By Elias Leight
When Teyana Taylor’s new album arrives on Friday, it will mark the end of a bold experiment in distribution: Five seven-track albums over five weeks, each produced by Kanye West. Less remarked upon is the fact that West is overseeing an album by an R&B singer – a rare activity for a man who’s become synonymous with testing the limits of hip-hop.
This was not always the case. West’s affinity for the nuances of R&B – the myriad ways that great vocalists and impeccable arrangements could be sampled, manipulated and then re-born – was the key to his early rise. His breakout moment, producing “This Can’t Be Life” for Jay-Z on The Dynasty, involved flipping the distraught Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes classic “I Miss You.” On West’s own song “Last Call,” he described that exact moment as “the resurgence of the soul sound.” Not “the soul sound in hip-hop” – just “the soul sound.”
West’s beloved early work was a treasure-trove of these soul-referencing tracks – the Originals’ “Sunrise” reappearing in Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back,” the Marvelettes “After All” popping up in Jay-Z’s “Poppin’ Tags,” and more famously, Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” ping-ponging through West’s very first solo single, “Through the Wire.” “When he did the Chaka sample, I was drawn in from day one,” says the singer Inoj, who co-wrote Janet Jackson’s “My Baby,” another superlative West R&B production. “He’s a master of creating tracks with that nostalgic feeling.”
“Slow Jamz,” which appeared alongside “Through the Wire” on West’s debut album, is a rapper’s love-letter to R&B. The remarkable sample pays homage to the coda of Luther Vandross’s “A House Is Not a Home,” a virtuosic pinnacle of sentimental soul, while Jamie Foxx’s hook makes a smooth argument for expanding the R&B canon, which is often heavily focused on a small number of pre-hip-hop acts: “She said she want some Ready for the World, some New Edition/Some Minnie Ripperton will definitely set this party off right.”
But West wasn’t just evangelizing for R&B oldies during this period. He was also actively working with the genre’s next-generation stars. The centerpiece of Monica’s million-selling After the Storm album is “Knock Knock,” a West co-production. He transformed a tearful 1977 track, The Masqueraders’ “It’s a Terrible Thing to Waste Your Love,” into something cool and contemptuous, full of steely keyboards and stony bass. Monica uses this as the basis for a gloating kiss-off to an inattentive partner: “Do just what you want any time that you really like,” she sings. “I put a payment on my place, you’ll be sleeping alone tonight.”
The opulent arrangements, unhurried tempos and fierce ache of orchestral soul ballads from the second half of the Seventies have inspired many a great sampler. West returned to that hallowed period later in 2003 while producing Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name.” Roughly halfway through the Main Ingredient’s “Let Me Prove My Love to You,” the vocal group vamps through a comforting series of “oohs” and “ahs” as the piano plays a long, silvery line. West isolated this sequence and looped it for Keys, who coated the track with her lavish vocals. The resulting single peaked at Number Three on the Hot 100 and earned West one of his first Grammys, the award for Best R&B Song.
The Grammys’ embrace of West’s version of R&B makes perfect sense – the Recording Academy has proven, time and time again, to be endlessly nostalgic for pop’s past, and West has a gift for bringing old soul into the present. Early in his career as a producer, West also met the songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Dave Tozer and the singer John Legend, who shared his mission. “We were looking to marry hip-hop with classic soul music,” Tozer says. “Kanye was doing that too.” Both men worked heavily on John Legend’s Get Lifted, which took home the Best R&B Album Grammy.
West’s knack for getting singers on the charts and into awards shows led to a spurt of new R&B activity. Janet Jackson used him three times for 2004’s platinum-certified Damita Jo – see the charmingly slippery “My Baby” and the candied throwback “I Want You,” which sampled B. T. Express’ 1976 recording of “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Similar to Jackson, Brandy turned to West for a pair of tracks on her gold-selling Afrodisiac album.
These were both established acts, but when the underrated singer Leela James debuted in 2005 with A Change Is Gonna Come, she used a pair of slick beatsfrom West. Keyshia Cole, who debuted the same year with The Way It Is, enlisted West for her album’s second track, “I Changed My Mind.”
The Way It Is sold a million copies, which now seems like a shockingly high number for a debut album from an R&B singer. Talented acts that came after Cole, including Jazmine Sullivan, Keri Hilson and Elle Varner, were unable to come close to matching that mark, in part because R&B’s commercial power waned in the second half of the 2000s. At the same time, West’s clout in hip-hop was skyrocketing – “Gold Digger” crossed over and reached Number One on the Hot 100 – which meant there were few incentives for him to continue producing R&B.
“The demand is more for hip-hop, the money is more in hip-hop,” says Syleena Johnson, who re-sang a Lauryn Hill sample for West on the College Dropout track “All Falls Down.” “It doesn’t benefit [West] to be in R&B financially. Being placed on a big rap record is gonna get you, what, $60-70K? As opposed to being on a Tank record, which is gonna get you $10K. One set of artists is going to make most of their money on the road, which is Tank. The other set of the artists is gonna get radio spins, which is gonna benefit the producer.”
It’s not surprising, then, that after 2005 – the year West produced Johnson’s “Bulls-Eye (Suddenly)” – he mostly left R&B behind. Aside from executive producing Legend’s 2013 album Love in the Future, West amassed more production credits on R&B songs in 2003, 2004 and 2005 than he did in the subsequent 13 years combined, though he would still, from time to time, mine R&B samples in his work.
Even when he did turn back to R&B, it didn’t seem to have his full attention. He produced Beyoncé’s “Party” in 2011, which was underwhelming despite the tantalizing combination of both Beyoncé and Andre 3000; Legend’s Love in the Future is remembered almost entirely for “All of Me,” which has little connection to West’s aesthetic. (Tozer co-produced that single.) “Tell Your Friends,” a supremely haughty cut from the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, was more successful, perhaps because West returned to one of his favorite decades for the sample material: Soul Dog’s “Can’t Stop Loving You” came out in 1976.
Still, West’s infrequent presence in R&B over the last decade hasn’t diminished Johnson’s enthusiasm for his work in the genre; she’ll be listening to the new Teyana Taylor album on Friday. “You know production-wise it’s gonna be unique,” Johnson says. “With Kanye, you always want to see what happens.”