13 January 2009

at any other point in my life, this would've been the album of the year (part 3 of the 2008 retrospective)

I've made a big point over the course of my life (but especially since I became fascinated with maudlin music and overly dark, depressing movies) to state, unequivocally, that great art comes out of depression, lonliness, longing, and despair almost exclusively, because (if nothing else) a person whose emotions are running that particular gamut has to channel them into something productive if they want to avoid cutting their own ear off (or worse). I'm going to take a big step here as a person and admit that some of that was self-justification to allow myself to be miserable and depressed (though, I still think the argument holds water, as least in the realm of popular perception. Why else do comedies not win Best Picture Oscars?).

That situation has changed somewhat. I do still think that my theory holds plenty of water, but I no longer have any real desire to use it to justify keeping myself in a perpetual state of... sorrow is a bit too strong, methinks, but it'll work for now. I've tasted an alternative, and I'd rather my diet consist of nothing but that (the alternative) from here on out. I don't think that means I'll be less able to appreciate the dismal and dreary, but I do believe I'll do a little more to avoid exposure to same, lest unpleasantness ensue.

This is as good a moment as I'll get to transition back into my (spectacularly original idea of an) end-of-the-year music spectacular. #3 (with a bullet...): Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak.

As usual, let's begin with some sort of disclaimer. I have no strong love for Mr. West; I think he's a pretty good producer, a pretty good rapper, and a walking, breathing ego. However, I have to appreciate somebody who works hard, and I've never gotten the sense that Kayne's reaping undeserved rewards. From here on out, though, I'll be watching every move he makes, and closely. One amazing record, even one amazing song, can do that.

I've long been fascinated with what I'm going to unoriginally refer to as "extremes" in music, be they in regards to the music (as opposed to the vocals), the vocals (as opposed to the music), the production, the subject matter, whatever it is. If it's probing one end of the spectrum or another, I'll be inclined to at least give it a look (maybe that explains my longstanding fascination with exceptionally loud and abrasive music).

The point of this is that the stark minimalism of 808s & Heartbreak is, to steal a title of a track on the album, "Amazing." Not once, not ever, does the music ("beats" may be more appropriate in many cases) overwhelm the words (seeing as how rap is, as my American Folk & Pop Music instructor called it, poetry set to a beat, the words are pretty important). The starkness of many of Kanye's compositions are as grabbing and compelling as any I've heard in overproduced and messy (or full and rich) pieces of music.

Very rarely do I think (hah) that style consciously supports content, in any sort of art form (popular or otherwise - these days, anyway). 808s & Heartbreak is not one of those failures, not in my opinion. The frequently sparse soundscapes, coupled with his heavily processed, Auto Tune-d vocals (delivering some overwrought, but I believe heartfelt, meditations on loneliness, disappointment, alienation and love - which itself can be the root cause of all three of the former feelings), all feed into this overarching theme of disconnection and near-inhumanity (if we are, indeed, social animals, then an inability to socialize and connect would likely result in a subject's dehumanization. But I'm losing sight of the point by unleashing all of this mock-scientific theorizing). The synthetic, detached, inhuman nature of the music all feeds in to this.

I'm rather fascinated with almost every single track on the album; I think "Say You Will" is an incredible opening song. The ballsiness of the whole thing is really compelling (the same guy who used so much on "Gold Digger" creates this beautifully minimal track that, I think, is far more effective than the sonic collage of the other song) - I think you have to have a lot of faith in your work to be unwilling to busy it up with too many bells and whistles. "Welcome to Heartbreak" is a near-perfect followup, in the ways it amps up the energy and the attitude. "Heartless" pulls me in with its nearly exhausting fatalism... Let's put some lyrics on display, shall we?

"So I got something new to see/
And you just gon' keep hatin' me/
And we just gon' be enemies/
I know you can't believe/
I could just leave it wrong/
and you can't make it right/
Im gon' take off tonight/
In to the night..."

"Amazing" is the obligatory Kanye self-love fest ("My reign is as far as your eyes can see"), at least until Young Jeezy's part begins. I think the presence of the guest stars on this album is incredibly important, moreso than to most albums of this sort. Since Kanye's carved out this specific persona, this character for himself, the difference between him and Young Jeezy/Lil Wayne/Kid Cudi/Mr. Hudson is amplified to an exceptional degree. Their posturing is juxtaposed with his am-I-even-human-anymore act over and over again, and I think this experiment is where the album succeeds most thorougly, and what brings it up a few notches from potentially forgettable fuckaround to true art. To wit, Young Jeezy at the end of "Amazing:"

"
I’m amazing (amazing), yeah I’m all that (all that)/
If I ain’t on my grind than what you call that (what you call that)/
Victorious, yeah we warriors/
We make history, strive for victory (yeah)"

It's the delivery that sells it, and I can't replicate it as text-only.

