So if you pay attention to music, you know that Kanye West released a new single at the end of 2014 (featuring Paul McCartney<3), and just this week released the music video. But we’re going to focus on the song here. I am kind of the biggest fan.
You see, Kanye’s a poet, and one of the best of this era. He just doesn’t get enough credit as one because, the way I see it, people hear an angry man who’s just going through a phase. And then they don’t listen to what is behind a very purposeful tone and image. But they should, because what lies behind is an incredibly honest, perceptive and hey-that’s-my-life-you’re-describing wordsmith.
Now. The song. “Only One.” Here’s the album artwork:
Listen to it here, or watch the video below:
So! What I like about this song? Well, it’s so raw, and it provides access to this deep thinker, this simple Kanye, who is too often overshadowed by genre and haters. To start with, the video strips away the layers of the industry’s expectations and produces just him and what defines him (in this case his adorable daughter who has eyes that seem to know things I don’t.) This idea, however, starts in the actual lyrics of the song. So, as I thoroughly enjoy working through things, lists, manuals, my own projects etc., I decided I would work through the lyrics of “Only One” to show you why Kanye’s poetry is so beautiful and what I specifically got out of it.
“As I lay me down to sleep”
Invoking the old prayer. Already, showing that he kind of gets childhood, and kind of gets wanting to just be tucked in by a mother sometimes. Also, this lullaby-line aligns with the xylophoney sound that singlehandedly backs the track; it’s simple and childish but therefore holds so much meaning. But let’s dig a little deeper into this line. Kanye (I feel like he appreciates the use of his first name more than his last name, so I’m going with that… but if you think it’s at all disrespectful, feel free to copy this into a word document and change it yourself:)) uses the first line of the old prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Except, he changes that first word, from “now” to “as.” My interpretation of it is, he’s not looking at this bedtime routine thing as a moment, but rather a process; now’s last for just a second, but as’s last for a little while. Living in the as. (Don’t go anywhere with that). I think this process informs the whole song. It’s all a process, going to sleep and entering this world where you can talk to what you can’t see, and you can dream about what you don’t know. Which brings us to the next line:
“I hear her speak to me”
So the song is about his mother, who has passed away, and what she is saying to him. Kanye is “laying [himself] down to sleep,” possibly because he has to now that he has grown up, or possibly because he feels like a child again, who is getting a goodnight prayer from his mother. This idea of listening to his mother addresses the “talking to what you can’t see” thing about sleep.
“Hello, ‘Mari, how ya doin’?”
This line actually just makes me want to cry. Note: it’s now his mother speaking, as it will be for the rest of the song. I’m assuming the name Mari is a nickname his mother may have used on Kanye, since his middle name is Omari, and it’s just so beautiful that he still thinks of himself that way.
Also, the “how ya doin?” part sounds like a conversation, so natural in spite of the circumstances.
“I think the storm ran out of rain, the clouds are movin’”
This is poetry. It’s just such a literary way of communicating the age-old idea of “the storm is over.” First, he’s personifying the storm. But while this tool is usually used to build storms up, make them look powerful, he’s using it to make the storm look exhausted, and submissive. It’s genius. Also, keep in mind that this is still his mother speaking, which makes me feel like although she’s in Heaven, she can see the storm. Which makes me feel like those people we’ve lost can still see we’re going through hard times; while they might be perfect themselves, they know we’re struggling. Which makes me feel (sorry, there are lot of which’s and feelings here) like humans and those who have passed away can still see the same things; we just have different perspectives.
“I know you’re happy, cause I can see it / So tell the voice inside your head to believe it”
First, this is, again, a kind of they-can-see-us idea, which I like. But also, there’s a they-can-see-our-thoughts idea, which is frightening, but I don’t think it’s like, they can read our minds (that is, our loved ones who have passed away). I think it’s more like, they still know us and our patterns of thinking; we’re still connected.
“I talked to God about you, He said He sent you an angel
/ And look at all that He gave you
/ You asked for one and you got two”
This is lovely. First, I love that his mother is the link, at the moment, between him and God. And second, she can see his beautiful family life (I actually love that family and the fact that he and his mother see them as angels), and is kind of reminding him how beautiful it is. And third, keep in mind that, although it’s his mother speaking, it’s Kanye writing, acknowledging his life and how thankful he is for it. But again, this is all communicated through his mother. You see? Everything’s connected, everything’s working together.
