Saturday, March 14, 2009

What's on Youtube

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.

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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kanye West and new logo

Kanye West announced long ago that mere hip-hop superstardom was not enough for him — he wanted to be "the number one artist in the world." So it's no surprise that his untrammeled egotism has led him well beyond the usual limits of his genre. With Kanye largely abandoning rapping in favor of digitally altered crooning, his fourth album represents a cultural high-water mark for Auto-Tune, that now ubiquitous pitch-correction technology. But Auto-Tune isn't totally to blame for 808s & Heartbreak. A bold, fascinating, foolhardy, occasionally unlistenable Kanye West record was inevitable, with or without the cyborg-soul software.

So blame it on the heartbreak. The record arrives in the wake of a year in which Kanye lost his mother and split with his fiancée, designer Alexis Phifer. But aside from one bleak song written for his mom ("Coldest Winter"), 808s & Heartbreak is a breakup album — it's Kanye's would-be Here, My Dear or Blood on the Tracks, a mournful song-suite that swings violently between self-pity and self-loathing. "The coldest story ever told/Somewhere far along this road he lost his soul....How could you be so heartless?" he sings in "Heartless." Kanye has often chosen introspection and self-exposure to the usual gangsta posturing. But here, the drear never lifts, and he never stops wallowing.

Thankfully, there are those 808s. Kanye constructed the songs using a classic Roland TR-808 drum machine, and the results are a pleasant shock: stark, spacey tracks, which owe far more to Eighties electro and synth pop than anything on hip-hop radio. In "Street Lights," a haze of distortion floats above tolling keyboard chords and a hammering beat. The hit "Love Lockdown" is powered by thundering tribal drums and vocals that slide from digitized trills into strangled squeals.

Kanye can't really sing in the classic sense, but he's not trying to. T-Pain taught the world that Auto-Tune doesn't just sharpen flat notes: It's a painterly device for enhancing vocal expressiveness, and upping the pathos. In "Bad News," Kanye's digitized vocals are the sound of a man so stupefied by grief, he's become less than human.

Like many sad sacks, Kanye likes the sound of his own whimper, and mistakes sentiments such as "I could never seem to find what real love was about" for profundities. Many of his best songs have focused on his ambivalence about materialism, but on 808s & Heartbreak, the theme has hardened into schtick. "My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs." The low point is the freestyle "Pinocchio Story," recorded live in Singapore, which finds Kanye bellowing, "There is no Gucci I could buy...there is no Louis Vuitton I could put get my heart out of this hell."

Of course, Kanye has always been emo. But in his most touching songs — "Through the Wire," "Family Business," "Hey Mama" — he tucked his confessions in between boasts and jokes. Kanye the Songbird has forgotten the lesson that Kanye the Rapper taught his listeners: Heartbreak is not incompatible with wit, or with sharply drawn details, or with a buoyant beat. This noble failure of an album might easily have been a noble success if he had tweaked the Fun-o-Meter just a bit. A slight pitch correction could have done the trick.