"Love Lockdown" is the track that's most invaded my thoughts, because I think it's basically perfect. The minimalism of the album reaches another crescendo here with the muted bass part, the piano, and the robotic (but almost frantic all the same) drumming that comes in during the chorus. It covers a lot of the same ground that "Heartless" covers, except that I think it takes an important cue from the best of the New Wave songs, where it masks its darkness with danceability (he's also singing more here of a poisoned love, which is fairly different from a flat-out flawed one). I'm also quite taken with the effect he uses on the "system overload" lyric (actually, the Auto Tuning that builds up to that point is also pretty awesome)... It's just an extraordinary piece of music, and would've been my favorite song I'd heard this year, if we were in an alternate universe.

"Paranoid" is much more lush of a song than its immediate predecessor, which I think works well in its favor. The songs with greater, fuller production tend to involve more activity and less obvious introspection, and this falls in line with that (another case of form involving content, I'd contend).

"Robocop" passes on the robotic-as-less-than-human conceit to West's target this time, rather than just the artist himself (the instrumental that comprises the first 15 seconds of the track is, I think, fairly reminiscent of any number of Portishead songs):

"Cause I don't want no robocop/
You moving like a robocop/
When did you become a robocop/
No I don't need no robocop"

The strings that inhabit a lot of the musical space of "Robocop" seem out of place at first, but they do quite a lot to inform West's place as the human in the song, I think.

"Street Lights" keeps West's voice covered with a static-y sheen from start to finish (a fascinating counter to the un-altered female vocals that persist throughout the song with him); just when we think he might be escaping this self-imposed disconnect towards the end of "Robocop," it comes roaring back with a vengeance through the album's end.

"Bad News" takes the artificiality that's permeated the album to its logical extreme, where every piece of the song contributes to reaching the same end, that of an intentional disconnect from "humanity" so as to avoid any more gut-wrenching, heart-fracturing, thought-obsessing pain. In the second verse, that very point comes through best:

"People will talk/
Like its old news/
I played it off and act like i already knew/
Let me ask you/
how long have you known too/
You played it off and act like he's brand new"

"See You In My Nightmare" is 808s & Heartbreak's other track that caught my attention right from the start, and kept it. West (and featured performer Lil Wayne) reclaims some of his power in this song, casting aside the epynomous "you" in favor of, well, himself. What's most interesting to me, though, is the difference between the lyrics delivered by Mr. West, and those that belong to Mr. Carter (the aforementioned Lil Wayne).

Kanye:
"
I got my life and its my only one/
I got the night, I’m running from the sun/
So goodnight, I made it out the door (door door door door)/
After tonight, there will be no return/
After tonight, I’m taking off on the road/
I’m taking off on the road"

Lil Wayne:
"I got the right to put up a fight/
But not quite cause you cut off my light/
But my sight is better tonight and I might/
See you in my nightmare/
Oh but how did you get there/
Cause we were once a fairytale/
But this is fair well yeaah"

Kanye's place as the least aggressive character on his own album intrigues me to no end, if for no other reason than the fact that it's so atypical in this particular genre of music (the alpha male rarely ever brags about how he's running away from his problems). Of course, it's tough to sound much more aggressive than Lil Wayne, so that works in Kanye's favor here, too.

"Coldest Winter" reminds me a lot of a stereotypical 80s synth pop song, and there's not anything wrong with that. It's also got one of my favorite lyrics in the entire album:

"
If spring can take the snow away
Can it melt away all our mistakes"

I think there's a lot of beauty in somewhat repurposing the "rebirth" aspect of spring this way. It almost ends the album on a hopeful note, until Kanye closes it with, "I won't ever love again, never again." Talk about your bleak closers.

As Dante Hicks would've said, it ends on a down note, and that's what life is. That's why I would've loved it this time last year, even more than I already do. I'm just at a place in my life where optimism is more... pronounced, and I'd like to keep it that way. I love 808s & Heartbreak, but not as much as other things.


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