“You know I never left you / Cause every road that leads to Heaven’s right inside you”
I am sincerely in love with the lyrics “You know I never left you.” Thinking about it in terms of all of us and our losses, it indicates that there was a gap where somehow, things weren’t connected. But then the words “I never left you” tells me that maybe it was our fault. Like, maybe we were the ones who, not forgot, but strayed from what someone we trust thought was best for us, or what we had promised them. But regardless, that person was there all along. Even if we couldn’t see them.
Now, the line, “every road that leads to Heaven’s right inside you” indicates that we can do it ourselves, that is, get to Heaven. As in, while the people who are already there are rooting for us, it’s all up to us to focus. This sounds like a sports interview. Really though, it’s like, we’ve kind of got to go our own way. Even though our loved and lost ones are there for us, even though they might know which paths we should take, those paths might be different than those that they took. And we’ve sort of got to let go of these people to be able to meet up with them later.
“Hello, my only one”
I really like this line because of, yes, “my only one,” but mostly, “hello.” It’s a formal greeting, something you say to someone when you’re meeting them for the first time. Thus, the relationship seems renewed, refreshed.
“Just like the morning sun /
You keep on rising till the sky knows your name”
I can’t put it into words. Relating your son to the sun, turning something so personal into something so universal. Also, a sense of trying and trying and trying, forever, never giving into the sky’s presence as the most important thing out there. The repeated imagery of the sky and the sky as a connection to Heaven. There, I tried. But I couldn’t do full sentences.
“Remember who you are /
No you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes”
Again, it’s up to us. We’re the ones doing the remembering, they’re only reminding us. Who we are is inside ourselves, not inside those people we love and sometimes, whose deaths seem to define us. Who we are is also not in our actions, especially not in our bad ones. The “no” reminds us not to get too cocky, but still to remember that we are all someone. It’s also about balance here. Not being perfect, not being your mistakes. Being… somewhere in the middle.
“The good outweighs the bad, even on your worst day”
This, I’m not sure about. I would appreciate some explanation on this one. Because I have had those bad days where the good DOESN’T ACTUALLY EXIST. So… maybe it’s different in Heaven? Or maybe it’s just different with Kanye. I can see that.
“Remember how I’d say, hey, hey, one day
/ You’ll be the man you always knew you would be”
This is just so sentimental. “Remember how” implies that she used to, she’s not saying it anymore. Because, I think, Kanye has become the man he always knew he would be, and her job in this regard is done. I don’t really know what he used to think or thinks now, but I know what I think, and that’s it. Now, the interesting thing about this is that, although she says “remember how” and is thus not saying it anymore… she kind of is. It’s a sort of apophasis, except not used for deceit. It’s rather used for an “even though you’re grown up now, I can still show you that you have a future to work towards” purpose. WordPress is underlining apophasis, so maybe that means that you who are not rhetoricians or at least, don’t know you are:) are unaware of this term. Long story short: it’s saying you shouldn’t say something, in order to say it. Like politicians will say “I won’t bring up my opponent’s recent stay in jail” (sorry, random example), in order to make themselves look like they’re not stooping that low, while they are stooping that low. Anyway, all this to say, that’s not what’s happening here. At least, the deceit part of it. I actually think it’s a really nice use of apophasis, sort of a disguising-motherly-advice-as-memory-in-order-not-to-insult-a-grownup’s-indepencence use. Which again, is beautiful on all accounts.
“And if you knew how proud I was
/ You’d never shed a tear, have a fear /
No you wouldn’t do that”
I love this. I also say that after every line. But seriously, it’s just a reminder not to cry for someone’s death, if that someone is happy for us. It’s also really sad, the “if you knew” part because a), there’s no way to know how proud someone who has died is, or how much they love us, because we’re in different spheres, but b) even when people who are alive tell us that, it’s still impossible to know, because those emotions are not quantifiable. See, it’s always an if, and so we always and will always end up crying and fearing.
