Everyone seems to love Kanye West a lot. Even in my small little world, that tries not to reach out to the masses, I find Kanye West everywhere. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes think he was elected president. Ever since he dropped Late Registration on us, I can’t seem to get away from him. I admit even then I succumbed to the hype and had to check him out. After all he produced some of the best, mainstream hip hop of the early part of this decade with Mos Def and Common. And not to mention his work with mega stars like Ludacris and Jay-Z would be heresy even for me. So I got that record, I listened to “Gold Digger” scratching my head, I dug “Sierra Leone” and felt weird when listening to “Roses” and “Hey Mamma”. I also really dug his presence on “The Food” that he did with Common which was one of the best hip hop songs I had heard in a long time.
But the hype just seemed inflated to me. Granted, corporate Hip Hop sucks. I mean when Jay Z, Biggie Smalls and Tupac are the best that can be glorified and Q-Tip can’t even get his albums on the shelf I guess Kanye West is a bit refreshing. He is a hell of a producer, I will give him that. But this is what seems to bother me the most about 808’s and a Heartbreak, because I think musically, it’s pretty astounding and original. But I haven’t even listened to much of it, because the 15 year old girl poetry lyrics and robotic voice fucking kills me.
If I remember correctly, and I probably don’t, Common’s Finding Forever was hinting at this future stylistic approach. That album, handled in great deal by Kanye, was such a mess to me, especially after hearing Be which was a very organic, jazzy influenced affair. I couldn’t listen to the Finding Forever album save for “Drivin’ Me Wild” and I think that had to do more with Lily Allen doing something more quality then what I have seen from her. If I was any good at this journalism thing, I would go back and listen to a few tracks, but I don’t feel like looking through my iPod and then tracking down the burned copy I got from a friend and uploading it again. Needless to say, the album as a whole didn’t leave much of an impression on me, and Common dropped off my radar.
So when listening to 808’s and a Heartbreak all I could think about was Common. Though this album is certainly a testament to the digital, computer and information driven age that we live in, I felt that if this was Common’s playground to drop his insight over, and he used his deep, delicate and precise voice to do so, it would be not only a great contrast to the music, but act as a counter argument. There would be the element of humanness to oppose the repression of the digital world that our hands seem to constantly be caressing. The gadgets at our sides, the ones that interrupt conversations, or the websites that we flock to (like this one!) would some how be less appealing with a voice of reason. Instead, we get the 21st Century Digital Boy that Bad Religion was singing about.
It’s criticism though that Kanye West needs. Because I for one see so much more in this cold, inhuman album. That might even be the problem. The auto-tuned, digital voice reminds me of my voice mail and I instantly just don’t care what it has to tell me. No matter how true and human the sentiments may be, to my ears they just sound pathetic.
William Bowers wrote in his Puritan column on Pitchfork one of the first ever pieces of vulnerable writing on that website recently. Bowers lamented on his regret for not having reached out to a friend of his who recently committed suicide through music and specifically through this album I have been ranting about. Far be it from me to take that experience away from Mr. Bowers. I agree that music has a great deal of power and even in our pop music consumption we find power to move on in the face of everyday struggle. The west is a largely blessed culture. We have access to so much more then most of the rest of the world. And yet in that we still face heartache, depression, madness and loneliness. These maladies speak to the problems and the benefits of our consumptive, free market culture. So I see how in that context 808’s and a Heartbreak might be a comfort.
So if we are approaching this album in a way that it’s not a piece of art, but a moment of entertainment, then I can find something to work with. But music should be more then just entertainment and Kanye West has certainly hit at this throughout his career. Music, like art and literature is an expression of something larger then just entertaining distraction or comfort in sad times. I would hope that any album has some power to heal, comfort or relate to the listener. Music certainly does that for me, and as anyone who is a member of my facebook mafia can attest to, this week I certainly leaned on music to get me through the bullshit in my head. But the human being behind this work is buried. The power of the words are obscured by the concept and execution. It leaves this listener cold and tuned out. Which sometimes, I think might just be the point.