There aren’t a lot of words that we throw around with less recompense than “interesting.” We can call just about anything interesting, and we can be that vague about it, too. Once you declare that something (be it a surprising sports fact, your friend’s poorly told story, the nutrition facts on the back of your chips, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the plotline of House of Cards) is interesting your conversation partner rarely requires you to elaborate. Maybe it’s just because they’re glad you said “That’s interesting” rather than “That tickles my fancy,” because that’s arguably the worst figure of speech in our language. As long as we’re on the topic of cheaply used words, here are some others that we’ve taken the punch out of:
- Straight fire
- Fuck (oh grow up I can spell it out)
Anyway. To be interested in something does not indicate much at all, at least in common usage (by the way, I’m guilty of misusing all of these words, too. And I’m aware of it. Which probably makes it worse). But, when a word like “captivating” or “enthralling” or even “fascinating” doesn’t quite work, “interesting” is sometimes the weapon of choice, and it can mean so much more than, “Whadya know? Joaquin Phoenix used to be named Leaf Phoenix. Interesting.”
And it’s this word, “interesting,” that I keep using in my mind to describe the music video for “FourFiveSeconds” by Rihanna featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney.
Because it is interesting. ‘It’ being the combination of the song itself and the music video. Here, in one song, we have three of the most august artists in the last 50 years. An African-American, a Brit, and a Barbadian, with untold millions of album sales, in one simple black and white music video. And in this simple video they’re singing a simple but pleasant song that you could see them singing on the back porch. They’re wearing plain denim clothes, unaccessorized and unstyled. All this is to say, they’re being surprisingly human. When Sir Paul McCartney, Yeezy, and the Caribbean Queen team up, you might expect an exhibition of their stardom. But that’s not what we get. Instead, we see something like three friends playing and singing a song they wrote to express how they were feeling right then. No doubt they could have tried for a masterpiece, but instead they very consciously did this. Oh dear reader, it is interesting.
Rihanna can sing, and her vocal proficiency is on display here. Not everyone on the Billboard can do what she does in this song. But going along with that beautiful voice is what’s not on display. What she’s wearing isn’t form-fitting and it’s barely revealing. She trades sexy dancing for clasped hands, upward looks, and a roll of the eyes. Little to nothing is done to sell us Rihanna’s image. For some context, she has quite the image (last time she teamed up with Kanye for a music video (“All of the Lights”) she looked, well, like a goddess) and she hasn’t hesitated to use that image in previous music videos (“Can’t Remember to Forget You” with Shakira was basically soft-porn). In this video, she’s not a seductive sex symbol with a beautiful voice. Instead, she looks like a tired and frustrated young adult, pleading to whomever will listen with a rich, euphonious voice. And, sans glitz and glam, she is still beautiful.
Paul McCartney (we do all know who that is, right?) is delightful in this music video. First, his place in the song is so perfectly subdued and understated. Is his guitar part overly challenging? I don’t think so. But does anyone ever listen to the Beatles and say, “Wow, their technical abilities are off the chain?” No, but they do say “Wow, that just sounds really nice.” And McCartney’s guitar in this song sounds really nice. He helped to write the song (along with Kanye, Kirby Lauryen, Mike Dean, Ty Dolla Sign, Dave Longstreth, Dallas Austin, Elon Rutberg, and Noah Goldstein) which has me wondering how much of it he wrote. Because if this is largely a Paul McCartney creation that makes his background role in it that much more interesting.
As for his place in the video, it would be tough for it to be any more interesting. He’s wearing the same kind of clothes as the two younger artists, strumming an acoustic guitar as they sing. When he turns to the camera for the first time, his expression says, “Oh, hello. Yes, it’s me, I’m Paul McCartney. What? Are you surprised?” He isn’t overplaying it or trying to be too cool. He has the beginnings of a wry smile, anticipating the reaction of the viewer, but he plays it off as being commonplace, as if playing his guitar with Rihanna and Kanye is exactly what he wants to be doing right then, whether he makes a dollar off of it or not. As the song continues, he maintains a sort of old man dignity even as he gets more and more expressive, enjoying the music while steadily guiding it next to the much more demonstrative singers. And, at moments in the video, McCartney sings too, even though it’s nearly impossible to pick out his voice. But if he wasn’t actually singing in the song, why would he mouth a few of the words? Unless he’s doing what accompanists sometimes do by singing along just for their own enjoyment. This. Is. Interesting.
Musically, Kanye West can do whatever he wants. He has the resources, connections, credibility, and talent to do anything in the music industry. And he chose to do this. He helped write and then featured in a song in which he does not rap, and instead sings, but not intentionally-over-autotuned-for-effect like on 808s and Heartbreak. And Kanye is not a great singer. But he’s a singer you’d willingly listen to. Would John Legend, Aloe Blacc, or Ne-Yo have sung it better? Yes, but it wouldn’t have sounded right. It’s supposed to sound like Kanye singing in that pleasant if not overwhelming voice.