“And though I didn’t pick the day to turn the page
/ I know it’s not the end every time I see her face”
A beautiful spin on an overused metaphor (this song seems to do that, rework everything we’ve heard before to make it new). This is the one time Kanye evokes pathos towards his mother. Turning the page, it’s necessary. But the verb “turn” has no subject. Which usually makes us feel like we are the implied subject. But we’re not, we usually are not. The subject is someone else entirely, something else entirely. And she had to discover that too early.
Now, the second part of this is also just beautiful. “I know it’s not the end every time I see her face.” The possibility of it being the end is really interesting, because of course, the speaker here is not on earth. This is really tragic, but I think maybe she’s saying it’s not the end for him. She’s past the end, but when she sees his daughter’s face, she sees him inside her and knows he has a future, in this baby but also in himself. So there’s a mixing of subjects here, which is interesting because it unites what has been separated again. I mean, death is the thing that can ever separate two people, but then this union of those who have been pulled apart blurs that line and kind of shuts down the power of death. Which is always wonderful!
“You got the world cause you got the love in your hands”
Love it. When someone gets to Heaven, I assume, they can see the world and what the world is, what it means. To suggest that the world is love is really beautiful, but to suggest it’s love that one person can hold, produce and receive, that is really powerful.
“And you’re still my chosen one /
So can you understand /
One day you’ll understand”
I like this because of, first, the word “still.” Was, always, will be, that’s it. And the next lines. “So you can understand”: there is the possibility of understanding what “chosen one” means, and what everything means. “One day you’ll understand”: it’s not going to happen now.
“So hear me out, hear me out”
You have to listen to be able to hear all this, that’s it.
“I won’t go, I won’t go /
No goodbyes, no goodbyes /
Just hello, just hello
/ And when you cry, I will cry /
And when you smile, I will smile”
This is classic. Kanye’s not necessarily reworking the idea of I’ll-go-where-you-go, but in all of the renewal of ideas, a little classic simplicity is appropriate. Again, throwing us off guard, this time by ironically using something that’s been used millions of times before. (But is nonetheless always super comforting). This line actually reminds me of that scene in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) where Heathcliff is asking the deceased Catherine to “take any form” just as long as she stays with him. The line in the song is kind of an answer to Heathcliff’s wish, because it is someone who has passed on promising to stay, whatever that means. But I think this is a much nicer scene than that in the novel; the latter is a little strange and really intense.
“And next time when I look in your eyes, /
We’ll have wings and we’ll fly”
This promise that I hold on to, but can never seem to put into words. (Thank you, Kanye). The promise that not only will we look into those eyes of people we’ve lost but also that we’ll all be more beautiful than ever.
“I just want you to do me a favour /
Tell Nori about me”
Simplicity seems to be like a prayer-sigh in this song. The track starts with a simple recitation, then builds to a really personal and powerful prayer, and finally fades down to one small wish that is now not coming from someone on earth but rather someone in Heaven. The last line, “Tell Nori about me,” is really quite powerful because it represents the ever-present desire to be remembered, even after we’ve gone onto other things. And to not only be remembered, but further to pass something on, especially through generations of one family.
Finally, remember that little prayer at the beginning, “Now” or “As I lay me down to sleep?” Remember the last lines of that, the original? Or at least, the second last line? “If I die before I wake.” The first time I heard this song, I thought it was Kanye speaking here, telling us to tell his daughter about him. (Since one can’t hear quotation marks, I was confused. But… I know that’s on purpose! Mixing subjects again, taking advantage of the medium that relies on sound!) I think that that’s kind of how it works though. I think Kanye himself is echoing his mother’s wish to be remembered, especially by his daughter. And doing it through his song, leaving his legacy.
So, you see all the poetry? Perhaps next time, I’ll talk about the music of the song, because I think it’s quite genius as well (nicely done, PMC (my hip hop name for Paul McCartney)). But let’s just leave it here, focusing on the lyrics. They’re so good. They’re so unreal. Just listen to this song, or at least stare at the words for a few hours, please. Let them marinate in your heart as you listen to that last, stretched-out instrumental bit that sounds a little like gospel after 100 listens. And then let me know what you think about the song?
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1996. Print.
West, Kanye. “Only One.” Roc-A-Fella, 2014.