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Technique

The classic Kanye West sound, in full effect on "Through The Wire", is a soul-drenched mashup of classic R&B samples—often with the vocals sped up to boost the pitch to squeaky "Alvin & The Chipmunks" levels—with richly layered new instrumentation. The resulting sound is both nostalgic and fresh—classic soul for the twenty-first century.

The first, and most important, building block for "Through The Wire" is an old Chaka Khan song from the early 1980s. Chaka's "Through The Fire" was a soulful—if, like many '80s songs, somewhat overproduced—slow jam that peaked at #60 on the Billboard chart back in 1984. It's the kind of song that you're still likely to hear on "soft rock" or "easy listening" radio stations today—not, at first listen, the kind of song that you'd peg as a likely candidate for re-imagination into a hip-hop scorcher.

But Kanye West heard something more. A sped-up, Chipmunkified version of Chaka Khan's original melody serves as the chorus of Kanye's version; Chaka's lyrics establish the song's central theme of triumph through adversity (although in Kanye's reinterpretation, the love interest here is hip-hop itself rather than an actual lover):

Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall
For a chance to be with you, I'd gladly risk it all
Through the fire, through whatever come what may
For a chance at loving you, I'd take it all away
Right down to the wire, even through the fire


In Kanye's production, the Chaka Khan tune serves as more than just the chorus. He also uses a sample of her singing in the background behind his own rap verses, adding to the richly layered sonic texture of the song. More subtly, he loops a brief sample of Chaka Khan's instrumental outro—a keyboard and guitar riff that appears as something of an afterthought in the original song—to form the heart of his own version's instrumentation.

Put all of that on top of a new rhythmic foundation more typical of hip-hop than '80s crooner tunes (heavy bassline, uptempo drum programming, extra percussion from bongos and hand-claps) and voila—we have "Through The Wire," a tune that doesn't just recycle Chaka Khan's song but positively reinvents it into something simultaneously new and old.

The approach to reworking old material here is utterly typical for Kanye West's early productions; by the time he recorded "Through The Wire," he had already produced big hits by reinterpreting classic soul and R&B acts like the Jackson 5 (in Jay-Z's "H.O.V.A."), Nina Simone (in Talib Kweli's "Get By"), Gladys Knight (in Scarface's "In Cold Blood"), and Bobby "Blue" Bland (in Jay-Z's "Heart of the City"). His treatment of Chaka Khan in "Through The Wire" was very much in the same spirit; appropriately for his first single, "Through The Wire" was the Kanye West sound.

The one area where the song stands out as a bit of a sonic oddball in the Kanye West discography is in his rap delivery. At the song's title obviously reminds us, at the time the song was recorded, Kanye's jaw was still wired shut following his reconstructive surgery; as a result, his rapping here is much more slurred and perhaps a bit more monotonous than his usual laid-back but not laconic flow.
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