808s and Heartbreak
(Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam; 2008)
By Chet Betz | 26 November 2008
808s and Heartbreak is everything it wants to be and so much less. By severally achieving all of its goals it relegates them to sum total fail; it’s emo-ism disaffected and disinfected by technological pursuits; it feigns catharsis but treads depression’s cycles; it’s robotic when Kanye must imagine it to be neo-neo-soul; and it’s funny, as evidenced by just about any lyrical excerpt I could throw at you but especially “Robocop.” It wants to be Marvin Gaye meets Daft Punk but it’s more like T-Pain meets Coldplay. Graduation (2007) was a bit of a disappointment for me but still I concluded that it was “constantly compelling in how it splays the conflicted makings of its maker.” With Ye perhaps unable to process fully the level of personal turmoil he’s experienced in the past year, all things conflicted and contradicted are here coolly obliterated into a mellifluous wash. So Heartbreak acknowledges its pain without much pain in its voice. Because, after all, this is distilled pop. Or: “Pain-pop” with both sides of the hyphenate put into absolute, mutually canceling balance. How you feel about this record will depend in large part on how you feel about its multi-functionality at gulping down the universe while vomiting lament, at encasing melodrama in zeitgeist, at defining urban radio trend as the new New Wave…at a Tears for Fears rip (“Coldest Winter”) on a record with Lil Wayne. On my side of the divide the dour one-note largesse just sits there like a fat lump, flattening all intrigue and any ability to love. I’d rather listen to The-Dream.
Ye has trapped his heartbreak in an 808 cage, keys and strings keening with stilted pomp over thumping heartbeats; “Welcome to Heartbreak” sounds like a Riverdance routine. And while tracks like “Street Lights” and “Bad News” seem effective enough examples of Kanye’s shiny new effervescence—amorphous gloss employed liberally like James Cameron’s favorite computer effect circa The Abyss and T2—they make about as much impact as a slung rubber band in this album’s interminable march of melancholy, especially when they culminate in a dead-on-arrival track like “See You in My Nightmares.” Tagged on the tail end of it all there’s a six-minute supposed freestyle (right, Kanye, I saw that SNL) that should have played over the credits of Synecdoche, New York, that’s how bleakly self-interested this shit is. Colleague David Abravanel states that Heartbreak “represents everything wrong with popular music and hipsterism and player culture, all rolled into one.” If only. I’m sure Ye hopes the record ends up that trendy but, regardless of whether it gets treated that way, this is really just Kanye West’s broken-heart-on-lapel grandiloquence rendered into a nice tall glass of pasteurized despair. Kanye himself is drinking milk from the cold teat of his own misery, neutrally nourished in the creamiest, most flavorless way possible. Excluded, we all get to watch him suck.
Knowing that most of this record is probably about his ex-fiance and the last song proper is definitely about his mom who passed away in November of last year, we should probably find this thing a hard pill to swallow—but the pill is very, very coated. Some rank bile that bubbles up through the antiseptic surface of this record is the only thing that keeps me from skipping right off the top every time I try to dive in. “Rank bile” = Jeezy’s groans on “Amazing.” Also, the jungle siren in the last half minute of “Love Lockdown.” Then, when Kanye howls into distortion on “Heartless,” it’s the one moment he manages to tweak his vocals into the mere vicinity of affecting. “Paranoid,” on the other hand, is just certified excellence. I think it has something to do with Kanye emphasizing the simple pleasure of the synth chords and even more to do with the hook belonging to Mr. Hudson, someone who can actually sing. So there’s the elephant in the room: What do I think about all the auto-tune? In and of itself, I don’t really think anything about it. It’s a tool. I mean, Akon and T-Pain aren’t awful because they use auto-tune, they’re awful because they’re awful. Auto-tune can get grating when you have a whole album that relies on it (which Heartbreak totally does) but I’m limelighting my point about this device not because Kanye uses it as a technical crutch (which he totally does) but rather because I think he uses it as an emotional mask (as a rapper who can barely rap a bar about Armani without getting choked up). To clarify this claim I’m gonna resort to chalkboard tactics. Sorry:
With the advent of the recording era melodic emphasis and repetition in vocals for the masses moved from cantos, hymns, and bar songs to blues music, where the pathos was largely contained in the pairing of a simple progression with a voice full of character. In soul music this was compounded with the expressive technical ability of the voice and more lush accompaniment. In the pop arena the centrality of the singer’s voice to a song’s emotional elucidation was somewhat reduced in an attempt to balance with the demands of tight arrangement and the almost scientific advancement of production mechanics, a balance that has been in tug-of-war ever since. Ahem…Which brings me long way ‘round to where I started; as a hip-hop icon coming at pop from a different avenue, Kanye’s all-out attempt bypasses the historical evolution and thus runs into deficiency. “Runs” is too active a verb, though. Heartbreak is musical stasis. It’s atrophy. These simple melodies are begotten to barely dynamic production and vocals on life support that cannot nurture them physically or emotionally. “Love Lockdown” would be a great song if a singer were singing it, if it were locked into the flow of a crooner’s cadences rather than the choppy emulations of a so-so rapper with his techno-cheat. But I feel that, whether or not Yeezy wants to cop to the ultimate non-efffect this music has on the listener, this record’s attributes are exactly the attributes he wanted it to have, exactly how he imagined them fitting together, projecting exactly the vulnerable-but-not-vulnerable, distorted-yet-flat image of himself that he wanted to project in all-encompassing CinemaScope. Again, pain-pop.
And, as Clay Purdom said to me the other day when I went pining for a sample on this record, “Kanye sneers at samples, Betz. Samples cannot express his loneliness.” So we have musical components as transparencies, so devoutly do they make way for Kanye’s vocals squeezed dry. There’s nothing like the verisimilitude of time and place such as on “Through the Wire,” Ye mining a whole canon of music appreciation only as big as Chaka Khan and slurring his words through the metal gripping his jaw, thereby retooling the past beneath the hopeful pain of his hyper-current state and showing us what the hell it means to deliver a track as a complete document of self. That kind of emotional reality is blindsidingly immediate, pathos fashioned in the moment and enriched by the past moments of others, sampling automatically making Kanye’s music uber-inclusive; Heartbreak doesn’t see the tense of Ye’s words changing but the tense of the presentation has—not to mention the less temporal effect of singing’s construction (even more constructed here thanks to auto-tune) vs. the stream-of-consciousness charge of rapping. The problem is that Kanye isn’t nearly a strong enough poet for his work to lend itself to elegy and his compositions not fundamentally innovative enough to bring about the future sound with which he so desperately wishes to bury his present. So “Coldest Winter” turns out to be a highlight and the Weezy track a low.
Honestly, it is refreshing that Kanye’s stepped outside of his usual M.O. for this record, that we’re not getting a Graduate School or Student Loan, even if on-the-horizon Good Ass Job would indicate that Heartbreak is more of a tangent than a development in the entelechial anthology that is Kanye West scrutinizing Kanye West. At the end of my review of Late Registration (2005) I wrote that Kanye’s “excluding principle’s busted, rattling in reverse, inhaling Jon Brion and Aquemini, Maroon 5 and his mama’s records. He’s swallowing a nation of millions.” Well, all that shit’s been digested into molecules by now. This is a record of a plump stomach, a belch, a bit of acid reflux; the by-product of Kanye’s indulgences? More heartburn than heartbreak.