At midnight on New Year's Eve, as the ball dropped in Times Square, Kanye West released the first taste of his upcoming record, one of the most anticipated albums of 2015. Two red flags immediately pop up with "Only One." First, West is shown holding his baby on the single artwork. Second, "featuring Paul McCartney."
After the crotch-grabbing aggression of Yeezus, this first postnatal release from the hip-hop trailblazer announces a softer Kanye, one as oily and gentle as a Johnson & Johnson product. After soaking in this lotion for a day, I still can't decide whether the song is awful or great. Here are arguments for both.
"Only One" is terrible because…
1) Kanye is singing to his baby. In the annals of pop, few good results have come from singing about your kids. It typically ends in suffocating schmaltz. For every Paul Simon's "That Was Your Mother" or Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" there are a hundred Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" or Britney Spears's "My Baby." Of course he uses the words "angel" and "heaven" and "smile" here. Now that I'm thinking about it, "Isn't She Lovely" is cheesy as hell, too.
2) There is no beat. At one point, about a decade ago, Kanye West was the greatest beat-maker in rap, perhaps ever. So where are the drums, the groove? This ditty offers nothing but a 72-year-old playing an organ.
3) He is still slathering on the Auto-Tune. Complaining about Auto-Tune is so 2008. It's not the effect that bothers me, rather that Kanye has utilized the filter so often, for so long. It makes the song come off like a leftover from 808s & Heartbreak. And that other effect, the one that makes his humming sound like a vacuum-powered kazoo, has been heard before, too. There's a creeping sense that the innovator has run out of ideas.
"Only One" is great because…
1) This is his McCartney II. Being Team John is too lazy. I've always been Team Paul when it comes to the Beatles. The Cute One had the most interesting and fruitful solo career, and peaked when he stripped off the polish and tinkered in his home studio. That happened on Ram and the endlessly curious McCartney II, his foray into electronic music, the era that gave us "Wonderful Christmastime." "Only One" has a similar off-the-cuff simplicity. Though it's mushy as blended yams, it's still rather ballsy.
2) There is no guest verse. Big Sean is nowhere near this thing. Consider that a W.
3) Kanye is singing to his baby—from the perspective of his departed mother. Kanye's greatest work has come when he has allowed himself to be vulnerable, especially when the lyrics have centered around his mother. Late Registration, his untouchable masterpiece, is evidence of this. His penis was the principal character in Yeezus, an LP of hollow braggadocio. When he goes hard, he seems phony, or at best desperate to match Jay Z. Drake left Lil Wayne in the dust long ago. Embrace the soft.
Yeah, I still can't make up my mind. Which probably means the tune is merely interesting and mediocre.
"Only One" is available now at iTunes.