When you first hear the opening seconds of the song "Sanctified," by Rick Ross, your instinct might be to give credit to Kanye West, who co-produced it, for finding one of the most breathtaking vocal samples in hip-hop history. Even if you've never really listened to old gospel music, the melody seems like a recovered treasure, recorded by a woman with a voice weathered by air that no longer circulates on this earth. None of that is true, though: "Sanctified," the best track on Ross's new album, "Mastermind," and probably the best rap song of the year so far, is not built around a rediscovered sample. Instead, the song owes its existence to a last-minute favor called in to the soul singer Betty Wright, late one night in February, just as Wright was drifting off to sleep in her chair after a long day of vocal coaching.
"I was saying, Boy, if I could just get up those steps, get in my bed - I'm not even taking a bath till the morning," Wright, who is sixty years old, said in an interview on a recent Sunday afternoon, not long after getting home from church. But, when her phone rang, she answered it. On the line was DJ Khaled, the Miami-based hip-hop impresario, who is responsible for some of the biggest hip-hop hits in recent memory. Khaled is also one of Betty Wright's best friends in town, along with Puff Daddy, whose New Year's Eve party she never misses, and Lil Wayne, whom she's known since he was fifteen and whom she trained in the art of breathing, phrasing, and pitch. Wright is close with other rappers, too: a few years back, she recorded an album with the Roots, and in 2001 she helped Trick Daddy, whom she has also known forever, wrangle a chorus of schoolchildren to sing the hook on his single "I'm a Thug."