It’s been a while since Randy Newman has been on the charts. But with his spoken-word cameo on “5 Year Plan,” a tender highlight from Chance the Rapper’s new album, The Big Day, the 75 year-old singer-songwriter has suddenly found himself brushing with the pop mainstream for non-film soundtrack work for the first time in 42 years, when songwriter scored a Number Two hit with “Short People.”
“My 15 seconds, or whatever the hell it was,” the songwriter says of his appearance on The Big Day.
The Chance the Rapper collaboration is not the only time a high-profile rapper has reached out to Newman, a longstanding Kanye and Eminem fan whose own fascination with hip-hop dates back more than 30 years to his 1988 wackjob genre pastiche “Masterman and Baby J.” In 2017, Jay-Z reached out to Newman to request permission to sample of Newman’s song “Baltimore” for 4:44’s “Caught Their Eyes.”
“Chance has a great sense of humor, and you can see it in his stuff,” Newman says. “It’s one of the great things about rap that I really appreciate. I do stuff that’s supposed to be funny, much more than anyone else, and they do too.”
Rolling Stone recently caught up with Newman at home in Los Angeles, where the singer is recovering from a recent knee replacement surgery, to find out how his latest feature came to be.
Did Chance the Rapper reach out to you to get involved in his new album?
His people called my people. So I went. It was a studio here in [Los Angeles]. I don’t usually have fun in the studio, unless there’s an orchestra and I have an audience, but this was fun. It was a great way to record. We just went back and forth for more than an hour. I played piano, but I just followed the chords of what their keyboard player played, so I don’t know if they used any of it. All the stuff I said on the record, I thought of right there in the studio. I wasn’t in charge of anything. It was kind of great.
What made you want to be involved. Did you know much of Chance the Rapper’s music when he reached out to you?
I’d heard some of it. And I’d heard that he was a good guy, that was paramount in my mind. I’d heard some of the stuff — mixtapes, records — I don’t know what you’d call them. The thing I’m on, it’s really funny. Chance is rapping his way through and then it purposefully just runs out. I mean, he’s talking about Applejacks, rhyming Burt Bacharach and Applejacks. He’s running out of breath. He’s a really good record maker. I think this song I’m on is one of the best things on his record, actually. And not because of me. I just sound like father time, when I come in going “the time has come,” or whatever.
Your voice works surprisingly well as a type of sage old figure giving advice on a rap record.
Yeah! It’s bullshit advice, too, which also fits.
“I’d heard that he was a good guy, that was paramount in my mind.”
Did Chance give you instructions, or did you just go off?
I totally went off, I think. He chose what was going to be on there out of the material I gave him, and this was really the best of what I gave him. He picked it well.
Improvising lyrics in the studio must have been a really different experience from how you usually make music. Had you ever done anything like that before?
No. I never wrote a goddamn thing in the stdio. I always had everything when I went in. It’s nice to get freed up from the old habits. There are different kinds of things I’ve tried to do over the years. I tried to write a song like Prince, something like that, just to see if I could do it. This was different. There’s not much point in me doing anything now if I don’t enjoy it.
What in Chance’s lyrics were you responding to during your spoken word bit?
The lyric that precedes what I said made me think a lot about time. I don’t think there was any prompting. I do wish I was in tune when I entered the song, but we can’t have everything.
Do you remember which Chance records or songs you had heard before he reached out?
No. I don’t remember what I did five minutes ago.
This song is called “5 Year Plan.” You don’t strike me as a “five year plan” kind of guy.
I wish I were that organized. I used to make records, and then five years later, I’d realize that I should make another one. I had really bad work habits, always. Now they’d probably pay me not to make a record.
I understand Chance told you that he’d been a fan of yours since he was 13. Do you think he knew you through your work on the Toy Story films, or was he listening to Good Old Boys?
I just thought about that. I don’t know! Certainly, he really liked “You’ve Got a Friend In Me,” that kind of thing. But I think it was more than that one song. I don’t know what he was doing when he was 13. Maybe he heard Good Old Boys.
“There’s not much point in me doing anything now if I don’t enjoy it.”
These days, you tend to take close to decade in between studio albums. Have you been writing at all since Dark Matter came out in 2017?
A little bit! That session inspired me to try something a little different, to do a track, maybe even a complete track. It’s what the Eagles used to, they’d have a whole track like “Hotel California” and then they’d pressure themselves to do the lyrics at the last minute. I don’t want to do that, but having a track there, and dabbling away, maybe you get something. I’m going to try that, at least a little bit.
I heard you had a knee replacement surgery last month. Have you been spending more time at home recovering?
Yeah, it hasn’t been bad because I was done with everything I had to do before the surgery. If left alone, I do nothing.
What does doing nothing mean?
It means reading and watching television, but not in that order, unfortunately. I watch sports, mostly, and that’s all. I got a family, and I see them. I’ve been writing some, and once I start doing that, I don’t do anything else. But I’m not into it hard.
I wonder what a fully “improvised in the studio” Randy Nemwan album would sound like.
Very different. But it would still be me. On Chance’s song, when I say “you can get over anything, almost,” that’s me. The character I’m playing in the song says he’s telling you the truth. Anyone who tells you they’re telling the truth is lying.
The album is near the top of the charts. I hope you’re happy with that outcome.
My kids, they were excited. I am happy. I got a new knee. What more can I ask for?