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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

As a production, "Otis" has blown me away for more than a decade

You don't sample and rap over Otis Redding and get away with it... right?

Unless you're Ye and Jay.

I make most of my Senior Year Soundtrack choices the day I write about them. I have a handful planned out ahead of time, based on a significant holiday, anniversary, or personal event, but most of the time my inspiration strikes late at night when I go through my list of favorite tracks or hit play on a particular playlist.

Tonight's decision was further complicated for me by the weight with which I viewed my two prior "revolutionary commentary" entries. I felt unsure of how I'd reel things back in after that. What ended up inspiring me was the proto-rap qualities of both "When the Revolution Comes" and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." I decided to follow that thread into my adolescence and relive my fascination with my favorite rap track, period: "Otis," from Jay-Z and Kanye West's mammoth collaboration Watch the Throne. It doesn't carry the heavy message its progenitors did, but it more than captures my attention in other ways. Ye's off-the-hook sampling of Otis Redding, who's credited as a featured artist, is the starting point for a fast-paced, brag-filled rap in which both artists flex their muscles with their rhyming schemes.

The production style for Otis reminds me of Ye's work on his inaugural record, The College Dropout — it's built on a R&B sample that he chops up and makes thoroughly his own. Sticking to that formula is gutsy, to say the least, when the record you've chosen to flip is Otis Redding's legendary recording of "Try a Little Tenderness." Backed by Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Redding's version starts slow before building into a frenetic, upbeat conclusion.

Kanye sampled two sections from the Redding recording to create his beat. The first is a little more than halfway through Redding's cut, consisting of the end of the third verse and the start of the fourth. That section, slowed and pitched down to fit the new tempo and key, is laid bare at the start of "Otis"; it's as if Ye as a producer is saying "this is what I have to work with — now watch me work it." The rest of the samples come from the accelerated conclusion of "Try a Little Tenderness," as Redding sings "Squeeze her, don't tease her, never leave her" with increased volume and strain, then later ad-libs and grunts before the song fades. It's these later samples that, along with one earth-shattering bass note, make up the bulk of Ye's beat. Redding's vocals become a melodic backdrop, above which Jay-Z and Kanye gloriously brag-rap for a couple jam-packed minutes.

Going back and forth between listening to "Try a Little Tenderness" and "Otis," I'm increasingly impressed with Ye's vision, his matching of the tempos in the different sections, and the fact that he somehow laid it down in 15 to 20 minutes right near the end of a session. The beat has this duality of 60s soulfulness and raw Ye production that keeps me coming back to it. (It's also not alone on Watch the Throne in taking from one of the greatest recordings of that era — "New Day" brings Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," incidentally the first song in my Senior Year Soundtrack, into modernity.)

...Oh yeah, and they rap over it. And they don't just rap over it — they alternate for six breakneck verses, each with their own rhyme and syllable scheme. The raps fit with much of the album's theming, as Jay and Ye revel in their own successes. "New watch alert, Hublots" references Jay-Z's collaboration with the French watch brand, while Kanye reflects on his musical successes by remarking, "I made 'Jesus Walks,' I'm never goin' to Hell," a statement that's only become more fascinating with time given his personal history, including his Sunday Service Choir. That latter line begins my favorite verse in the track, the fourth, which features some wild internal rhymes that run through my head more often than you might expect. "Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive" describes Ye to a T. He's been apt to merge aspects of 'high' and 'low' culture throughout his musical career to great acclaim, especially on Watch the Throne and his prior solo record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He follows up that line with my favorite sequence in any rap track:

I get it custom, you a customer
You ain't accustomed to going through customs, you ain't been nowhere, ha

Slow down, Ye! ...Actually, don't, because the speed with which he works the same two syllables ("custom") four different ways is what makes it so impressive. All the while, his message remains clear: he's above you, and there's nothing you can do about it. I also love how, after all that, he ends the verse with a straight-up dismissal of the audience: "I'm done, I'll hit you up maña— nahhhhhh." Ridiculous in the best way.

The extra James Brown scream samples at the end are a cherry on top of a track that does more in three minutes than most others could do in double that time. Verse after energetic verse leads upward into a release that makes it feel like "Otis" is lifting off; I dare say it captures that feeling miles better than "Lift Off," two tracks earlier. It's the perfect way to end a production whose soul is a sample — a soul sample at that.

I can say more, but at this point, you'll be reading this post for longer than it takes to listen to the track itself. I'll conclude simply by saying that "Otis" has stuck with me because of my combined love for the era from which Otis Redding came and the top-tier artistry of the contemporary poets that are rappers.

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