This weekend, Kanye West, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney released “FourFiveSeconds,” a stripped-down, soulful jam. Rihanna delivers one of her best vocal performances ever atop an acoustic guitar hook — seemingly from Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth — that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Ed Sheeran album. Kanye sings — sans AutoTune — with a defiant streak audible in his voice, about spending the night in jail (a true story, mind you) and the public coming for his pride. An organ, likely played by McCartney, and a hearty choir of voices flesh out the sound and give “FourFiveSeconds” a gospel feel as it progresses.
Overall, it’s an unexpected, catchy bit of pop that strikes the lyrical balance found in many big hits: universally relatable ideas (“all of my kindness is taken for weakness,” talk of the freakin’ weekend) marked by pockets of specificity and personality, mostly from Kanye’s verses (“hold me back I’m bout’ to spaz” is such a Yeezus line).
On paper, this sounds appealing, I suppose. Kanye and McCartney, two voices of their generations, created a stunning fever dream of a song in “Only One.” Rihanna sang the hook in “All of the Lights,” one of West’s biggest and best pop singles to date. But “FourFiveSeconds” leaves me cold, even when I force myself to think of it as a Rihanna single in the vein of “Stay” instead of a follow-up to the sonically ambitious Yeezus. Sure, the chorus has managed to lodge itself in my brain after just two days, but I expect more from this trio than a mild, pretty earworm. “FourFiveSeconds” is not enough.
West has always pushed boundaries in his sound, and in turn, has become one of music’s most reliable trendsetters. Broadening the idea of what sounds can work in popular music is a big part of what makes Kanye West one of the most important musical figures of our time. The production and vulnerability of 808s & Heartbreak can still be heard in Drake, Childish Gambino, and even Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint. Yeezus introduced the world to innovative young producers like Arca and Evian Christ while also incorporating the perspective of a music legend (Rick Rubin). My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, commonly thought to be West’s masterpiece, straddled the line between commercial appeal and avant-garde art project, achieving the balance in part through countless collaborations. West is acutely aware of how to use the strengths of others to achieve his vision. That’s precisely what I’m afraid of.
As Grantland points out, West’s recent focus on modest, family-oriented songs as a follow-up to the most ambitious work of his career up to this point is not so unlike the path McCartney followed immediately after the dissolution of The Beatles. Yeezus was the anger-fueled bachelor party, and whatever comes next is an album about familial bliss, much like McCartney’s first two solo albums, McCartney and RAM. Devastated by the dissolution of his band, a newly wed McCartney turned an eye towards his young family with wife Linda. He went out to his farm in Scotland and wrote comparatively modest, deeply earnest love songs that critics were disappointed with at the time, unsurprisingly, in light of all that The Beatles had been. RAM remains my favorite McCartney album, but its small, contented, at times childlike feeling is not really one I would imagine would look good on West.
As 808s or “Lost In the World” proved, Kanye can pull off vulnerable, but it’s always been dramatic kind of vulnerability. While sparse in sound, “Only One” represents an extreme idea: West’s deceased mother, Donda, speaking through him. As a one-off, the song is an instant classic in Kanye’s catalogue, particularly paired with “Hey Mama.” As a direction for a full album, I’m skeptical. I want more forward-thinking production and experimentation from Kanye. Hell, I want more from Rihanna, who teased her new album with snippets of audio that sound more like Yeezus than “FourFiveSeconds.” She jump-started mainstream pop’s embrace of house music and its many forms with “We Found Love” all the way back in 2011, after all.
On the back cover of McCartney, Paul is seen with his newborn daughter Mary tucked in his jacket — a photo I was instantly reminded of when I saw the artwork for “Only One,” which shows Kanye and daughter North. The similarities between him and McCartney don’t stop there, if first two songs heard from West’s new album are any indication.