Hot New Joint: "Real Friends" by Kanye West
Yeezy season approaching.
How long have we been waiting to say that phrase but really mean it?
Following a year of false starts and one-off singles, Kanye West announced the release day for his long gestating seventh album, Swish,formerly known as So Help Me God. The announcement arrived following the maddening and perplexing release strategy behind a new single, the brilliant and breathtaking “Real Friends”—a song that may or may not usher in the return of his GOOD Friday music series and a song that may or may not be on the album’s final tracklist.
We all expected the album to arrive around this time last year, following the bizarre Paul McCartney collaborative singles “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds,” following the release of his clothing line with Adidas and the use of the song “Wolves” (rumored to be the first track on the album) during the runway show, and following the release of the bombastic single “All Day.”
Kanye ended 2015 the same way he finished out 2014—by releasing a new song, with little to no explanation, via the internet. Last year, it was “Only One.” This year, it was the tepid Nike diss track “FACTS.”
Arriving a week later, “Real Friends” proves that “FACTS” was just a piss take, and that Kanye hasn’t lost his focus, or his ability to make thought provoking, emotionally driven music.
Probably one of the most polarizing figures in popular culture right now, unless you are a fan like I am, you probably don’t think of the words “thought provoking” or “emotionally driven” when you think about Kanye West. If you aren’t a fan, you probably think about his public persona—his marriage to Kim Kardashian, the “Taylor Swift incident,” those unfortunate Jimi Hendrix memes that occasionally pop up in my Facebook feed, et. al.
Kanye has done thought provoking and emotionally driven before—with songs like “Street Lights,” “Coldest Winter,” and “Runaway.” And here, he does it again, with outstanding results. “Real Friends” is a stark, mournful meditation on friends and family, and the ever-widening gaps that, through no direct fault of our own, are created between us.
Part of what makes “Real Friends” such a triumph is the music—specifically, the eerie, distant, and somber piano loop that runs throughout, punctuated only by a sparse, skeletal beat to drive the song along.
The real triumph, however, is how West tackles the subject matter.
“How many of us are real friends,” he asks. “I'm a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions,” he states later on, before the line that resonated the most with me—“I couldn't tell you how old your daughter was/Couldn't tell you how old your son is.”
How many of us are real friends?
After listening to this song at my desk at work a few times on Friday, I posted that very statement as my Facebook status update—in retrospect, possibly a dumb idea that came off as ‘vaguebooking.’ My hope was that with the amount of times I had shared the link for the Pitchfork story on “Real Friends”’s release, people would get what I was talking about. And a few people did—but most people didn’t, and they thought I was asking a serious question.
But how many of us our real friends?
I have 567 Facebook friends. Some of them are people I see on a regular basis. Some of them are friends from college, or from high school, or even from grade school. Some of them are friends of friends, or people I’ve only met a handful of times. Some of them, thanks to that essay I wrote about “The Rabbit Life,” are people that I’ve never met at all, but sought me out on social media.
I couldn’t tell you how old your daughter was. I couldn’t tell you how old your son is.
One of my closest friends from college has a daughter, and another child on the way. The last time I saw him was a year and a half go—a brief exchange on a Sunday morning over a cup of coffee as he was passing through town. I don’t know how old his kid is. Four? Maybe five? It’s not my job to know that. There’s a good chance I’ll never meet his daughter, and I have no idea when I’ll see him again.
I think that’s why this song is speaking volumes to me, because whether you realize it or not, we’ve all been here; and some of us are still here. We create these façades of relationships, but how many of us put in the work to maintain a real friendship—like going out of your way to see one another when you live in different cities, or making time for that phone call or for keeping up your end of an email exchange.
How many of us are real friends.
It’s an uncomfortable question that “Real Friends” asks under the guise of a pop song. And it’s a question that is never really answered within the song. Sure, there’s a musical resolution—a sweeping, gorgeous moment right before the end, but there is little to no resolve for West, or for us. “I guess I get what I deserve, don’t I,” he asks, but no one is there to answer.
“Real Friends” is a transcendent moment for West and his career. It welcomes him back as a serious artist with an actual intent in his music. It’s not a straight up banger like “All Day,” was, but rather, it’s a song that actually has something to say—something that makes it its own special kind of “hot fire,” and it’s an evocative moment in time that in a sense, captures the awfulness of the human condition.