On Kanye West's Bitter, Bone-Chilling 808s & Heartbreak
Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak ends with a bonus track called "Pinocchio Story," a self-lacerating six-minute freestyle recorded in front of a rapturous Singapore crowd that presumably can't understand a word he's saying. Over a few bare plucks of acoustic guitar, Kanye moans and sputters about depression and blames himself for his mother's plastic-surgery death, all while the audience whoops. Kanye: "Real life! I ask you tonight! What does it feel like?" Crowd: "Whoo!!" If he wanted, he could've recorded "Pinocchio Story" in a proper studio. But the audience's euphoria here says more than anything that comes out of his mouth. He's telling us that we don't understand him—that we never could.
In the time since Graduation, last year's exercise in synth-rap shit-talk, Kanye's suffered both the death of his mother and a breakup with his fiancée. For someone whose lyrics already betrayed weird ideas about women (see "Gold Digger"), that's a hell of a one-two punch. 808s & Heartbreak, recorded in Hawaii in a brisk three weeks, is mostly Kanye's attempt to wrangle with the fiancée thing, and essentially amounts to an album-length tantrum at his ex. It's also his superstar-freakout album: his Low, his Trans, his Kid A. The one where he decides that frozen remoteness is the only thing that makes sense. The affably doofy Everydude rapper from The College Dropout has all but disappeared. Kanye's barely rapping anymore, preferring instead to sing in a whispery coo over ominously sparse electro tracks, occasionally adding in thundering tribal drums for chaotic force. And he's become about the millionth post-T-Pain abuser of AutoTune.
A word about that: Kanye West now owes Ron Brownz a fruit basket. Through his blippy earworms "Pop Champagne" and "Arab Money," Brownz has made the world safe for utter AutoTune half-assery. "Pop Champagne," especially, sounds like the handiwork of a 10-year-old who got AutoTune as a Christmas present. Brownz only barely manages to make a sound that could be described as "singing," and he falls off his own beat less than a minute into the song. And it's still all over the radio. Next to that guy, Kanye, who can actually sort of sing, sounds like an angel riding on a Pegasus made out of rainbows and ice cream.
Kanye is also the first of the post-T-Pain masses to use AutoTune as something other than an ear-grabbing gimmick. On Heartbreak, it's a distancing effect, an opportunity to push his emo bellyaching to spectral levels. "Street Lights" buries his voice under layers of effects, turning him as ghostly as the M83-esque shoegaze synths that lace the track. And "Amazing" takes a triumphant-on-paper lyric ("My reign is as far as your eyes can see") and—with Kanye's flattened-out vocal and a death-march drum-track—turns it into a grim lament. When Young Jeezy's voice roars in at the end of the track, it's a reminder of the full-blooded charisma Kanye has refused to fall back on this time out.
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Musically, he's dropped any connection to his boom-bap past, leaning instead on mechanized glaciers that justify all the Gary Numan name-checks he's been throwing around in interviews lately. "Love Lockdown" rests on a heartbeat-thump drum that recalls nothing so much as Björk's Homogenic; hearing it burst out of every passing car in Brooklyn this fall was a thing of wonder. "See You in My Nightmares" eschews drums entirely, resting instead on a burping keyboard and a fog of strings. Even "Paranoid," the closest thing to a club-jam here, sounds creepy as fuck, its sticky French-house synths conjuring coke-fueled restlessness. Here's where Kanye's recent Euro-dance influences start to take over, pushing his music into thrilling and unrecognizable new shapes.
But as open-eared as Kanye might be, Heartbreak doesn't reveal him to be particularly open-hearted. Even for a breakup album, it's almost frighteningly cruel and devoid of empathy. He's not interested in picking apart where the relationship fell apart or confessing what he did wrong. Instead, he stays in accusatory mode throughout, using blame as a blunt-force weapon. On "Heartless": "How could you be so Dr. Evil?/Bringing out a side of me I don't know." On "Bad News": "Didn't you know I was waiting on you?/Waiting on a dream that could never come true?" On "See You in My Nightmares": "OK, I got you out my mind"—a blatant lie. And on the gorgeously airy string-driven outro to "RoboCop," Kanye repeats over and over, in a tender near-falsetto, "You spoiled little L.A. girl/You just an L.A. girl." Yikes. Given that Alexis Phifer, Kanye's ex, is a non-celebrity with no way to publicly fire back, the album's entire existence ranks as a supreme dick move.
Even when he leaves Phifer alone, Kanye's words can be tough to take. On "Welcome to Heartbreak," he pretends to complain about the travails of fame while bragging backhandedly about his riches: "My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs." Because, see, Kanye envies the other guy. It's not the other way around. Not at all. The album-closing "Coldest Winter," where Kanye finally sings about his mother, seems designed to humanize all the bile that came before, but it mostly just makes Kanye sound like he's falling apart. Over a sighing Tears for Fears sample, Kanye wails, "Will I ever love again?" And it's more than a little unsettling to hear him using breakup language even then.
So, yeah, 808s & Heartbreak can be queasy and even morally indefensible sometimes. But that puerile sentiment also gives it its force. Intentionally or not, Kanye has tapped into a mood here that transcends whatever his personal troubles might be. With winter looming and economic futures looking scarier every day, the icy throb and barely contained rage capture the ambient dread bleeding into everyday life from all sides. Like that crowd in Singapore, we might not understand exactly what Kanye's trying to say, but, unlike them, we get the idea. This is a work borne of depression, and in the coming Great Depression, we'll need it.
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