When Jay-Z decided it was necessary to sort through a lifetime of demons, rumours and trauma - both inflicted and received - on his 13th solo album, “4:44,” he relied on one man to provide him the musical fortitude.
No I.D., the Chicago producer who had been best known for his work with Common and Kanye West, composed every evocative, soulful beat on that 10-song confessional album, which on Tuesday became the most-nominated release at the 60th annual Grammy Awards, to be held on January 28.
While Jay-Z received eight nominations, including album of the year and record of the year (“The Story of O.J.”), his producer (born Dion Wilson) was also recognized in five categories, including producer of the year, nonclassical. (In addition to his work on “4:44,” No I.D. was nominated for his contributions to Vic Mensa’s “The Autobiography” and the Logic song “America.”)
On Tuesday, following news of the nominations, the producer discussed the trend-bucking importance of a one-producer album, how the Grammys see hip-hop and what might happen if “4:44” takes home the trophies that Beyoncé's “Lemonade” - an impetus for Jay-Z’s album - did not. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How was your Grammys morning?
A: I was so tired from being in the studio [the night before] that I actually went to a hotel in Los Angeles. I wasn’t even thinking about the nominations coming. I was passed out and I heard my phone faintly and knew I had a lot of messages. I was like, oh, I must have been nominated. But I didn’t understand the depth of what had happened.
Q: Were you able to speak with Jay?
A: I spoke with him briefly. We did the “Wow. Wow. Wow,” you know? He always has a streak of confidence that shines through: “I knew we had something great. Let’s look at it in a year, two years, 10 years - that’s the test of time.” More than anything, we’ve both been in the industry so long, so as exciting as it is, it’s also not like a kid with a new toy. It’s more like, we worked really hard to achieve what’s going on.
There’s a sense of joy for other reasons. I really enjoy the fact that that album meant a lot to him as a person and not just the music industry. We didn’t chase any of the standard things that you do to achieve success. It’s all about the artist. For him to be fulfilled as a human, not just about numbers or stats or money - he has enough of that - it was just fulfilling.
Q: You’re a veteran in hip-hop but not necessarily a household name. What does it mean to be nominated for producer of the year for this work with Jay, Vic Mensa and Logic?
A: I come from a very specific love of hip-hop. I’m saying hip-hop, not rap. That’s what saved my life. I carry that badge with a lot of pride and honour, and I really enjoy trying to raise the perception and the bar of what we do.
Q: How do you think the Grammys have progressed in how they treat black music, and especially hip-hop? A rapper hasn’t won album of the year since Outkast in 2004.
A: The only way I can view that is as a challenge. Outkast - the combination of rock and funk and blues and all kind of musicality within their hip-hop — they overcame the language barrier. We’re talking about voters who may not know anything about hip-hop. If you stay focused on what you do, you overpower that. That’s what Jay-Z represents to me. He bulldozes his way through these things. That’s the only way I can look at it with any sense of control of the situation. Hey, if I have to be three times better, I want to be three times better.
Q: When you see this current crop of nominees, which has been praised for its diversity, what does it tell you about where popular music is in 2017?
A: What they call urban culture is now pop culture. Sometimes the weather changes, the seasons change. We’re just in a season where the world loves this culture of music. Now everybody’s doing it, and some people have just been doing it longer. And so they’re just better. Childish [Gambino] is a master, Kendrick [Lamar] is a master. Those are not just black people. Those guys are great.
Q: Do you worry about Jay and Kendrick splitting the hip-hop vote for album of the year?
A: I’m not really worried about anything. Those voters will vote for what they believe in. We’ve got to do what we can to get the most people to say this is the best thing. Somebody said to me the other day: If you’re a kid and you’re selling cookies, you might think you’ve got the best cookies on the block. But if nobody else knows that, then you don’t have the best cookies.
Q: The last time we spoke, “4:44” was extremely fresh — you finished it days before it came out. How has your estimation of the album changed over time?
A: I’ve loved the appreciation that people have for it, but I moved on until today. I distanced myself and I’ve just been studying, working hard, thinking of new things to bring to music. I’ve got a philosophy I call “no dancing in the end zone.” You score, get back and run another play.
Q: Do you think the fact that “4:44” paired a rapper with a single producer resonated with the Grammy audience?
A: I would guess it probably did. Some probably just heard it as a body of work that sounds like a body of work. That’s always been key in other genres — albums that sound like albums. Cohesive. I think it’s a testament as well to what we can accomplish by not following the trendy way in — making the albums a little too compilation-esque in their production. But I would still give it to [Jay-Z’s] honesty and me scoring his honestly as the ultimate thing.
Q: What does it mean for Jay’s legacy that he was able to put out an album of this caliber at the age of 47? Rap is so often a young man’s game.
A: Legacy, legacy, legacy. He’s pushing the envelope. These limitations that he’s so-called breaking, I never accepted them anyway. Of course it’s great for his legacy. Deeper than that, it’s great for the art of hip-hop, music in general. We don’t have to discard people. Wine gets better with time. So does art. This just shows what an artist he is.
Q: Obviously you can’t think of “4:44” without Beyoncé's “Lemonade.” If Jay is able to win one of the big-three awards that Beyoncé lost, would that be a redemption, or does it just make it worse for the “Lemonade” loyalists?
A: My opinion is it’s not about the trophy. It’s really about the music. That’s how I feel. If I take out my feelings and think of the way the world perceives it, there may be a certain amount of bittersweet redemption. That’s the nature of the competitiveness of it. Trophies or no trophies, we are all just striving to do some really good art and help people’s lives with it. That’s the win.
New York Times