Kanye West is, as we speak, the most famous and infamous figure in hip hop. As a man who has the power to create recording studios inside of professional sports stadiums and then live in them as actual professional sports teams are trying to use the space for their seasons, it’s fair to say that Kanye is operating on another level.
But before he went to lunch with Michael Cohen dressed in bizarre masks or showed up to his opera dressed up as the silver Michelin Man, West was a respected wunderkind in the world of hip hop. More specifically, he started out as a talented producer with aspirations towards becoming a rapper. It was his production skills that made him famous, and it’s those skills that remain his most underrated.
Perhaps it’s a bit strange to remember a time where West was the biggest producer in rap, especially considering his most recent arrangements. West’s modern productions aren’t slapdash by any means, but they do suffer from a certain lack of meticulousness and purpose that is in contrast with most of West’s back catalogue.
Case in point: the backing vocals for his 2004 hit ‘All Falls Down’. You could point to any number of West songs as having the best production work, but his ear for hooks and layering vocals is almost unmatched outside of ‘All Falls Down’. Leave it to West to rescue a small snippet from Lauryn Hill’s oft-maligned MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 performance to become the highlight of one of his most acclaimed tracks. Hill’s performance is raspy and often labour-intensive (as is the listening experience: the album seemingly goes on forever), but West knew that raw emotion would be perfect in bite size form.
Only he couldn’t clear the sample with Hill’s team. Enter Syleena Johnson, a Chicago singer who did her best Hill approximation for the track. Some of the best parts of the song are when Johnson briefly collects three or four layers of her voice and stacks them on top of each other to create a mini choir. Every time you hear it, it’s a fleeting joy that returns to the main single vocal moments later.
Of course, the acappella version of ‘All Falls Down’ also highlights the famous content of the track: West’s narrative about self-loathing. When the current view of West being stuck up his own ass gets repeated, it’s important to flashback to a time when he actually was self-aware (and not just on a joke song like ‘I Love Kanye’).
Here, West actually deals with his own insecurities in a way that seems like he’ll be better equipped to handle them in the future. That’s the only bad part about ‘All Falls Down’: we know now that West wasn’t actually equipped to handle those insecurities at all, and the way that he’s dealt with them can’t accurately be described as “healthy”.
But there’s still time. Check out the a cappella version of ‘All Falls Down’ down below.