Kanye West had a good 2005. That August saw the release of Late Registration, West’s second record, the one that featured “Gold Digger,” the one that shot him into the stratosphere. A few months earlier, Common’s Be, which West produced, was released to positive reviews.
And rightly so. It’s not the most daring album (especially compared to his incredible Like Water for Chocolate), but it’s great—concise, layered, and subtle. My favorite track from Be is “The Corner,” a song that celebrates the cultural touchstones of blackness, ones that became necessary as, over the years, poor neighborhoods stayed poor. Common raps about “uncles that smoke, and some put blow up they nose” and says he “roll[s] in a Olds, with windows that don’t roll.” He paints a very detailed, vivid picture, providing a tour of a neighborhood ravaged by poverty and hopelessness. When I first heard this song, I was touched by how alive the corner felt, by how the neighborhood was full of energy (helped along by West’s buoyant beat). It’s clear from the lyrics, however, that that energy is the result of hustling from a lack of better options.
I love how Common uses one primary vowel sound for each verse. In the first verse, he uses an “o” sound: “the fo’s and the mo’s,” “cope with the lows,” “nowhere to go, niggas rolling in droves.” In the second verse, it’s an “i” sound: “street lights and deep nights,” “strive to be like,” “sheep-like.” This method lends some structure to the mosaic of images, and it shows off Common’s skills as a writer. I’m no rapper, but I’d imagine it’s hard to maintain that kind of pattern for too long, and he does it for entire verses.
In between those verses we hear from the Last Poets, spoken-word artists who paved the way for hip-hop (and before that, influenced Gil-Scott Heron, who did more than pave the way for hip-hop). They provide the track’s backbone, the past-tense to Common’s present: “The corner was our magic, our music, our politics… our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge/Our Taj Mahal, our monument/Our testimonial to freedom, to peace, and to love/Down on the corner.” The corner, in other words, was everything. For better or worse.
The song’s pivotal line is buried in the penultimate verse: “We write songs about wrong because it’s hard to see right.” The song, itself a feverish vision, provides a bit of clarity to a broken class system.
Oh man, I’ve written about some dumb songs, but this one may be the dumbest. It doesn’t sound like it, from its Staple Singers sample to its Kanye West production. Hell, the name “John Legend” alone connotes classiness and formality. And yet “Number One” is so, so dumb.
Just look at that album cover up there: does it look like a record that features a song about how, just because you cheat on someone, it doesn’t mean you don’t love them? Or the line “I keep it strapped up when I sleep around”? Or Kanye West rapping in character as his own penis? No, it does not. C’mon, the dude is wearing a turtleneck. A turtleneck.
But boy oh boy do I love “Number One.” The whole thing goes down so easy, thanks to West’s production and, of course, Legend’s butter-smooth voice, which could (and probably does) melt ice cubes. And you’ve got to admire that takes such a direct, brazen approach to its viewpoint, even though that viewpoint is pretty shitty. Countless hip-hop songs imply such an outlook, but “Number One” comes out and says it: Why are you so mad at me for sleeping with other women? I love you, baby! Brazen.
Generally, I’m not a big fan of John Legend; his songs tend to be too bland for my tastes. But he’s obviously really talented, both as a pianist and a singer, and I wish he’d do more songs like this, silly and misogynistic as it is. At least it’s interesting.
I understand why people don’t like Kanye West. The stunts, the self-loathing, the fact that he is having a child with a Kardashian. At this point, though, getting annoyed at Kanye West is like complaining about the weather. It passes the time, but it doesn’t matter. Yeezy will always do annoying things, because that what Yeezy does.
The thing is, Kanye West knows that too, and some of his best songs come from that knowledge. “Runaway” may be the most self-aware song of all time, so much so that I almost join the ones who dislike him. But this song is just so dang beautiful, and it’s so over-the-top in its solipsism that it becomes something more than just whining. “Runaway” is like a mini-opera about how terrible Kanye West can be, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work on me every time.
I like the five-minute single version, but the full album version is better. I think the last few minutes are some of the best work that West has ever done (which, for a guy that produced some of the best beats on The Blueprint, is saying something). As he gets more frustrated with his inability to be a normal person, his voice becomes distorted and unintelligible. All the while, those strings back him up, underlining his misery.
Look, this shouldn’t work. I should be disgusted by a millionaire grumbling about his problems. Have I been putting up with his shit just way too long? Yes. Do I mind? Never.