The heartbreak kid
I don’t think there’s another album from the last decade that I’ve played as often as 808s and Heartbreak. When I’m doing chores around the house or just want some music in the background while I’m busy with something else, it’s usually the first thing I cue up on my playlist, but I’ll occasionally just sit down and listen to the first six tracks on headphones, which always seems like the best possible use of my time. Earlier this year, when I was driving my daughter to her toddler play program every morning, we’d often listen to “Heartless” on the way there, to the point where she was able to sing along to most of the chorus. (Beatrix: “Why is he so sad?” Me: “Because he loved a woman who didn’t love him back.”) After I dropped her off, on the way home, I’d switch over to Yeezus, especially “Blood on the Leaves,” which I don’t think she needs to hear just yet. I like Kanye West’s other albums just fine, particularly My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with its apparent determination to have every track be the one that renders all other music obsolete forever. But it’s 808s that struck me, when I first heard it, as an album that I’d been waiting to hear for my entire life, and that hasn’t changed since.
Still, when it was announced yesterday that West would be performing 808s in its entirety at a “surprise” concert in September, I found that I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect. 808s doesn’t feel like an album that can or should be played live: in many respects, it’s the most writerly collection of songs I know, at least in the sense that it feels like the product of intensely concentrated, solitary thought. Plenty of people worked on 808s and Yeezus, but both albums manage to sound like they were composed in utter isolation, by a man singing to himself in the corner with his laptop. That’s the real genius of West’s use of AutoTune: thanks to samples and synthesizers, we’ve long been able to exclude musicians from the studio, but West was the first to realize that you could dispose of the singers, too, leaving as little mediation as possible between the songwriter’s conception and its creation. In my recent post on Tom Cruise, I described him as a producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and much the same holds true of West, who willed himself into becoming one of the biggest musical acts in the world with little more than the kind of sustained craft and intelligence that can only emerge in private.
This isn’t an approach that would work for most other albums, but it comes across brilliantly on 808s. It was recorded after the death of West’s mother, and it feels like nothing less than a meditation on how unbearable emotion can best be expressed through what seems at first like cold, chilly impersonality. It reminds me, oddly, of the Pet Shop Boys—who were equally determined to exclude musical instruments from their early albums—and their insistence that irony and detachment were the only honest way to get at real unfaked feeling. 808s is like the death scene of HAL 9000 extended over fifty minutes, as he sings “Daisy” to himself as his mind goes away, or, on a lighter note, like the swan song of the robot on The Simpsons who asks despairingly: “Why was I programmed to feel pain?” But that doesn’t even hint at how richly, inexhaustibly listenable the result remains after countless plays. “Heartless” and “Paranoid” are close to perfect pop songs, executed without any room for error, and even in the album’s messier sections, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to music delivered straight from one man’s brain to yours, without any loss in the translation. And it isn’t the kind of effect that you can get at the Hollywood Bowl.
West remains an enigma. He’s a man who punches out paparazzi who wound up marrying one of the most photographed women on the planet; an introvert who only seems satisfied when he has the world’s undivided attention; a songwriter of intense self-awareness, even self-loathing, who can come across all too easily as an unfiltered jackass. The gap between West’s public persona and his meticulous craftsmanship is so vast that it’s easy to disregard the latter, and the number of people who have actually heard Yeezus—it barely even reached platinum status—is minuscule compared to those who know him only from the tabloids. As a result, even when West tries to kid himself, he can’t catch a break. Earlier this year at the Grammys, when he made a show of rushing the stage when Beck won the evening’s top prize over Beyoncé, only to turn back with a grin, it was clearly a joke at his own expense, but it was widely taken as just more evidence of his cluelessness. He’s smarter and more talented than any of his critics, but not in ways that express themselves easily before an audience of millions. For the rest of us, there’s always 808s. It’s just him in a room, and once we’re there, he quietly sets up his laptop, presses the play button, and invites us to listen.