Each week in Sample Wars, we’ll pit two songs which sample the same source material head-to-head against each other, to determine which one rocked the sample better.
Kanye West is on everyone’s mind these days–the Post gave Kimye top billing over Edward Snowden on its cover yesterday, and Jon Caramanica’s Kanye profile blew up the internet–so in anticipation of Yeezus’s release this month, we’re going back to the man’s debut, 2004’s The College Dropout. “Spaceships,” an album cut that was originally planned to be Dropout‘s sixth single, samples Marvin Gaye’s masterful “Distant Lover,” as does Big K.R.I.T.’s 2010 “They Got Us.”
“Distant Lover,” Marvin Gaye, 1973 (samples appear at :13, :23, :32, and 2:19): Let’s Get It On‘s reputation for excellence in babymaking belies its astounding musical sophistication, and “Distant Lover” is no exception. Its arrangement feels completely untethered and free, but everything hangs together, anchored by a subtly melodic bass line and light, in-the-pocket drums. Kanye and K.R.I.T. both lift swaths of vocals; Kanye draws liberally from the track’s opening salvo, and K.R.I.T. employs a straight loop from its middle section.
“Spaceship,” Kanye West, 2004 (sample appears at :06): Though they’ve only received the recognition they deserve after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s skills as an arranger were in place from the beginning. Many producers, settling on the wordless descending vocal loop Kanye uses as his track’s backbone, would add some drums, maybe a bass line, and call it a day. Kanye adds muted, syncopated guitar and peppers the beat with more vocal interjections from Gaye (“heaven knows…”, “every night…”). It’s astounding how here, and in many other Kanye-produced tracks, he makes his samples sound like natural, integral parts of his own compositions, almost as if they never existed before he got to them.
“They Got Us,” Big K.R.I.T., 2010 (sample appears at :12): Remember what I said about how most producers would simply snag a loop from “Distant Lover” and add some drums? That’s exactly what K.R.I.T. does here (the drums are from another ultimate sex jam from 1973, Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More, Baby,” for what it’s worth). But it’s only a formula because it works well, and it does here. Like Kanye, K.R.I.T. is a rapper-producer, and he’s playing to his own strengths here, giving himself a strong pocket to work with and repurposing Gaye’s vocals and strings in service of a nostalgic, soulful haze.
The Verdict: Both Kanye and K.R.I.T. use “Distant Lover” as a background for telling the stories of young, struggling black men and women. K.R.I.T.’s verses take the form of broad parable, while Kanye opts for finer details, rapping from the perspective of a retail employee who’s (perhaps rightfully) accused of stealing, then turned around and paraded in front of customers for his “token” blackness. That sense of nuance extends to the production–K.R.I.T. is a more-than-capable producer, but Kanye is a composer. Each sonic detail, whether lifted from the Marvin track or originally recorded, lends itself to a beautifully unified whole.