Every successful musician has a certain element that makes them stand out among the pantheon. Timbaland has the ability to infuse naturalistic drops in unexpected instances. (50 Cent tells a good story: he watched the uber-producer bounce pens in a cup to make a percussive sound.) Dr. Dre mixes his strings and keys with the best of them, soaking big band boasts in a sonic sea of stadium drums. Mark Ronson takes older, more standard elements and makes them pop and sizzle overtop thrashing drum sets.
Kanye West is harder to pigeon-hole, and there’s a good reason why he wants to be left alone right now in order to finish his next album — he’s a master. West once started long ago as a sample producer, stretching, speeding up, and slapping old R&B samples over magnificent, distorted drum hits. He experimented with digital sounds in 808s and Heartbreak, and lately, he’s been keen to make some trap music while every now and then going back to that sped-up sample realm for a quick dip. Within the corridor of his standout productions lies millions of fans, all of them choosing a music mural as their own and as their favorite. Some point to “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” “Gold Digger,” and “Flashing Lights” as some of the preeminent West tracks that will live in infamy, while others might like his more minimalist beats like Jay Z’s “Lucifer.” There is, however, one beat that stands on the shoulders of these giants, launching its chin in the sky and laughing down the clouds with a stentorian boom. That beat is “Impossible.”
I know what the naysayers say, and even approaching the subject of the best West beat ever is a dicey proposition, one where a writer and publicized option-shouter like myself needs to tread carefully. There’s even a popular website (do a Google search) that lists “Impossible” as one of the worst Kanye West tracks of all-time. I disagree. Perhaps it’s not the most rotund in terms of lyricism, but we’re talking beats here, and when we’re talking beats I don’t want to hear anything but “Impossible.”
For the Mission: Impossible III (it’s the best film in the series, but that’s another discussion) soundtrack, West famously tried to sample the original theme music to create a hip-hop beat — he failed. Instead, he applied his sampling prowess to New Birth’s rendition of “It’s Impossible,” and — foretelling the experimentation, diligence, and creativity that would later describe his work — folded in horn sections, digital quirks, sweeping strings, scattered vocal samples, and somehow, just somehow, was able to blanket the voices of Twista and Keyshia Cole atop the musical tapestry.
It’s really an amazing feat that, with all of the sounds and instruments that Kanye throws into the beat, it still had enough room for vocal pieces. Listen to the song. I mean really listen. Never mind the way Kanye weaves the sample in and out of the work — we already knew he could do that with the deftness and patience of a preying cheetah. Listen to the intricate hand drums, the way he double taps the kick drum in certain places, the woodwind work that comes during the song’s final moments, and the way he slaps vocal stunts back and forth in stereo. The knotty manner in which he achieves the unified aesthetic is enough to make you want to cry.
And I did. I did cry when I heard “Impossible” for the first time. Because I knew that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much effort (in one interview that I can’t find, Kanye said he spent more time making this beat than any other track he produced) I applied to my own musical ventures, nothing — absolutely nothing — I ever do will sound as good as “Impossible.”
And I’m okay with that.