Baby’s In Black Skinhead: Kanye, Rihanna & Paul McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds”

In which three of the greatest living musicians set out to soundtrack the Vanilla Latte of your dreams.
By    January 26, 2015

rihanna-fourfiveseconds
If you play “Revolution 9” in reverse, it says “Paul Thompson is Dead.”

Kanye West killed Iggy Azalea. If white people from Australia and Seattle and the Bay are going to order hi-hats in triplicate, that’s fine—Ye got Paul McCartney. You take my music, I take yours. The Polo don from “Takeover” is making formless Starbucks folk with a Beatle. It’s bool. Or at least it should be.

The rap world is still wringing its collective hands over Iggy and everything fancy. Next month’s Grammy coverage is sure to trudge up Macklemore’s win for Best Rap Album (and subsequent text to Kendrick) from last year. If hip hop is music by and (at least primarily) for people who are in some way marginalized, our timelines and press releases are trying very hard to obscure that fact. What if this is the response?

On Saturday, adult contemporary radio was blessed with “FourFiveSeconds”; it probably belongs to Rihanna, but it’s also the second collaboration between Kanye and Paul McCartney. In theory, this string of Macca-Yeezy loosies is a great thing, a sign of progress, of how genius can cut across generation, genre, and race. Of course, nothing’s that simple.

Kanye West used to be safe. The College Dropout was the album you could talk about in school. He was the foil to 50 Cent, but still bought jewelry, but still worried about it. For Late Registration, he brought in Jon Brion. At the listening session for Graduation—the album that pitted him against 50 on magazine covers and sales dockets—he talked about how much he loved white people. He was subversive, sure; the ego that has made him despised by so many today poked through more than enough. But he was still the anti-gangster, the anti-killer, the anti-rap star, anti- anti- anti-. Then a nice young white girl won a award and he shoved her off the stage. Remember that

After Taylor Swift, Kanye went away. He came back different, rawer. The Polos turned into diamond teeth, “All Falls Down” faded out and he threw Chief Keef at us. And this is the guy who pulls Paul McCartney into rap (reportedly to produce his entire album)? Is that not a victory? Two weeks ago, Diddy was bragging about the size of his son’s trust fund at that son’s birthday party. Didn’t that make you think of Kanye? Isn’t that perversely, antagonistically beautiful?

Now, the twist. Kanye isn’t safe anymore. He’s been mad, and incoherent, and a voice for things that scare the English teachers who used to pass out printouts of his lyrics. But with the initial shock of Kanye as the fucking roach subsiding, “FourFive” poses a new question: is this stuff any good?

Probably not. “FourFiveSeconds” is like the second-act fight scene in a Disney Channel movie: Rihanna and Kanye are getting strapped for the roller rink, and they’ll see you there, bro. You can totally inject menace into songs that don’t sound like they should have any, but it’s very hard to do with an ear to Clear Channel and middle America. Aside from the writing’s sore lack of character, Kanye’s warnings that he’s “about to spazz” ring hollow. We don’t believe you, you need to hang out with Pusha more.

The record’s not bad because it’s nice. “Good Life” is more or less nice. “Family Business,” “Hey Mama,” “See Me Now,” and a Clue tapes worth of Kanye’s best material does little to offend your parents or teachers or POs. Yet Kanye rarely pantomimes as he does on “FourFiveSeconds.” He’s always been at his most incisive when he blows up a single topic or emotion into a Technicolor experience. “Through The Wire” is grateful, celebratory. “Theraflu” is mean. But they’re both thorough. On “FourFive,” everything is curbed, qualified. Kanye wakes up an optimist, but is close to wylin’, but is singing tenderly, but needs to be held back. If that sounds like an interesting tension, it isn’t. It’s pandering.

Kanye stumbles through his second vocal lesson at the YMCA, cooing inanities like “Sun was shining, I’m positive/ Then I heard you was talking trash.” Rihanna, naturally, is more capable but similarly contrived (“All of my kindness is taken for weakness” is another “I know who you paid, dawg, Serchlite Publishing” moment). Forgettable vocal performances, regrettable writing—what’s left?

Well, McCartney. The production’s sparse, but mostly draws from the well of pop magic he’s spent the last half of his life dipping in and out of. There’s the acoustic guitar, the organ that comes in halfway through, the distinct lack of drums. “FourFiveSeconds” has the foundation most good—maybe even great—pop songs would kill to have. But it’s muddied. (Also, that stilted background singing? Very unrehearsed, very spontaneous, very #rare.)

If you’re this deep in the rap Internet, you’ve probably read Pitchfork’s interview with Bjork, where the Icelandic singer takes fans and reporters to task for slighting women and their creative agency. Why, Bjork asks, is Kanye West’s auteur status unquestioned when female singers and songwriters are so often cast as passengers on their own records? Of course, Bjork is right. But in Kanye’s case, while the extent of his authorship is probably exaggerated, it’s easy to maintain the illusion. If nothing else, most of his career is an exercise in stitching together things that should come apart. But has Kanye ever left the driver’s seat so far behind as he has with these McCartney songs? He’s an instrument, and a blunt and inflexible one at that.

If this next album really is Born In The USA to Yeezus’s Nebraska, maybe it will come with a welcome political subtext. For all we know, 2015 might belong to a blue-eyed rapping pompadour. But if the counterpoint is an inescapable piece of pop from a guy who spent 2013 railing against the private prison industry, well, worse things have happened.

As a disclosure, I’ve expected each of Kanye’s last three records to be the one where he finally falls off, where he takes one left turn too many and winds up in Starbucks with the next Chance the Rapper album. That hasn’t happened. 808s & Heartbreak was lean and evocative, and made inroads with the Canadian daytime soap community. Dark Fantasy was a bloated stroke of maybe-genius. And as our own Son Raw says, Yeezus is the only album that sounds like 2013/14 felt. So I’m not ready to ring the alarm just yet. But as for “FourFiveSeconds” itself? I think I’ve had enough.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!