After the hectic, deadline-riddled sessions that birthed Kanye West‘s 2013 LP, Yeezus, producer Rick Rubin isn’t fazed by the rapper’s down-to-the-wire approach to songcraft. So when it came time to finalize “Only One,” West’s emotional surprise collaboration with Paul McCartney, Rubin was prepared for the track’s frenzied completion – a process that involved multiple engineers and alternate mixes.
“I was in St. Barths two days before the single came out,” the veteran “reducer” recently wrote on the annotation site Genius. “Kanye said, ‘I’m thinking about putting out ‘Only One’ tomorrow at midnight.’ I said, ‘Should we mix it?’ He was like, ‘It hasn’t really changed — it’s pretty much what it was.’ I hadn’t heard it in almost two months, so I asked him to send it to me, and he did. And I said, ‘I think this can sound better than it does.’ We never really finished it finished it.
“So we called all the engineers – and I’m trying to get all this to happen all remotely — and we got maybe three different engineers,” he continues. “This is the day before New Year’s Eve, and we’re all finding studio time, getting the files. Then they all start sending me mixes. I thought one was better than the others, and Kanye agreed. One guy mastered it, because it was due, and they turned it in. I had another guy master it, and it was better, but it was already too late. I think it switched the following morning. It was in real time! Like as soon as it was better, we had to switch it.”
Rubin admits that West – whom he describes as a “combination of careful and spontaneous” – thrives on the brink of chaos. And that stress is worth the genius end results. “That’s how it works in Kanye world,” he says. “It used to really give me anxiety, but now I just know that’s what it is. That’s how he likes to work. . . He’ll find a theme he likes quickly, and then live with that for a while, not necessarily filling in all the words until later. At the end, he’ll fill in all the gaps. He was upset at one point when I said that he wrote the lyrics quickly. He’s right — they percolate for a long time, he gets the phrasing into his brain, lives with it, and then lines come up. It definitely starts from this very spontaneous thing.”
“Only One,” a sparse ballad featuring McCartney on keyboard and West singing through heavy Auto-Tune, was written from the perspective of the rapper’s late mother, Donda, who died in 2007 following surgery complications. “Remember how I’d say one day / You’ll be the man you always knew you would be,” West belts. “And if you knew how proud I was / You’d never shed a tear / Have a fear / No you wouldn’t do that.”
Rubin says many of the lyrics “came out free-form, ad-libs,” adding that “the song is essentially live, written in the moment.” “Some of the words were later improved,” he continues, “but most of it was stream of consciousness.”
Elsewhere on Genius, the producer also shared his memories of working on other acclaimed albums and tracks – from Jay Z’s landmark single “99 Problems” to Johnny Cash’s brooding cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”