The beard . . . the scruffy hair . . . the perpetual scowl . . . the walking-Zoloft-ad aura of despair—all signs of a different Kanye West. These days, he’s fiery and five-o’clock-shadowed, suddenly unsure of all things, save that he’s not at fault for The Break-Up—the one that came fatefully soon after his mother’s tragic plastic-surgery-related death, thus distressing him twofold. Broken though he is, men don’t cry, so he’s gotta make his songs cry. What’s a rapper to do? Sing! Ferociously. Glumly. AutoTunically.
An epic clash between She and Him, 808s & Heartbreak is the musical equivalent of busting windows or keying cars, “Before He Cheats” now repurposed as After I Cheated. Kanye’s 12-track soliloquy is primarily an excoriation of ex-fiancée Alexis Phifer, dealing with his feelings the way men—sweeping generalizations here—typically deal with their feelings. By not, really. “Emotionally naked” is how Kanye described it, but it’s a bulimic type of emotion: He swallows his pride but quickly blechs it back up. It’s the Jay-Z approach: “Pretend to be heroic . . . but, deep inside, a nigga so sick.”
The result is an unstable but moving album by a man clearly distraught and uncertain how to express that hurt, so he comes across more defensive than analytical, dense with the type of raw, reactionary, gender-indiscriminate rage anyone experiences fresh after a break-up, when time has yet to yield perspective and depth. So here’s where I’m conflicted, as a woman, torn between loving Kanye’s (newfound?) sentiment and being disturbed by the resulting carnage. Besides “Hey Mama,” Kanye hasn’t offered many glowing assessments of women, often reducing them to “gold diggers” or “dykes” or “one of Russell’s nieces.” But misogynist is too strong a word to throw around, even now—it’s normal to hate a woman, even all women, after a messy break-up.
Still, Kanye’s position on Heartbreak is awfully harsh, with the defendant absent and thus unable to defend herself as he takes minimal blame and finds myriad ways to call her a bitch without actually calling her a bitch. She’s frigid, is the main idea here: an aloof, hectoring, unforgiving robot, who’s “cold as the winter wind when it breathes, yo,” not to mention “a spoiled little L.A. girl” and—pot/kettle accusation here—a “drama queen.” Kanye is capable of self-reflection and regret in other areas: arriving late to his godsister’s wedding (and then leaving early), allowing his materialism and thirst for fame to overpower him, etc. Love, he cannot compute. There, his language skews immature, controlling, and chauvinistic instead of introspective:
I decided we wasn’t gon’ speak, so/Why we up 3 a.m. on the phone? (You’re so funny when you think you can decide things.)
I’m not loving you the way I wanted to . . . I can’t keep myself and still keep you, too. (Note the echo of the famous Sex and the City line: “I love you, but I love me more.”)
I told her there’s some things she don’t need to know/She never let it go. (Don’t ask me about stuff that doesn’t concern you, even if it does.)
Just remember that you talkin’ to me, though/You need to watch the way you talkin’ to me, yo. (As a matter of fact, just don’t speak at all, ‘K?)
Luckily, the atmosphere was ripe for emo musings in 2008. Jeans fit snugger, rappers became wannabe singers, and AutoTune ruled the world—it was OK to be soft in hip-hop. Kanye’s crooning, by now, you’ve come to either accept (guilty!) or disdain. When a man’s fed up, ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. The Man Scorned can’t be too down on himself, though, because his pride won’t let him. It’s what Beyoncé tried to do this past year, too—or yearned to be able to do.
Start with “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” the indisputable ladies’ anthem of the year, wherein our heroine deploys ego as a crutch for misery. Ignored or spurned outright by some hapless lover (Kanye?), she goes out partying with the girls in her best freakum dress and flippantly teases her ex: “You had your turn and now you gon’ learn/What it really feels like to miss me.” Kanye, in coming to terms with his own break-up, also assumes the position of a brokenhearted victim grasping onto any semblance of pride on “Heartless”: “You wait a couple months, then you gon’ see/You won’t find nobody better than me.” But his version plays as tragedy; hers plays as triumph.
Oddly enough, then, that an extensive portion of the “Sasha Fierce” side of Beyoncé’s split-personality double CD I Am . . . Sasha Fierce, silly as it’s themed, flaunts her masculine side—more dominant, arrogant, and daring. (“A diva is the female version of a hustler,” etc.) The man-catering “Beyoncé side” is all ballads and vulnerability, as exemplified by the brilliant, double-standard-defying “If I Were a Boy.” Here, Beyoncé longs for the right to “Drink beer with the guys/And chase after girls/I’d kick it with who I want/And never get confronted for it.” Oh, to be Kanye for a day and relish his sense of entitlement.
To Heartbreak‘s insensitivity, Ne-Yo’s ever-considerate Year of the Gentleman offers empathy, constantly placing its sensitive soul man alongside and sometimes directly in the shoes of a wronged woman, a better vantage from which to constantly chide the other dude—as if faintly chiming in, “You go, girl!” Here, the defendant is often present and dominant; self-sufficient women even excite him on “Miss Independent”: “Ooh, there’s something about a woman that want you but don’t need you.” He is very much pandering here—best not to upset the ladies most likely to buy his records, right?—but Ne-Yo nonetheless comes across as informed enough that it’s hard to picture him sitting at home secretly humming “Wonder Why They Call You Bitch.”
So Kanye won’t let you see her side, Beyoncé wants to make sure you see hers but wishes she were on the other side instead, and Ne-Yo just wants everyone to make up, and then make love. But here’s the thing about Kanye’s lyrically vapid, messily sung album that’s the worst in his catalog so far, but that I still really like: A guy I know recently found out that his girlfriend of two years was cheating on him—he has “Love Lockdown” as his ringtone, and “Heartless” is now his anthem the way Beyoncé intends “Single Ladies” (and Ne-Yo intends “Miss Independent”) to be mine. In fact, the majority of my guy friends were surprisingly high on 808s. Kanye made this album in his very specific image, yet here he is, speaking for all the sour, brokenhearted males we like to think don’t exist—the side of relationships that hip-hop rarely, if ever, speaks of in candid terms. While other genres are steeped in girl-bashing records borne of love, not merely lust, rappers rarely bare their souls about women not named “Mom” at all. With Heartbreak, a visibly and audibly seething Kanye joins in the douchebaggery for once, and hip-hop is all the better for it. It’s a new way of seeing, by feeling.