I have this Spotify playlist that I like to play from time to time when I have people over for dinner and that sort of thing. It’s a fun playlist, titled Classic Samples, that is exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of old, classic songs that various artists of today have used to craft hits of their own. And while the music itself is usually pretty good, I don’t necessarily play it with intentions of enlightening a crowd on Steely Dan or whatever. The real reason I put it on is to catch a certain look—a Pavlovian reaction of sorts—that always seems to hit someone’s face when they hear the part of the song they're familiar with. It’s a funny moment to observe, really—similar to watching those videos of dogs recognizing their owners after they’ve lost a bunch of weight or something. They don’t really know what to do with themselves once they've sniffed things out.
The feeling of that particular moment (which I now realize makes me seem like some sort of mad dinner party scientist) is what we’re going to try and bottle up with this exercise. We’re going to take a great song, and trace its most important elements back to the inspirational moments in which they were found. And today, we’re going to look at Kanye West’s “Power”, because out of all the things Kanye West makes (clothes, shoes, children), music is still at the paramount of it all, with “Power” serving as a gorgeous, menacing testament to that.
Let’s start things off by examining the foundation for the track:
It’s important to note that the original producer behind “Power” is actually Symbolyc One (or S1), who is the champion responsible for transforming the intro of “Afromerica” into the tough, war-ready battle cry that serves as the groundwork for Kanye’s version. The measure at the :08-15 mark is the precise loop that S1 speeds up, pitches up and layers under those hard knock drums that punch you in the fucking face for four minutes and fifty-two seconds. But where might one find drums with such a violent criminal history as those?
My favorite part of all this: the two songs, when played separately as a whole, are nothing extraordinarily dark. In fact, they are downright upbeat and funky. But when particular elements are combined, it sounds like the score to your mom walking up the stairs after coming home to a shitty report card—some shit is about to go down. (You can credit S1 for being such a damning talent that he could create something visceral enough to make me feel those things.)
The final key sample comes from “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson. If you're unsure, it’s that part at the 30-second mark where they say, you know, “21st century schizoid man.”
(I’m not exactly sure why YouTube’s only original recording of this song is filled with odd, goofy political memes, but the important stuff is there nonetheless.)
As a definitive post-hook statement, it is the pivotal production element that—when paired with Kanye and Jeff Bhasker’s lush chord progressions—elevates this song from classic to iconic. The term “21st Century Schizoid Man” has evolved to become a weirdly accurate assessment of Kanye West’s entire career-to-date, hasn't it? He has forever been an artist who knows exactly what he is doing with every granular part and piece that goes into his music. And more often than not, they come together to create something as fantastic as the original parts themselves.