Kanye West Only One

Kanye West’s Only One, the new song he recorded with Paul McCartney and released on New Year’s Day, made me ugly snot cry. Not because I’m some grand fan of Kanye’s auto-tune or even care that much for the spare, nursery rhyme-styled keyboarding Paul McCartney lays beneath the rapper’s “808 & Heartbreaks”-styled delivery. It’s the words, man—the story and its backstory. One of loss and hope and encouragement and overcoming. Longing. Forgiveness. A mother’s love.

It took me a couple days to listen to “Only One.” Blame it on the premise: the lyrics are from the vantage point of Kanye’s mother, the late Donda West, singing to her son and her granddaughter, Nori. What’s more, Kanye truly believes that during the process of sketching and shaping the song, he channeled his mother. A press release accompanying the release of the song said that as he sat with Nori on his lap, he listened to the vocals, and, in that moment, couldn’t recall having sung the words and realized that “perhaps the words had never really come from him.”

“My mom,” he said, astonished, “was singing to me and through me to my daughter.”

And beautiful words they are. She reminds her “only one”—the meaning of Kanye’s name—to remember whom he is, to acknowledge that he’s living in happier times, to know that he’s not perfect but also that he’s not the sum of his mistakes and that he’s well on the way to being the man he’s always hoped to be. The lyrics that got me, though, were these:

Remember how I’d say
Hey, hey one day you’ll be the man you always knew you could be
And if you knew how proud I was
You’d never shed a tear, have a fear, no you wouldn’t do that
And though I didn’t pick the day to turn the page
I know it’s not the end every time I see her face and hear you say

Hello my only one, remember who you are
You got the world cause you got love in your hands
And you’re still my chosen one
So can you understand? One day you’ll understand…

And after she assures him that they’ll see each other in the next lifetime, she reminds her son repeatedly, “Tell Nori about me…”


Let me say this: Kanye’s “Only One” hits so very close to home. Firstly, it begins with his saying hello to “Mari,” a shortened version of the rapper’s middle name, Omari, but also my first daughter’s name. So there’s that. But also, the premise, the message, the music reminds me of my own incredible loss. It’s been 12 years since my mother died suddenly, and while I am nowhere near the blubbering mess I was when she first passed, I still have my moments when I just… miss her. What hurt me so bad then and what continues to hurt me most now is that my girlpies—Mari was three when Bettye went on; Lila was three weeks—will never know my mother’s embrace, will never taste her delicious meals, will never hold her hand in church, will never be able to snuggle against her butter soft skin and listen to the very beat of her heart, will never hear her voice or see just how insanely beautiful she was, live and in the flesh. They will never hear her prayers for them. For me. For us.

Still, like Donda did to Kanye, my mother comes to me. It is rare, but she does. On three very separate and distinct occasions, she’s made her presence known by appealing to my sense of smell with her scent—a very specific lotion she used to wear. The most recent time she visited was on Thanksgiving Day. I wrote this shortly after she left:

Daddy smelled her perfume first. And then it hit me in a wave. This was the first Thanksgiving that I made up my mind not to be sad that Mommy wasn’t here to cook and eat and celebrate family with us. As a thank you, she made her presence known. I love you, Mommy—and miss you just as much today as I did the day you went to fly with the angels. Know this.

Her visits are always jarring. Scary. At first, at least. But quickly, I calm down and tell her everything I can think to tell her: how beautiful and smart and loony tunes the girlpies are; how hard I’ve been working; how happy I am for my successes and how I try my best to honor them, even when I’m disappointed and sad and feel overrun with the day-to-day; how I’m growing as a woman and understand, I think, why she seemed so tired and sad sometimes and wanted desperately to be… free. Mom and Mari_MyBrownBaby.com

I tell her I miss her so. Still.

Her print is indelible. And like Kanye, I honor her through my art.

But his “Only One” reminds me how important it is to tell Mari and Lila about Bettye.

Tell Mari and Lila about Bettye.

Tell Mari and Lila about Bettye.

Tell Mari and Lila about Bettye.

If your children did not have the honor and pleasure of knowing their grandparents, please, tell your babies about them. Show them pictures, pull out those old videos and tell the story, so that they will know.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Haven’t heard the song but reading this made me cry.

  2. Such an amazing song and article. My mother passed when I was five so I didn’t get to know her as much as I wanted. I still have moment and memories of her. So many stories of how wonderful, giving, sweet she was. EVERYONE loves(ed) her and her beauty is so radiant and pure … I have a nine month old little girl who I know my mother’s presence is always here with us. This song is very touching and hits home for me and I will always make sure she knows her grandmother and how wonderful she was!

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