How D’Angelo and Kanye West Are Making Paul McCartney Relevant Again
Thirty or 40 years ago, if and when people were making predictions about what life might be like in the year 2015—cue kooky theremin music—chances are they didn’t say anything about Paul McCartney, unless may they guessed he’d be cryogenically frozen or playing cruise ships. But here we are, halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, and McCartney, well into his own sixth decade as a professional musician, is not only alive and kicking but also, in a word, relevant.
“Only One,” a surprise Kanye West–McCartney collaboration, was literally the first single out of the gate this year, released on January 1st, with the promise of more to follow. That was just two weeks after the surprise release (musical ambushes are my favorite new musical trend; thanks, Beyoncé) of D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah, the product of a 15-year marinade that by one collaborator’s account included liberal dashes of listening to McCartney’s old quartet. D’Angelo and West aren’t exactly new artists, but in Beatle years they’re babies, and thus give McCartney a pop present tense like he hasn’t had in a long time. Indeed, “Only One” debuted at No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 before quickly sinking, but still, that put McCartney in the Top 40 for the first time in nearly 26 years, since “My Brave Face” peaked at 25 in July, 1989.
In a further assertion of relevancy, McCartney last month contributed another new song, “Hope for the Future,” to an online game, Destiny. This song is bombastic, bloated, hokey, and untethered from anything happening in contemporary music, which is just what McCartney’s detractors expect of him when they’re not expecting him to be merely treacly. (The awful video presents him as hologram in a bubble, which is not a good look for a 72-year-old former cherub with orange hair.) But “Only One” is terrific. Stark and intimate, it features West singing, or auto-tuning, over an electric piano—or what sounds like one—played by McCartney, and that’s pretty much it, sonically. The presence of the rock era’s greatest balladeer has given West license to indulge his sentimental side: his lyrics channel his late mother, addressing West as well as his daughter, North. You may not be surprised to learn that Kanye’s mom has perfectly nice things to say about him:
Hello, my only one, just like the mornin’ sun
You’ll keep on risin’ til the sky knows your name . . .
And if you knew how proud I am
You’d never shed a tear, have a fear . . .
You’re still my chosen one.
McCartney once wrote a song where his own mother spoke to him, “Let It Be,” though in that one Mrs. McCartney restricted herself to the title’s “words of wisdom,” eschewing pep talks maternal flattery. But McCartney’s default persona, at least in public, has always been one of aw-shucks modesty, West’s less so—only one reason they’re such intriguing, unlikely collaborators. Then again, McCartney’s most famous partner was pretty full of himself, too. At any rate, I found the new song’s weird combination of narcissism and grief to be more moving than grotesque. It’s helped immeasurably by McCartney’s playing, which, though relaxed and seemingly off-hand, has some of the churchy cadences and gospel swell of “Let It Be” or “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The song’s instrumental fadeout is lovely. But don’t just take my word for it:
People always ask me what my favorite Kanye song is and it’s Only One. Kanye feels like his mom sang thru him to our daughter.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) January 1, 2015
I cry every time I hear this song
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) January 1, 2015
As for Black Messiah, which prompted critics to tear up their year-end best lists when it was released on December 15, McCartney’s influence wasn’t immediately apparent to my ears—unlike, say, Sly Stone’s or Prince’s or Marvin Gaye’s. (Some apt critic or another labeled the record “an encyclopedia of soul.”) In fact, despite weeks of repeat listening, “McCartneyesque” would have been one of the last adjectives I would have used to describe the album until I stumbled upon a smart review in Slate by Jack Hamilton, who writes in part:
Black Messiah is a more harmonically and melodically varied record than any he’s made previously, and while D’Angelo’s multi-instrumental talents have long brought comparisons to Prince and Stevie Wonder, Black Messiah bears the prominent influence of another do-everything former wunderkind: Paul McCartney. The psychedelic singsonginess of the two-part “Back to the Future” and the swinging, Tin Pan Alley amble of “The Door” sound like the handiwork of someone who’s worn out several copies of Ram.
Well, hmmm. Ram, released way back in 1971, was McCartney’s second solo L.P. You’d never mistake it for Black Messiah, but like D’Angelo’s record, it has a fussy yet laidback vibe—the work of a musician who values both craft and play. Hamilton also notes that since D’Angelo returned to performing live three years ago, he has been covering “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” one of McCartney’s late-period Beatles songs, and that Questlove, The Roots’ drummer, who contributed to Black Messiah, told Rolling Stone several years ago, during the record’s gestation, that D’Angelo had recently “discovered” the Beatles (along with a host of other classic rock acts).
So the McCartney–D’Angelo nexus isn’t as far-fetched as you—or, initially, I—might think. Listened to with ears attuned, the song “Charade” could be a mid-70s McCartney single in the vein of “Silly Love Songs” or “With a Little Luck” (though with far more pointed lyrics) as covered by Prince circa Sign o’ the Times and recorded by Sly Stone with the dank, fungal tape deck he used for the bleary-eared There’s a Riot Going On. “Sugah Daddy” and “Betray My Heart” are two more songs with McCartneyesque melodies, the kind that keep their footing just this side of sing-songy, though unlike McCartney, who often foregrounds his melodic gifts, burnishing tunes to a spiffy sheen, especially on his singles, D’Angelo scuffs his up, atomizing melodies or disguising them under layers of rhythm, sound, and processed murk. That’s partly what makes Black Messiah so exciting, the way its classicism has been run through a cutting-edge blender—which is one way of describing what the Beatles did 50 years ago.
If you’re not a fan of McCartney’s solo career, I hope this piques your interest. For reasons of his own making and not, his post-Beatles music has been critically (though not commercially) undervalued, especially his records from the 1970s with Wings and his more recent run of albums, beginning with 1997’sFlaming Pie and continuing through 2013’s New. (As with most baby-boomer rock stars, McCartney’s 1980s, when the onset of middle age coincided with the onset of synth drums, are pretty skippable.) Too often, I think, his eagerness to please as a songwriter and performer has overshadowed his inventiveness and willingness to experiment that percolate throughout his catalog. But if you listen with open ears, devoid of expectations good or bad—and if you tune out his sometimes atrocious lyrics—you will hear some of the most dazzling art pop of the last 40 years.
Here’s an entry point. Last month, the new against-the-cultural-grain Web site Trunkworthy (dedicated, it says, to “underappreciated yet overachieving music, movies, and television”) published a terrific essay reappraising Wild Life, the first Wings album and one of the most reviled in McCartney’s catalog, dismissed as a “flaccid” throwaway when it was first released in 1971. (Rolling Stone subsequently upped the ante to “appalling.”) The author, Jason Hartley, praises this rough-hewn, deceptively ambitious L.P. both on its own terms and as a signpost for a lot of the more shambolic indie rock and pop of the last 20 years—and he’s right.
Here’s another entry point: a playlist I compiled of McCartney songs that, in an alternative universe where time flows backward like an old Beatles tape loop, might have been loosely influenced by D’Angelo: