This weekend, while I was being a bit of an insomniac, as is often the case, I decided to take a listen to one of the most unusual collaborations I have ever heard of. When I saw that a collaboration had been released from Kanye West, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney, I had to listen to it, simply because I was not sure at all what the result would be. The result was a very excellent song, one that is acoustic and “real” in the best sense, where Paul plays the instruments with skill and where Rihanna in particular sings with a great deal of sincerity about the downside of a wild life. It talks about partying and getting drunk (which is not something that has ever been particularly appealing) but also about the state of mind that goes into such weekenders, from the anxiety and frustrated longings that lead people to take their inadequate paychecks and try to drink themselves into oblivion while simultaneously hoping that they will make it to Monday to begin the cycle anew, even with the recognition that jail time may be involved because the partying may go too far.
This is not a happy way to live, and the song itself does not try to make it appear happy or joyful (unlike a lot of partying songs). The lyrics of the song, and its message, as well as the unusual group of artists involved in the song, are all of intriguing importance, although I do not wish to analyze the song itself directly, but rather its context. At this stage in his career, Kanye West has sold a lot of records and is in a clear effort to increase his artistic credibility. I may be admittedly biased, given my fondness for balladry, but singing an acoustic ballad is a far better bid for artistic credibility than the sort of excruciating art pop that often passes for serious music. Rihanna herself has been mostly quiet  for a while, since her last massively successful album, and appears to be settling into a happy relationship that will hopefully be free from the sort of problems she has dealt with before in past relationships. Perhaps this song is reflective of a desire to move on from self-destructive patterns of behavior that involve the use of substances to escape from the problems of life. It is regrettable that our natural instincts tend to be to seek to self-medicate in the face of intolerable challenges, rather than to seek the support of the like-minded, which perhaps might allow us to change enough of our world so that life not need to be so intolerable after all.
The presence of Paul McCartney is more than a little bit curious. Throughout his career, Paul McCartney has shown himself as possessing a great deal of interest in the music of the black underclass. He himself, it should be noted, came from Liverpool, an industrial city that is about as well-regarded within Great Britain as the steel towns of Western Pennsylvania where I was born. Among the key influences on the early career of the Beatles was the rock and R&B music and even the girl groups of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Towards the end of the Beatles’ career, the band as a whole collaborated with a pianist named Billy Preston, who had a few big hits of his own in the early 1970’s. After that, McCartney recorded duets with artists like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, which were hits as well. Despite the fact that McCartney had not had a hit single of his own in the United States in over two decades, this song (titled “FourFiveSeconds”) and a previous collaboration between McCartney and Kanye both appear to be solid hit singles, showing that both the younger artists and McCartney have something to gain from the collaboration. McCartney still has skills as a songwriter and musician, and there are still superstars like Kanye West and Rihanna who are looking for credibility (for what it’s worth) as serious artists, and the result of age and relative youth can sometimes be a track that shows wisdom and energy, combining the best qualities of both to popular and critical acclaim.
Sometimes it is the choice that we make about our intolerable circumstance that makes all the difference in the world. Do we remain isolated and broken and alone, seeking to cope with that we cannot overcome? Do we seek to revolt, looking to collaborate only to overthrow that which we cannot accept? Or do we seek another way, a way of resistance that recognizes and acts according to the dignity of our status as human beings, and which gives voice to our longings and frustrations in a way that accepts the humanity of others as well, and that seeks to demonstrate justice and mercy? Sometimes we may not be aware of what choice we are making. Rihanna, West, and McCartney collaborate together in a way that seeks to show all of them at their best and most unaffected, while their song talks about wildin’ and the threat of both substance abuse as well as the sort of criminal mischief that attracts the hostile attention of police. (It must be admitted, though, that sometimes even critical blogging or corporate religious worship can attract the hostile attention of police in some parts of the world, so that is not a very high standard to meet.) What is the choice that listeners of the song, and others like it, will be encouraged to make? Like so much else, I suppose time will tell.