The fake and the real in Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got”

Every semester in Intro to Music Tech, we have Kanye West Day, when we listen analytically to some of Ye’s most sonically adventurous tracks (there are many to choose from.) The past few semesters, Kanye West Day has centered on “Ultralight Beam,” especially Chance The Rapper’s devastating verse. That has naturally led to a look at Chance’s “All We Got.”

All the themes of the class are here: the creative process in the studio, “fake” versus “real” sounds, structure versus improvisation, predictability versus surprise, and the way that soundscape and groove do much more expressive work than melody or harmony.

As in all Chance songs, the lyrics to “All We Got” are interesting and rich, so it’s easy to overlook how much heavy lifting the production is doing. You can get a sense for how much the sonics matter by listening to the cover version by Shawn Mendes. It’s pretty, but its conservative arrangement doesn’t have a tenth of the impact that the original does.

The production in “All We Got” is full of surprising and counterintuitive choices. To illuminate them, I’ll go through the track in exhaustive detail. Normally this kind of analysis requires a lot of guesswork on my part, but Chance helped me by giving some insight into the production process.

The song’s tempo is ambiguous. I initially heard it as 132(ish) beats per minute with a lot of halftime feel, but decided that it’s really 66(ish) with a lot of doubletime feel. The red marks along the timeline at the bottom of the image show slight tempo shifts. Nearly all contemporary music is produced on the grid and keeps metronomic time throughout. However, Kanye West played the drum part in “All We Got” live on an MPC and didn’t quantize his performance afterward, which creates slight tempo drift. Presumably Kanye and Chance felt that the live feel added to the overall groove rather than distracting from it.

“All We Got” is unusual for its wide shifts in dynamics. Producers of all pop genres typically compress and limit tracks in order to maximize their loudness throughout, resulting in a distinctive “caterpillar” waveform. “All We Got” starts very quiet, building gradually only reaching maximum saturation level in the first chorus, before falling back to moderate loudness, with a lot of variation as sounds enter and exit.

Structurally, the tune is straightforward, dividing neatly into four-bar phrases, each of which is a little over fourteen seconds long. The harmony consists of a single four-chord loop repeating throughout the entire song, though in places it’s more implied than stated:

These chords are all diatonic to the C natural minor scale, meaning you can obtain them just by playing the scale in thirds starting on different degrees. C natural minor contains the same pitches as E-flat major, and there are places where the vocal melody feels more major than minor. If you swapped that last Cm chord for an E-flat, the progression would still make perfect sense. This ambiguity between a minor key and its relative major is ubiquitous in pop music right now.

Here’s the song structure as visualized in Ableton Live:

"All We Got" - structure

Each four bar phrase has its own distinct sonic signature.

