It’s one thing to be asked by self-proclaimed god Kanye West to perform on one of his sings. And, to be sure, when he deigns to offer you a chance to work with a creative titan like himself, you always answer affirmatively. It’s a whole other thing to actually outshine him on his own track. It hasn’t been done often, but these three mortals have accomplished the colossal task of stealing the spotlight on a Kanye West track. Commiserations to frequent West collaborator Jay-Z, but you won’t find Beyonce’s beau on this list. As well, Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” is a standout but an obvious choice. So, who was able to take the throne, if temporarily, away from His royal Mr. West from right under his nose?
J. Ivy on “Never Let Me Down”
Before Kanye was an ego, before he married Kim Kardashian and certainly before he upstaged Taylor Swift, he was a musician. And it’s a shame that people forget he still is. That’s why College Dropout will always occupy a special place in his discography. It came before the title wave of fame distorted everything about the rapper’s career.
One thing that wave seemed to sweep aside are some of the early, and now criminally overlooked, nuggets from West. “Never Let Me down” is a prime example. The sampling is expert. The vocals are passionate. And J. Ivy manages to steal the show from two towering figures of the rap industry.
J. Ivy, a poet by trade, actually won a Grammy for his role on College Dropout, primarily for this verse on “Never Let Me Down.” And it’s this literary past that elevates his performance both in lyric and presentation. Not only does he shout “If I were on the highest cliff, on the highest riff…in my grip I would never ever let you down,” he believes it, and he makes us believe it too. The passionately short pause between “never/ever/let you down,” his deeply rooted spiritual message and his obvious talent for performing in spoken word gives this verse an unparalleled direness. Like he needed to tell us, through this song, that we all matter, we all dream in color, and if we ever stumble or fall, J. Ivy’s grip would ensure he’d never ever let us down.
Rick Ross on “Devil in a New Dress”
While the most grandiose of Kanye’s hit-making genes carved out the first half of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, (like the anthemic chorus on “Dark Fantasy” or the King Crimson sample on “Power”) the rapper’s more reserved side, if you can call it that, found a home on the 2010 opus’ latter section. The first act an assertion of his greatness, the second act a rumination of his life in the luxury of his palace.
One track that stands out on the more subtle second half is “Devil in a New Dress.” It might just be the greatest song-length sample I’ve ever heard.
And leave it to West to be comfortable enough to relegate some of the mic time to Rick Ross. Lending air on this beat to the boss proved to be a ingenious touch to a near-perfect album.
As West finishes his verse, the confident strut of a man at the absolute peak of his career, the sample of Smokey Robinson’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” stops. A piano, a bass and a palm-muted backing guitar pick up in its place. Then, the gentle, though distorted guitar solo starts and ushers back the sample before Rick Ross delivers the best verse of his life.
The pacing he’s able to muster while still delivering lyrics at such a slow and deliberate speed is incredible: a literal rhythmic slowhand. But Ross isn’t here to simply brag, even if he is “never tired of ballin’.” There’s a few moments throughout the verse where Ross grunts so similar to the guttural moans of Biggie that it’s eerie. And when he spits that he’s “making 2Pac money twice over,” it isn’t so much to boast as it is survey his success in the context of one of rap’s legends. Ross is simultaneously praising his idols and gloating his accomplishments, all while trying to tangle with this devil in a new dress representative of the vices of the rap game he’s so ingrained in.
Chance the Rapper on “Ultralight Beam”
The Life of Pablo represents West’s least cohesive album of his career. And that’s ok, because the highs feel more similar to College Dropout than anything else he’s ever done.
The most obvious connection between the two albums arises from West’s transparent faith in God. Though, his spirituality is arguably even closer to the epicenter of “Ultralight Beam” and The Life of Pablo than anything else he’s ever done, and that’s including “Jesus Walks.”
From the organ effect kicking off the song to the chorus of singers preaching “this is a God dream, this is everything,” “Ultralight Beam” is decidedly more somber than his other religious tracks. Here, he’s less reflecting about his own personal struggles as a believer and instead focusing purely on the austere beauty he’s found in God. And thank that God he chose Chance to appear on the song.
Throughout his whole verse, the Social Experiment frontman exudes a divine calmness. His lack of nerves only signifies his spiritual fortitude. Chance raps like a pastor, guiding, philosophical and, most importantly, sympathetic. He acts like he’s encountered every demon, temptation and sin and still possesses an unflinching faith. However, when he repeats “this is my part nobody else speak,” you turn, you listen and you don’t dare interrupt him. And, dammit, he makes “this little light of mine” sound as redemptive as a baptismal waterfall full of holy water.
This is Chance’s part, and no one, not even Mr. West, should speak.