A few weeks ago, Kanye West released “Only One” featuring Paul McCartney. The song is simple, featuring an aggressively auto-tuned, two track vocal over a scarce, subtle landscape of McCartney playing a vintage Rhodes. Its vibe is adolescent, pleasant and forgiving. “Only One” is written from the point of view of Kanye’s now deceased Mother– a heartfelt and uplifting letter to her only son. The song has received ‘mixed’ critical reviews (at best), and hasn’t come close to meeting its probably unrealistic and lofty chart expectations (peaking at #35 on the Billboard Top 100).
In 2004, I’d never heard of Kanye West until I saw the video for “Through The Wire.” I remember immediately thinking how impressed I was with his insightful, almost self-deprecating approach on recording vocals with his jaw wired shut as a result of a car accident. The song garnered Kanye his first of many memorable lines – “Thank God I ain’t too cool for the safe belt” - a tongue-in-cheek homage to our generation’s parents who hadn’t yet graduated to calling them “seat belts.” Then he kissed Chaka Kahn and off he went into Kanye West land, never to return.
No longer wearing Ralph Lauren teddy bear Polos and sliding down his mom’s porch railing, Kanye is a much different man now than the one we were introduced to back then. I would say, without having to boringly rehash all of the “Kanye shit,” that becoming one of the most famous people in the world has a tendency to change a person. But Kanye is still human, and as humans we all have a natural tendency to romanticize the deceased. Their mistakes are forgiven, their character flaws forgotten and their achievements overly exaggerated. This, of course, is a good thing. Remembering them fondly somehow helps us all cope with the sadness that accompanies the realization that they are inevitably never coming back.
“Only One” may not be a great song per se, but it’s certainly a thought provoking concept. It made me consider what my mother might say to me if she were able, albeit a somewhat overwhelming but beautiful idea.
Before mental illness reaped its horrors on my mother’s last years, she was a woman of impeccable taste — with a sarcastic, dark sense of humor and a deep understanding of people. To simply refer to her as “rare” would be doing my mother a great injustice. What I miss most about her is that she understood, exactly, the kind of child that I was and the kind of adult I would eventually become. As long as I can remember, she encouraged and embraced my unique interests in the strangest of things. When I received a note from my music teacher that read, “I’m afraid your son has his Sony tuned to a different frequency than the rest of us,” she snatched it out of my hands and wrote, “isn’t that the point?” and demanded I immediately return to sender.
Towards the end, I didn’t fulfill my duties as her son. This is my biggest regret; she certainly deserved better. I’d like to think though that if she were able to write me, she would tell me I was forgiven. She would tell me to keep being creative at all costs. She would tell me I’ve made poor choices in women but great choices in friends; that the hounds tooth patterned chair in my living room was the right decision. And she would most definitely tell me to act like a gentleman and be sweet to people because ”no one likes an asshole.”
As an artist, when you attain a certain level of success, you have a choice to continue and explore new ground or solely rely on the formulaic safety-net that may garner another “Gold Digger.” Kanye may have entered into the world of the “no one can relate to me” level of stardom but at least he’s still TRYING to push his own boundaries and expectations. This may be ignored by his “chart-thirsty” fans and critics, but make no mistake about it – this is an admirable and worthy creative pursuit. You can’t win the game if you aren’t willing to take the shot. “Only One” might not be as successful as Kanye had hoped, but for those of us who share his experience, it certainly resonates.
Music doesn’t necessarily have to be complex or groundbreaking or even “good,” but at its best it can help us heal in very real and amazing ways. “No you’re not perfect, but you’re not your mistakes.” What a nice thought.