Producers: Kanye West, 30 Roc, AyoAA, Ojivolta, David & Eli, Sloane
When the world heard the best song of 2021 for the first time, it wasn’t quite finished yet. On Aug. 5, Kanye West stood in the middle of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium at the second Donda listening session, as a haunting beat played. After a short intro from Kanye, Playboi Carti’s voice blasted out of the speakers and hundreds of volunteer dancers completely lost their shit, thrashing around to baby-voice lines like, “I just bought me some brand-new clothes, Dover Street Market!”
When Carti’s verse ended, Kanye got up off his makeshift mattress and started doing push-ups. Then the beat shifted. Deep, gliding bass—the signature sound of the Brooklyn drill movement—ripped through the arena, setting the stage for one of New York’s most promising stars to step up and deliver a career-defining performance. For the next 110 seconds, Fivio Foreign dug deep, letting us in on his demons, his paranoia, and the stressful tightrope walk of trying to move differently in the midst of life-changing success, before punctuating the verse by confessing, “I been tryin’ so hard not to move reckless.” As those words lingered in the air like a cliffhanger, Twitter exploded, immediately declaring it one of the best rap verses of the year. For once, it wasn’t hyperbole.
The beat continued to play, and Kanye ran around in a circle with an oversized coat draped over his body, as if a ghost was haunting the stadium. In that moment, it was unclear what was going on in Kanye’s head, but now it seems Fivio’s verse had lit a competitive fire under him, because three weeks later, Ye added a whole new verse at the end of the song. At the third listening session in Chicago, he unveiled the final version of the song, and it featured some of Kanye’s best rapping in years. Outside of one clunker bar (“I talk to God every day, that’s my bestie/ They playin’ soccer in my backyard, I think I see Messi”), Ye sounded focused, rapping about avoiding the wrong people in his life and praying that his family will never resent him, all while staying in an impressively tight pocket.
No matter where you stand on the over-the-top theatrics of Kanye’s listening sessions this summer, you have to acknowledge that the experimental rollout produced some incredible songs. If it weren’t for the stadium sessions, a track like “Off the Grid” wouldn’t exist at all. Fivio says he and Kanye made the song inside the stadium, recording until moments before the listening session started, while fans took their seats. And Kanye might not have even made his final verse if it weren’t for a jolt of motivation after Fivio’s part went viral.
The latest chapter of Kanye’s career has been defined by his gift for funneling the emerging sounds of contemporary rap into his own universe, and then sharing that music with the world in grandiose, impossible-to-ignore ways. And he did both of those things remarkably well on “Off the Grid.” Who else would even think to pair Playboi Carti’s impressionistic raps with the hard-hitting sounds of Brooklyn drill? Who else would literally move into a stadium and tinker with an album in front of the world until it was ready? No one but Kanye would attempt these things, and only Kanye could actually pull them off. —Eric Skelton