  • Intro A: Nico Segal plays layers of overdubbing trumpet ad-libs to create a kind of “trumpet choir” swathed in distant-sounding artificial reverb.
  • Intro B: Kanye’s drum part enters, handclaps on every eighth note for two bars, then dropping to just the backbeats for two bars. This will be the only drum sound we hear for most of the track. Chance opens with the line “And we back” rather than “And I’m back,” recognizing the collaborative nature of his music.
  • Verse 1A: As Chance begins the first verse, he’s joined by the gospel-style ad libs of Grace Weber. Some of these ad-libs are harmonized in thirds, which she presumably did by listening back to her improvised parts, learning them, and figuring out the harmony. This process is “artificial” in the sense that people can’t naturally sing harmony with themselves, but it reads as totally organic compared to the vocal sounds that come later.. The handclap pattern continues to be unpredictable, hitting all the eighth notes for just one bar before reverting to backbeats.
  • Verse 1B: The epic (and conspicuously fake-sounding) synth brass part enters. It’s joined by a brief trumpet ad-lib. Chance’s vocals pick up in intensity.
  • Verse 1C: You might expect the chorus to start here, but we’re still building up to that. Chance’s vocals go to doubletime. The claps gets fragmented and fast, then stop abruptly. The trumpet and gospel vocals are both wailing away it in the background.
  • Chorus 1A: The song doesn’t have a chorus, really; instead we get some ad-libbed singing by Kanye run through a startling effect nicknamed the “Prismizer.” It’s a setting for Antares Harmony Engine or some similar harmonizer plugin with the parameters controlled via live MIDI, a futuristic cyborg choral sound that Chance credits to his collaborator Francis Starlite. Kanye’s vocal is mixed hugely loud, too loud for my ears. This bit of “bad taste” in mixing might have been intentional. The gospel vocals in this section undergo a digital transformation too; they’re “chipmunked,” raised in pitch, an production effect long associated with Kanye.
  • Chorus 1B: A high-pitched and distant-sounding guitar enters the mix, and Chance ad-libs over Kanye’s ad-lib.
  • Verse 2A: The texture thins dramatically out, but Chance keeps up his doubletime vocals, and Grace Weber is still chipmunked.
  • Verse 2B: The final line of the verse gets Prismized.
  • Chorus 2A: The intensity builds back up as the claps go from every quarter note to every eighth, then every sixteenth; Kanye is presumably holding the pad down while changing the retrigger rate on the MPC. The vocals are strangely mellower here than in the previous verse, though; there is Auto-Tune but (I think) no Prismizer.
  • Chorus 2B: The Prismizer re-enters, again weirdly loud, with some new low octaves on the back half of the phrase.
  • Outtro A: The kick drum finally enters, two and a half minutes into the song, one of the strangest production choices in the track. The texture is just drums and Chance singing “We know, we know we got it” through Auto-Tune and fake harmony in thirds, plus one little tiny chipmunked vocal squiggle behind it.
  • Outtro B: We get the sudden entrance of the Chicago Children’s Choir, plus a mellow church organ. It’s a totally weird idea to bring a whole gospel choir into the studio and then only use them in the closing seconds of the song. But they retroactively set the tone; when I think of “All We Got,” I think “gospel choir.” They certainly provide a strong contrast to all the artificial harmony, not to mention the chipmunked vocals that continue above them. The drums drop back down to just backbeat claps again.
  • Ending: Just synth brass, non-chipmunked gospel ad-libs, and the children’s choir laughing against stark digital silence.

See the arrangement in convenient spreadsheet form. The specifics of when everything happens are less important than the fact that there are so many entrances and exits, so many different combinations of the different sonic components. The quilt-like texture reinforces the ear-grabbing juxtapositions of live trumpet and synth brass, real harmony and digitally generated harmony, synthetic drum sounds played with imperfect groove, and bone-dry closeup sound versus cavernously distant artificial reverb. There’s a neat parallel here too between the profanity of hip-hop and the sacred sound of the black church. It’s a lot of ideas at once.

So what does it all mean? A lot of the appeal of Chance, like his mentor Kanye, is the sheer unabashed joy and confidence they express, in the face of a society that doesn’t exactly encourage those emotions in black men. Carvell Wallace puts it beautifully:

What if we were free to be safe, free to be sane? What if we could dance and sing freely without being told we were too loud? What if our children were free to play, unconcerned, as they are now, with the possibilities of their own death?

We all pine for a world we don’t have. That nostalgic desire is woven into our most ancient stories. But African-Americans are, by circumstance, afflicted with a particularly potent strain of this human condition. We experience such an arbitrary form of institutional suffering, and have for so long, that it stuns the mind to think that we were selected for this for no apparent reason. And that it continues in all its forms. Subtle, aggressive, dismissive, violent, dishonest, seething — and perhaps, somewhere in our DNA, we can remember when there was another place, another land. But it is only a memory. There is no there. And for many of us, there is no here, either.

It makes me wonder if maybe the closest most black people can come to heaven is the freedom to speak without being told for the 397th year in a row to be quiet. Maybe heaven is just a place where you can let your voice carry.

Chance’s voice carries loud and clear, both as an emcee and a collaborative producer. Independent of the racial politics, his music just plain sounds good and is fun to listen to. But the politics give it depth.

 

Leave a Reply