with Drake. Some might even recall the season-themed album announced in 2008:
My next album will be called "Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall" and will feature twelve songs and the four seasons, with three songs for each season - KANYE WEST, STAR RAPSOLUE
The excitement for new Kanye albums has always been tied to their unpredictable nature. In 2014, after he canceled his spring tour in Europe to “finish the album,” producer Evian Christ told self-titled during his cover story interview that, “I’ve got to get home and write an Otis Redding-style beat for [Kanye West],” adding, “He emailed last night. He wants something that sounds a bit like Otis Redding, a bit like Mobb Deep.”
Kanye asking for a fusion of soulful Otis and gritty Mobb is a request that comes with excitement. Rumors and descriptions allow the imagination to envision the colors being acquired to splash on the canvas. After spinning 20 records at London’s Café Royal Hotel in July 2014, the music was received with various reactions: “dark,” hellish,” “groundbreaking.” By the end of 2014, I was anticipating Kanye’s untitled album as if he was crafting another Dark Twisted Fantasy. Without hearing a single song, word of mouth said all that my ears needed to hear.
New Year's Eve 2014 was my final day working as an Olive Garden employee. Closing the restaurant that night felt like a punishment for escaping the unlimited breadsticks, but to walk away as the sky filled with fireworks was a moment of cinematic beauty worth locking that door for the last time. As I entered my car and took my phone off airplane mode, I noticed almost immediately that Kanye had released the first official single from his forthcoming album.
Not only did the New Year begin my life as a full-time writer, but I was blessed with new Ye. While I plugged in the aux cord, I started to recall everything that was said over the course of the previous year. I thought of Seth Rogen, sitting in his car as Kanye rapped in his ear and wondered which one of those songs would be coming out of my speakers.
Driving underneath a sky exploding with greens, blues, and reds, I pressed play on “Only One." “As I lay me down to sleep," he sang. The song continued, drenched in heartfelt, Auto-Tuned vocals. It wasn’t dark, or gritty, or the chopped-up soul I associated with the era of Kanye’s pinkest Polo. His singing wasn’t like 808s & Heartbreak; instead of the scorn of a broken heart, his voice carried the spirited warmth of a lullaby. Beautiful chords, the kind that make you think of your mother’s love. After a full listen I stopped the song and rode in silence, deeply touched and profoundly confused.
Kanye had once again surprised me. Channeling the late Donda West to make a tribute for his daughter, North West, was flawlessly executed. The song is still a hug to the heart, one of his most touching records. I thought what I wanted was Kanye rapping, but this was better.
“Only One” was the result of Kanye’s recording session with the living legend and former Beatle, Sir James Paul McCartney. To break the ice, McCartney told Kanye of how The Beatles' song “Let It Be” was the result of his late mother visiting him in a dream. When McCartney was also brought in for Kanye and Rihanna's “FourFiveSeconds,” it had become clearer the kind of music being made. Kanye was existing outside of hip-hop, finding himself singing over an acoustic guitar rather than spitting venom over hard drums. Rihanna’s voice displayed an attention-grabbing power that was gentle and soulful.
The folksy pop song wasn’t urban music, but pop music that ranged beyond urban and rhythmic radio stations. It was astounding how Kanye changed from the anti-everything of Yeezus to making music that could be embraced by the world―catchy, elegant pop music. The melodies, the chords, the music had an enthralling beauty and maturity that seemed perfect for where Kanye was in his life. He had a wife, a child, and seemed to be rid of all the angst toward the fashion companies who held him back.
One constant behind every West album is the presence of a muse behind his method. There’s always an artist or group of artists with whom he collaborates to create the body of work. Like Kid Cudi for 808s & Heartbreak, I saw McCartney as his potential muse for what was then titled So Help Me God. I foresaw an album centered around creating accessible pop music for the masses.
The version of “Wolves” performed during a 2014 appearance of Saturday Night Live is absent the verse that appears on The Life of Pablo. Along with Sia and Vic Mensa, Kanye crawled around singing a robotic pop ballad that was a mixture of calm and chaotic, personal and pop. It’s a song perfect for an animated film soundtrack. Kanye went from calling himself the next Walt Disney to making music that could be played on Disney Channel.
The only song that was heavily rap influenced during this time period was "All Day," which felt like a club record for Transformers—robotic and electrifying. The bars weren’t mindblowing, but the beat was infectious. What was most interesting is the breakdown at the end: Paul McCartney’s cowboy whistle with a bizarre bridge that sounds like being electrocuted in the year 4444. The final recorded version of “All Day” failed to capture the energy of Kanye's Brit Awards performance—where the song was premiered—but the song was a glowing example of how he could make trap sound futuristic and unorthodox.
It wasn’t until after the singles were released that I read Kanye’s 2014 GQ profile and saw this quote about the album:
"But now, for the new album, one new thing could change everything. I had an idea of the way I wanted to do the album. And then I got a new song that's so good that the album has to be balanced against it. This song is a song that can be in the club like 'Don't Like' or 'Niggas in Paris.' Whereas before I was working on the album and I had these beautiful songs, they were just more songs. They weren't saying, 'Okay, tuck your whole summer in.' They were just saying, 'Hey, I'm a great musician, I make these beautiful songs, and they have all this meaning, and nobody can make anything that means this much.' —"Kanye West: A Brand-New Ye"
I realized that the Kanye I wanted was the creator of beautiful songs because he had all the prowess and potential to produce them. If he was going to venture into the heart of middle America with pop music, at least he was doing so with serenity. While the sound was primed for crossing over, none of the singles topped the charts or wrecked radio. There was no sudden catapult to the top; for a moment it appearedKanye had lost his touch. But the music was good, it was different. It was a version of Kanye we had yet to hear, reaching farther than ever into his pop bag.
In his "In Defense of Kanye West’s 2015" article for Spin, Andrew Unterberger wrote:
"'Only One' and 'FourFiveSeconds' were just as challenging to West’s fans as 'New Slaves' or 'Blood on the Leaves,' but instead of asking them to accept confrontational songs with jarring hooks and maze-like structures, they asked fans to accept a mellow, middle-aged Kanye concerned with caring for his family and trying to keep a positive outlook.”
In February 2015—during his interview with The Breakfast Club—Kanye said the album was 80% done. By December, with no album out, Pusha T—newly appointed G.O.O.D. Music president—spoke with glowing praise that Kanye’s album was “phenomenal.” He also stated, “It has nothing to do with any of the other records that were released before.” Like “Only One” before it, Kanye released “Facts” to begin the new year in 2016, a safe trap record that returned Ye to rap, to my disappointment.
Production-wise, The Life of Pablo contains examples of exquisite beauty. It’s a painting, sonically. But when Kanye rapped about bleached assholes, I wished for heartfelt ballads like “Only One,” or the passion of “FourFiveSeconds.” The Life of Pablo and a lot of the music that followed has only increased my apprehension of believing in the brand of rap music Kanye is creating. Especially as we creep closer to a new album, my enthusiasm has only dwindled.
2018 is a good time to reflect on all the changes and transformations Kanye has undergone. When I think about the Kanye album that I wanted and never got, it was that period between 2014 and 2015, when he made me stop and wonder what it was that I was listening to and why I couldn't stop. I still go back to “Only One,” “FourFiveSeconds,” “Wolves” before he tried to fix it, and even “All Day” more than any song he's made since, excluding "Ultralight Beam."
I can’t help but wonder what that album could’ve been with more Paul, more pop, and a less problematic Kanye. Sadly, we'll never know.
By Yoh, aka Good Job Yoh, aka @Yoh31