Kanye West's seventh album, The Life of Pablo, was released in 2016 and eschewed a traditional release, instead being exclusive to Jay-Z's Tidal streaming service for over a month upon release. The album has been revised several times since its release, with West reworking lyrics, adding guest vocals and tweaking the mix, going on to call the album a “living breathing changing creative expression.”. Four months after the album's initial release it was again updated with an additional song, Saint Pablo, appended to the album.
The song is built around a hip-hop beat comprised of a sample from the Jay-Z song Where I'm From, which is itself sampled from the 1975 Yvonne Fair song Let Your Hair Down. The sample has been layered with synth and piano chords to underpin Kanye's personal rap verses and Sampha's soulful chorus. At the beginning of the 3rd verse there is a synth breakdown with a Moog synth lead before the song returns to the 3rd verse. Check the Genius video for a brief history of the Saint Pablo beat.
The main synth in the verses was recorded from co-producer Mike Dean's Roland Juno-106, a cool 80's synth famous for its classic, chorused sound. The patch is simple to program and can be recreated in TAL U-NO-LX, a software emulation of the Juno series. To set up the patch use a single sawtooth waveform and turn off the sub oscillator. Set both filters to the halfway mark to reduce the sound to the midrange and raise the LPF resonance to the 2 mark. Then raise the env slider to around the 5.5 mark to start modulating the filter with the envelope, and set the ADSR envelope with an attack of 4 and a decay of 5, creating movement in the filter. Lastly turn on the synths onboard Chorus effect, using the II mode to get the famous Juno chorus sound.
An additional synth layer is introduced midway through song; it sounds like a plucked string but has a distinct synth-tone to it, likely recorded from one of co-producer Mike Dean's Moog synths. There are tons of Moog software emulations, and to create the patch just use a single square wave oscillator with the filter being modulated by the envelope. Set the cutoff frequency to 2 and the amount of contour to 3, then the envelope with no attack or sustain and the decay just below 600 to get a good pluck setting. Lastly process the track with some nice reverb; listen to the results in Arturia Mini V:
The synth breakdown that occurs at 3:53 was recorded and performed by Mike Dean, the song's co-producer and a collaborator with Kanye since Graduation. One of hip-hops most prolific producers, Dean is also a talented keyboard player and guitarist, responsible for the huge synth-basses of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as well as the guitar solo in Devil In A New Dress. Dean is a fan of Moog synths, and the following video of Dean jamming on six Moog Mother 32's at Moog's factory perfectly illustrates his style.
The above video should give you a good idea of Dean's lead keyboard style, he likes flashy runs but has a good sense of melodic direction, it's this kind of playing that appears in Saint Pablo, and I'd personally guess that the lead lines were improvised in a couple of takes. The lead sound itself is super simple and is a classic Moog lead patch consisting of detuned sawtooth oscillators with the filter and envelopes open. The synth is in legato mode and glide is turned up to the halfway mark to create the smooth sliding effect between notes.
There is then some really heavy delay on the signal to create an almost psychedelic effect. The delay is set to repeat the material a beat later, so sync your delay with your DAW. At first this creates a call-and-response effect, but towards the end of the passage the phrases get layered, creating an interesting swirling effect.
Thanks for reading! Hopefully you've gotten some insight into Kanye West and Mike Dean's production methods and creative approach. Check the download link to download the synth patches from the article and the Ableton session for free.