For at least the third time, Sir Paul McCartney has teamed up with a young African-American man for a hit. McCartney and Kanye West just released “Only One,” a tribute to West’s deceased mother, on iTunes and West’s Web site.
“Hello my only one, just like the morning sun,” West sings over the former Beatle’s keyboard vamping. “You’ll keep on rising ‘til the sky knows your name.” The ballad runs 4:42 – and ends with about a minute of McCartney tickling the ivories solo in “Lady Madonna” mode.
A somewhat mystical statement issued with the song described what happened when the Walrus and Yeezus teamed up.
“Kanye sat there with his family, holding his daughter North on his lap, and listened to his vocals, singing, ‘Hello, my only one,’” a statement reported by Rolling Stone read. “And in that moment, not only could he not recall having sung those words, but he realized that perhaps the words had never really come from him. The process of artistic creation is one that does not involve thinking, but often channeling. And he understood in that moment that his late mother, Dr. Donda West, who was also his mentor, confidante, and best friend, had spoken through him that day.”
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This is arguably the first of McCartney’s duets with young black men not infused with racial baggage, overt or encoded. First, there was “Ebony and Ivory” with Stevie Wonder, released in 1982. Key question: “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard – oh lord, why don’t we?”
The following year saw the release of “Say, Say, Say,” McCartney’s duet with Michael Jackson – the video for which, some say, referenced minstrel shows.
One academic thought McCartney and Jackson toyed with blackface without taking it on.
“The sequences of ‘Say, Say, Say’ will initially dismay anyone concerned with the fate of people’s culture,” wrote Smith professor W.T. Lhamon in “Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop.” “What a loss that the whole cycle of blackface performance should funnel down to these capers in a cross-racial attraction played out among stars ashamed to utter its name aloud in public?”
Lhamon also found fault with the video because McCartney as “Mac” helps Jackson as “Jac” into a wagon.
“In a just world, Jackson should be pulling McCartney onto the wagon, not the other way round,” Lhamon wrote.
Though “Only One” is not about race, McCartney’s alliance with West – the author of “New Slaves” who said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” – puts him in the studio with a performer whose provocative take on racial politics seems part of a different universe than those of previous collaborators Wonder and Jackson. McCartney, 72, can’t be accused of using young black performers to stay relevant. Even more than Elvis Presley or bandmate John Lennon, the man is arguably the most influential performer in the history of pop music, and need not polish his legacy.
However, McCartney has had to respond to accusations of racism in the past. In 1969, a version of the Beatles song “Get Back” known as “No Pakistanis” surfaced. “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs,” McCartney said on the recording.
In 1986, McCartney said the comment was not meant as a slight.
“There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever,” McCartney said, as Salon reported in an exhaustive piece about “No Pakistanis.”
He added: “If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favorite people were always black.”