Friday, November 28, 2008

Welcome to Heartbreak

Kanye West's heartfelt acceptance speech was the highlight of this year's American Music Awards, and it serves as a window into what informs his latest album 808s and Heartbreak. For one thing, it shows that he's a leader who shapes the direction of contemporary music--not just rap, but pop music; At the same time, it reveals how much of an egoist he is. These two inescable factors are what govern his latest album more than even the music itself.

West has created a work that is impossible to judge objectively because of those two things. If I had listened to 808s and Heartbreak and had no idea who made it, I probably wouldn't care. Very little about it is extraordinary to me. But what he brings to the art is more important than the product itself. There are no characters here. There is no artifice. The subject of the music, more than ever before even, is Kanye West. His persona and public role must be considered in any evaluation of the album. It does matter that he is identified as a hip-hop artist in a type of music that seems inceasingly oppositional to real emotions, and all this album is is a deconstruction of real emotions. At the end of the day, this is also a type of album foreign to rap audiences: the drug album, that drug being ego. Even Lil' Wayne sounds relatively sober on "See You in My Nightmares," compared with the over-pronounced bite of West, which brings home how obsessed and unswerving he is here.

In that way and many others, the album is almost critic-proof. Oh, you don't want an entire album of auto-tune? Well the auto-tune is just a metaphorical cipher for that bulletproof leviathan that is the invincible hip-hop protagonist, the unfeeling but warbly robot with a chip on his shoulder and a tear welling up in his eye. So if you don't like it, maybe you just, like, didn't get it.

I guess what I'm saying is that 808s and Heartbreak is easier to admire than it is to like.

This is because--ironically for a hyper-personal record--it doesn't really play to Kanye's strengths. For instance, it's incredibly cohesive, almost to a fault, when the most entertaining thing about his music has always been its contradictions. A gospel song next to a club song, something introspective next to something universal. This is the "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack," but he only has one direction and point of view here. With 808s and Heartbreak, we've seen what a straight-forward album is from him, and it's not all that interesting. Also, you're getting patently reductive beats from a guy who is known for sped-up soul samples and lush orchestration.

Still, all of that relates to the record on paper; I haven't mentioned anything about the experience of listening to the album. When it all comes together, on tracks like "Welcome to Heartbreak" or "Love Lockdown," it's a pretty moving, autumnal CD. West is able to sustain a consistent, unique voice over the course of the album, and there are some isolated lines in here like, "Dad cracked a joke, all the kids laugh/But I couldn't hear him all the way in first class" that elevate what can occasionally sound like fifth-grade poetry. The melodies on the choruses are a step up from anything he's ever done as well.

In the final stretch of the album, he makes some interesting, auterish decisions, such as including a freestyle called "Pinnochio Story (Live from Singapore)." What is a kind of clumsy performance is actually redeemed by the crowd's complete misunderstanding of what he's saying. His broken heart is lost in translation, and the crowd cheers as he confesses his unhappiness. Although he's being loved by thousands, he's the loneliest guy in the room. By being such a calculated artist, West is able to circumvent some of his own shortcomings to bring together the theme he wants. He is doing some things on here that are way more nuanced and knowing than could be expected even from him.

Interestingly, the song I connected most with was "RoboCop," which is the most obviously Kanye song on the album. Over production that starts off cold before being overcome with soaring ebullience, he kicks hilarious pop culture references and sing-song rhymes that are so silly they're smart. The fact that I left wanting more material like this shows that maybe the problem wasn't what he actually did with the album, but what I wanted him to do. I'm just another guy keeping him from being Elvis, and apparently his ex-girlfriend was too. I realize that he's attempting exactly what I complain about rappers never doing, and I still want punchlines about Stephen King.

Before this album, Kanye released the trilogy of The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation. If this offering were to follow that trend, it might be called Year When You're Re-Applying to Grad School and Working under Your Potential. It's charming in its own way, and you know it's only temporary. And while it's happening, you really hope the person can use it to better himself and find out what he really wants.

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