There were only a handful of guests on the album. How did you all go about selecting features?
None of us are into having that many features on an album. I think that’s a conversation we had and I know Kanye’s not as into it now. It was a John Legend album and we wanted that to be the focus. Maybe it’s a problem more in hip-hop, but if you have a certain narrative in mind, having features can sometimes take away from that voice or narrative. It’s showing somebody else’s voice. I like that in hip-hop, it comes from a place of community. I just wish it was actually more collaborative. A lot of times these things are done remotely. They’re not even in a room together. Sometimes it still yields great results; I don’t think it’s all bad. Kanye will camp out and make an album somewhere and bring everybody out. You’re not sending music out for somebody to rap on. He’s bringing you out there to have a communal experience and an exchange of ideas. He’ll bounce off of you, get your feedback and take it into account.
Another thing is that John’s so good. You can’t just have any singer singing on a song. They gotta be great because he’s great. I would love to hear a great John Legend and Adele duet or a John Legend and Beyoncé duet because I think they’re fantastic. They can hold their own against a guy like John and he can hold his own against them. I’d love to produce and write a song for John and Adele to do. That would be powerhouse shit. We reached out to her but she’s not trying to be singing on anybody’s album, even a guy like John. You gotta respect that. It doesn’t devalue her. It’s special to hear Adele sing because she’s not out all over the place over-saturating the market and singing all over everybody’s songs. Being selective about it when it comes to features is the way.
So how did Rick Ross come into the picture?
The Rick Ross thing seemed right because in my view, as an instrument, Rick’s voice is perfect for that track. His vocal timbre and the depth of his voice, that’s the right instrument for that track. With Kimbra, that came together in a very spontaneous way, too. John and I had just written the lyrics to ["Made to Love"] and still working on it, and we played it for her in the studio. She was getting this melody idea, so she said, “Can I just go in and get on the mic and record it so we don’t forget it?” She was sort of scatting and stuff, just to capture the melodies she was having in her head. But as I was going through and editing them, I thought it was really cool the way it was. It was tribal almost, sexy and sort of primitive sounding. I chopped it up in a certain way and started working it in with the song structure.
Kimbra was like, "ehh I don’t know." I was like, "No, no trust me, this is fucking cool." I like the fact that she’s not singing lyrics. The fact you’re going to have somebody high profile like that on your record who’s not actually singing a feature. She’s more of an instrument in that way. That’s what we’re trying to do. Get all the right colors. Kanye’s good about that as well on his own albums when he’s choosing collaborators. We’ve never discussed that but if you look at the evidence of it, it’s clear that he’ll pull people in and use them as different instruments. What people bring to the table is just a different color and different vibe.
Any plans for the stuff that didn’t quite make the cut?
There’s actually another body of music that we have that may come out at some point. As the theme developed that we went with, we have some other music that didn’t quite fit that as perfectly as some of the ones we chose. It’s a whole different theme itself and, at some point, I’m confident that will see the light of day soon. I’m excited about that.
How do you know when an album is absolutely done?
It’s more about when there’s nothing else to remove. At some point, you’re adding, you’re building, you’re adding again. Then it’s about selecting, choosing, chipping away and removing. You want to strip it all to its essentials and not have any cruft. The artist knows when it’s time usually. Sometimes the producer or the A&R guy might say we need one more song. But generally speaking, the artist knows when they’ve hit their point where they’re like, I’ve put myself all the way out there. I’ve given everything I have for this, I’m pretty happy with it. It’s a combination of the artist knowing that – if they’re a real artist, which John is – and then also how much you’ve stripped away. You’ve tried everything. You’ve distilled it down to its essentials and it’s still great. The process is important. You wouldn’t get back down to the stripped down version unless you explored the built up version. Exploring those things is part of the endgame.