Brow Beat

Paul McCartney Tells the Story Behind His Collaborations With Kanye West

Paul McCartney and Kanye West performing together at the 2015 Grammys.
Paul McCartney and Kanye West performing together at the 2015 Grammys.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARAS

When Kanye West first released the studio version of his raucous 2015 single “All Day,” I noted the surprising inclusion of elements of an obscure, 45-year-old outtake from Paul McCartney. Remembering that McCartney wrote the song after the birth of his first child, I wondered: “Did West and McCartney, who also recorded the parental ballad ‘Only One’ together, bond over memories of having their first children—and end up with this?”

It turns out that I wasn’t far off the mark. During a new Q&A with BBC Radio 4 for their Mastertapes series—which you can watch in full here—an audience member asked McCartney, “Who in current music inspires you to keep writing?” McCartney mentioned Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, and James Bay (who was in the audience), and then said, “I love Kanye.” Thus began his explanation of how two of his collaborations with West—“All Day” and “FourFiveSeconds”—came together.

The story behind “FourFiveSeconds” is a little more straightforward. As McCartney explains it, “A lot of what we did was just telling each other stories,” while he noodled around on an acoustic guitar and they recorded everything on an iPhone. Months later, when McCartney got the record, the Beatle didn’t even recognize his part, because West had taken one of his chord progressions, sped it up, and made it into the basis for a completely new song. There are even some high-pitched, unrecognizable background vocals about 55 seconds into the song that sound like they might come from Rihanna or a small child, but McCartney pointed out, “That’s me.”

For “All Day,” McCartney confirmed, the story goes back much further, and he explained that he told West the same story he had told others before about being in the hospital after the birth of his daughter Mary. He was looking at a Picasso painting of an old man playing guitar (presumably The Old Guitarist), when he noticed that the man was playing a chord that used only two fingers, and he built a sketch for a song around the chord and the broader motif of chords that you can play with two fingers. While they were hanging out together, he whistled the 45-year-old melody for West, but he didn’t really think he was writing a song. Much later, he heard what West did with it, which was completely transform it into “All Day.”

Though McCartney liked what West had made of his whistling and acoustic strumming, the only trouble was that the song now contained “like 40 N-words.” Friends were telling the 73-year-old Liverpudlian, “You can’t be connected with this.” He continued:

People like Oprah, who are a little conservative about that stuff, said, “You shouldn’t do it … Even black people shouldn’t use that word.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s Kanye, and he’s talking about an urban generation that uses that word in a completely different way.”

While so many of McCartney’s fellow classic rockers—from David Crosby to the Eagles’ Don Henley to KISS’s Paul Stanley—have been overtaken by a fogeyishness about contemporary music, McCartney has always been more forward-thinking than most of his peers. It’s refreshing to hear someone whose success predates and surpasses all of theirs talk about respecting artists across generations and finding common ground.