Whatever you think about Kanye West and Drake – and there is a lot to think – both know how to put on a hell of a show. They did that last week, squashing their endless beef by performing a show together in Los Angeles as a benefit to free the incarcerated Larry Hoover (though, as Stereogum noted, neither said a word about him onstage). And as part of that show, Kanye’s first since 2016, they not only performed together; they covered each other’s songs while the other watched.
Since January, Kanye West has been exploring the spiritual side of popular songs at invite-only concerts on the West Coast he’s dubbed “Sunday Service.”
The concept is elaborately simple: take a song that everyone knows, fly in an entire choir (known as The Samples) to a new location each week, and have the choir perform the song with new lyrics and a decidedly gospel feel. Bands such as Nirvana and No Doubt as well as artists Sia, Tracy Chapman, and Chance the Rapper among many others have all had their songs gospelized by West and his amazing choir. “Don’t Speak” becomes “Lord Speaks,” “Fast Car” becomes “Great God,” etc. West has gospelized a few of his own songs, and the entire project is rumored to be a preview of West’s upcoming album Yandhi (release date still unknown).
Beyoncé – Before I Let Go (Maze cover)
Last week, Beyoncé surprised-dropped her live album Homecoming. It accompanied the Netflix film of the same name, which immortalized her lionized 2018 Coachella performance. The biggest surprise of all was the bonus track: a cover of Maze’s 1981 “Before I Let Go.” The original song wasn’t a huge hit when it first came out, but has grown to be referred to sometimes as the “black national anthem.” Beyoncé brings it right up to the present with a big production including marching band, new rap verse, and a sample of New Orleans bounce artist DJ Jubilee.
Two things strike me as I scan through our list this year. This first is that many of the highest-ranking covers are tributes to recently-deceased icons. No surprise there, I suppose. But none actually pay tribute to artists that died in 2018. They honor those we’ve been honoring for two or three years now – your Pettys, your Princes, your Bowies. Hundreds of covers of each of these legends appeared in the first days after their deaths, but many of the best posthumous covers took longer to emerge.
Good covers take time. That principle – the cover-song equivalent of the slow food movement, perhaps – holds true throughout the list. Sure, a few here appear to have arisen from sudden moments of brilliance, flash-arranged for some concert or radio promo session. But many more reveal months or even years of painstaking work to nail every element. Making someone else’s song one’s own isn’t easy. These 50 covers took the time to get it right.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
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Kanye West’s 2005 hit “Gold Digger” has origins that pass right through the heart of 20th century popular music. The story begins in 1954, when a black gospel group called The Southern Tones recorded a song called “It Must Be Jesus.” Its lyrics served as a warning to all sinners that Jesus is “Goin’ around” and “Takin’ names.” The song might have been lost to history, had it not been for a young R&B singer named Ray Charles who reworked it as “I Got A Woman.” The song would become one of Charles’ signature tracks and serve as an inspiration to Elvis and the Beatles, who both covered it.
Al Green – Before the Next Teardrop Falls (Freddy Fender cover)
Sorry, Beyoncé; the biggest surprise release of the year might be Al Green’s sudden return after a decade away. Well, not totally away; he still conducts weekly services at his Memphis church and, when I attended, was liberally sprinkling quotes from “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to the River” into his sermons. Best of all: This Freddy Fender cover sounds like Al hasn’t lost a step. It’s apparently a one-off, but hopefully recording it will whet his appetite to do more.