Monday, November 24, 2008

Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreaks

Ok, everybody. Go time. What are we to make of 808s and Heartbreaks? What are we to do with Kanye now?

Let's take stock.

What we have here is an album with a fundamental problem (Auto-Tune), a driving message (heartbreak + urban isolation), and a dubious purpose (fame? wealth? change the game?). Let's see if we can understand these characteristics of the album, and, eventually, render a judgment.

We have to begin with Auto-Tune. We have to. It's a dealbreaker for many music fans. Classic rock fans despise it. Old school hip-hop fans--Roots crew followers--have a similar aversion. But what is it exactly? Jhuff explains it as a studio gadget

Usually used to correct minor mistakes done by pop princess starlets in the studio...

Instead of fixing little flubs, rappers set the correction time in the autotune to 0 (minimum) and boost the frequencies in order to get that effect present in Cher's "Believe."
What is most offsetting about rappers' use of Auto-Tune is that it feels unhuman. It feels over-the-top electronic, and part of the appeal of hip-hop is its genuineness. To some, therefore, Auto-Tune feels like a betrayal of one of hip-hop's basic principles: In the same way that we expect lyricists to write their own lyrics, so do we expect to hear rappers' actual voices, without the help of electronica. Auto-Tune, meet lip-syncing.

But let's face it. The world has gotten over electronica's influence in hip-hop. The fact that we know who T-Pain is is evidence enough, but you have only to look at Kanye's hit Stronger to see that electronica is at home in hip-hop.

So, sorry everyone. It's time to embrace Auto-Tune.

But what about Kanye's use of Auto-Tune on this album? I think it's over the top. I think it's abusive, much in the way that architects and artists sometimes abuse a new medium when it's first discovered.

Still, we have to be realistic about how Kanye uses it. He makes beautiful harmonies (Street Lights), catchy riffs (Coldest Winter), and passionate exclamations (See You In My Nightmares). And those aren't even the best songs on the album! Honestly, who can say that Love Lockdown wasn't in their head at some point recently? You're lying. You're lying, and you liked it.

See, once you get over the Auto-Tune, everything else falls into place.

This is Kanye's best album as far as lyrics goes, and it's no suprise--considering he doesn't rap on it. Critics have always called Kanye's style more like spoken word than rapping, they've always said his rhymes were lacking. That's fine.

From the very first song, you know that Kanye is bringing it here. You hear, "When I grab your neck/ I touch your soul" on Say You Will, and you lean forward. He's got your attention. You hear "I know my destination/ but I'm just not there" on Streetlights, and you nod your head in understanding. You hear "I did some things/ but that's the old me" on Heartless, and you begin to appreciate what Kanye's getting after.

The lyrics are truly touching, and that's just weird to say about a rap album. Love Lockdown, for example, contains notions of love and relationships that EVERY SINGLE HUMAN in the world can relate to. "I'm not loving you/ the way I wanted to" is a stunning line whose power only increases with its repetition. It is worthy of any poetry anthology. Seriously.

And it's not only about love. It's about fame and Kanye's struggle to maintain himself within a blinding milieu of fandom, media, and all the responsibility fame holds: "It's amazing/ I'm the reason/ everybody fired up this evening/ I'm exhausted/ barely breathing/ holding on to what I believe in."

So once again, Kanye takes us into his personal thoughts. That's why I'm on a first name basis with the man. That's why you can be, too. He lets us in. He exposes himself with ballsy vulnerability. I don't know if it has to do with his mother's death or the break up with his long time beau, but Kanye pours out his emotions on this album. I don't care how much of a gangster or a baller you think you are, you react to that kind of outpouring. It's human, just like heartbreak is.

(What is most amazing is that Kanye tells us what it is on this album, and this time, he does so without chauvinism, cussing, or homophobia. You could play this entire album for your little cousins. They might ask questions, but at least they won't be going around repeating lines about smacking bi*ches and doing drugs.)

Good art comes down to two things: (1) A specific use of medium, technique, and style; and (2) the conveyance of a universal human sentiment. Kanye has both of these things on the album. So yes, this is legitimately good art.

But the biggest issue this album poses is simply, What the hell? What is going on? Why push it?

  1. Money. Kanye saw that Auto-Tune and the honest, anti-gangster shtick of Lupe Fiasco and Indie groups is what's hot right now, so he decided to capitalize on combining the two styles, much in the way he combined a number of styles on Graduation, or the way he brought old-school soul into hip-hop earlier in his career.
  2. The self-driven desire to change the game. We have heard for years about Kanye's wish to be famous, to conquer the game, to dominate the world. What better way to do so than practically invent a new genre of music (he calls it "Heartbreak") and try to change pop culture forever?
  3. Art. If you check out Kanye's blog, you'll notice that most of the posts are references to contemporary art and style. Kanye is obviously passionate about art in general, and he considers himself a part of it. By making this album, he is pushing the artform of hip-hop, okay, but he's also pushing the entire cultural notion of pop art. Please see Lichtenstein, Roy, and Warhol, Andy.
  4. Bam. He's trying to change pop music. Not for money or fame or art, but to push the world forward.
I don't LOOOOOVE this album. It's not the best album I've ever heard. But the Mona Lisa isn't my favorite painting, either, and I certainly won't sit here and deny the impact it's had on art.

I don't know if this album is as big of a deal as myself and others are making it. Maybe it will go down in history as a big album, but no bigger than Illmatic or Blueprint or Ready to Die.

I do know, though, that if enough people get to hear this album, really hear it--I mean, listen to it enough to get over the Auto-Tune and dig the lyrics and have the melodies infect their daily routines--then we may very well see a gradual shift in pop culture towards the autobiographical, emotional, and personal.

November, 2008. The month that saw Obama win the presidency, the global financial system collapse, and Kanye West release an album that changed the way we listen to pop music forever.