The denim attire is a change of pace for man who has made many fashion statements. On the Yeezus Tour, he wore a mask that covered his entire face. Here we see him in all his humanity. He’s not even wearing sunglasses. You could see this Kanye just walking down the street and think nothing of it. However, like Rihanna, he shows the same kind of anger and frustration in the video. He is expressive and emphatic in his gestures and his cries to the sky, all while singing a song that isn’t very aggressive. In fact, his first words are “Woke up this morning an optimist/Sun is shining I’m positive.” And that is so Kanye: happy and insightful but ready to boil over in demonstrative action at any time.
I’m an English Major; thinking critically and creatively about what I see is what I do. That’s where I get all this. That’s why this interests me. Unfortunately, most people do not think like English Majors. The fan reception to “FourFiveSeconds” has been predictably thoughtless. In short, many listeners have regarded it as bullshit. They don’t like Rihanna singing over folk music instead of pop beats. They want Kanye to rap. They want Paul McCartney to do more than strum. Beatles fans are disgusted that Sir Paul would sell out to get his name in a song with the likes of Kanye, some Kanye fans think he’s just cashing in a check by releasing a song he could have written in ten minutes. Or, if listeners do like it, their reaction often amounts to a mindless “This is awesome!” or “Dope!”. No, this song is not awesome. But it is very nice, and I like it a little more each time I listen to it.
But even beyond listeners not appreciating “FourFiveSeconds” as a song, they are missing out on all the things I just detailed that make the song and the video interesting. A member of the most important band of all-time, arguably the best hip-hop artist of the last 10 years, and possibly that time frame’s best solo pop artist came together to make a song. And in that song they all appeared remarkably human. Superstars are not supposed to appear that way, and they certainly do not have to. They could have struck any pose they wanted, but they chose to do this. That should tell us something about all three of them, something more than “What is this shit?” or “Damn straight fire!”.
Most celebrities become celebrities because they are very, very good at something. They are people, like you and me, but with God-given talents and usually an untold story of hard work. And when these celebrities are musicians, be it guitarists, singers, rappers, or what have you, their craft is their art. Sure, there are plenty of industry puppets with significantly less talent that produce pop-hits left and right, and our society too often thoughtlessly consumes this. But when we follow the great ones, we tend to forget what it is, besides talent on an instrument or with a voice, that makes a musician an artist. It’s a grasp of humanity, an ability to find the strings that connect us and strum them, a gift of self-expression that makes us feel. They are people, like us, just with millions of dollars, fashion lines, bookings for sell-out shows, and appearances on late-night talk shows. But they were once doing local shows with high school friends, making beats in their mother’s basement, or singing to distract from a broken household. And when they take a minute to slow down from lives that have been full of achievement, pain, and controversy to be humans, when they sing a song meant for a jam session rather than a stadium, people get lost in what they were hoping to see and hear.
And when people do this, everything becomes so much less interesting.
[For the Over-Achiever]
The article is “officially” done, but if you enjoyed it and want a few more insights on Kanye, read on.
As if this all wasn’t interesting enough already, this song comes in between “Only One” and “Blessings.” The former is a single that Kanye released with, guess who, Paul McCartney. The latter is a single in which he features on a song with Big Sean and Drake. Taking them into account with “FourFiveSeconds” makes that song and Kanye’s current ventures that much more… interesting.
“Only One” is bizarre. It’s a heartfelt love song to his deceased mother and his daughter, with the lyrics working as a message from Donda West to North West, and it features Sir Paul on the organ. It walks a fine line between boring and beautiful, with McCartney’s presence on the song being much more dubious than on “FourFiveSeconds.” Kanye sings in a fashion similar to the style of 808s and Heartbreak. But, again, the music video ads another dimension. It basically consists of Kanye walking out in the countryside with his daughter. That’s about it. Again, he’s being human. So maybe “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds” sound very different from his hits on College Dropout and Late Registration, but maybe that same guy is there. At any rate, it’s interesting to see Kanye, who proclaimed repeatedly “I am a God” on his album Yeezus, trying so hard to appear human. And to do it twice in a row with Paul McCartney after a recording session in Mexico, where Rihanna and Ty Dolla Sign were also present, furthers the intrigue here.
But then, after these deviations from the norm, Kanye dropped a verse on “Blessings.” And here Kanye’s humanity largely evaporates. He raps about how “blessed” he is to be in a life of luxury, bragging about his wealth and success, featuring next to two rappers who talk about the same things, neither one of them having ever held a candle to Kanye’s greatness as a rapper.
Somewhere in between singing Kanye and couture gangsta rap Kanye is the Kanye that real Kanye fans love and miss. But, as much as I bemoan the loss of the man who made College Dropout, I’m still interested in the American Mozart, who always keeps us guessing.
Now the article is done done. Like, comment, subscribe/follow, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading!
Soli Deo Gloria