Is this really Kanye West?
Of all the stories Donda West read to her little son at bedtime, “Pinocchio” must have been a favorite. The tale of the puppet who longed to be human obviously resonates with Kanye West. On “Pinocchio Story,” the bonus live track that turns out to be the key to his audaciously introspective fourth album, he freestyles about the character, repeatedly singing, “I want to be a real boy.”
“808s and Heartbreak,” out today on Roc-A-Fella Records and streaming on MySpace, is a meditation on realness as it’s been defined by materialism and machismo in the hip-hop world and by love and sorrow in the larger one. Wrought in hushed mechanical beats, computer-altered vocals and samples so subtle they’re barely noticeable, it’s West’s foray into confessional music.
But this star’s constant craving to be original leads him away from the rawness that characterizes such revelations. On an album that he has said is “about emotional nakedness,” West finds his beating, bleeding heart in inanimate objects -- the Roland TR-808 drum machine that revolutionized electronic music of the 1980s and the Antares Auto-Tune pitch correction software that’s such a prevalent tool in today’s pop sound.
This is high-concept stuff and likely off-putting to the casual listener. Although several tracks -- the oddly peppy “Paranoid” and “Robocop,” about a monstrous ex -- are danceable, “808s and Heartbreak” heavily endorses the rave scene’s concept of “chill.” Its mood comes closest to the vaporous electronica of obscure artists like the Junior Boys and M83.
A Tears for Fears song forms the melodic basis for one track, but West never reaches for the primal release of that band’s New Wave classics. He also resists the impishness so artfully deployed by his friend T-Pain (and his forefather, Zapp’s Roger Troutman) in many Auto-Tuned hits. Instead, West reins in his natural wit and frothiness in search of a more contemplative experience.
This in itself already has some fans dismissing “808s and Heartbreak” as self-indulgent or even crazy: Why would someone so skilled at making smart hit songs tone down his golden touch? And why would a rapper who’s not a great singer insist on singing on every track?
The answer, I think, has to do with that underlying Pinocchio story. As New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in his excellent June piece on Auto-Tune, the program has given producers a way to foreground the unnaturalness of the recording process. Drum machines did something similar 30 years ago, feeding a shift in pop away from a search for authenticity and toward a fascination with technology and the imagined worlds it inspires.
Because they’re so obviously “fake,” the sounds that come from primitive drum machines and manipulative software force the listener to question what she does consider real -- regarding not only the sounds she hears but also the emotions they invoke.
Puppets have historically been associated with the same questions Auto-Tune raises now. They seem to be more human than human and if manipulated well can cause that uncanny feeling of not knowing where an object stops and humanity starts.
“Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god,” wrote the German poet and philosopher Heinrich von Kleist in 1810. Watching the dance of a beautiful marionette, which has no sense of self, we begin to ponder our own self-awareness -- the very essence of humanity. West seeks a similar effect on “808s and Heartbreak,” a heavy trip indeed.
West has played with puppet-like personae throughout his career. My 5-year-old daughter still thinks he’s a cartoon bear because he so frequently plays one in the artwork and videos by his frequent collaborator, artist Takashi Murakami. The heart pin he’s been wearing of late is a direct steal from the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” And on this album, he connects puppet imagery, one of the oldest routes to pondering the question of real versus fake, with computerized music, one of the newest, to confront what stands between himself and his own soul.
A compass lost
West’s obsession on “808s and Heartbreak” is grief. He’s trying to express the way it alienates a person from himself and throws a fog around every former pleasure. The album explicitly confronts the death of West’s mother after plastic surgery last fall and his subsequent breakup with longtime companion Alexis Phifer. Having lost his nurturers, West found himself lonelier and less confident than he knew he could be; this is the soundtrack to his bewilderment.
“I know my destination, but I’m just not there,” he sings in the gently morose “Street Lights.” His words could go either way: He hasn’t arrived at his goal, or he’s just somehow missing, a ghost of his former self. On “Amazing,” which features Young Jeezy, West tries to capture some of his former bravado, but despite his boasting and some comical assistance from two grunting backup vocalists, his vocal is draggy, low-pitched and depressed. “I’m a problem that will never ever be solved,” he mutters.
Bravado partly created this problem.
In rap, machismo has long been a force to obliterate vulnerability. Plenty of rappers precede West in pondering the mess within their minds: Consider DMX’s oeuvre or songs like “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by the Geto Boys. Usually, though, such songs express a kind of fierceness, whether grounded in psychosis or anger. Softer feelings are less acceptable. The joke goes that only when MCs rhyme about their mamas can they expose their hearts.
Having lost his fervently beloved mom -- and blaming the materialism of their lifestyle partly for her death -- West confronts the void. Auto-Tune masks and distorts his voice in ways that play up how alien such self-doubt and regret seem, coming from a blustery hip-hop star. “I got homies, but in the end it’s still so lonely,” he intones in “Heartless,” one of the few tracks on which he actually raps. As if to prove that point, cameos elsewhere from Jeezy and Lil Wayne are all swagger, no tears.
Like most kingpins, hip-hop’s male stars turn to women for their dose of tenderness; female sexuality is the genre’s life force, as powerful a support as maternal love. (Witness T-Pain’s ongoing quest for the ideal stripper.) But not on “808s and Heartbreak.” The ex-lover whose absence torments West has no voice of her own. There’s only one female backing vocal on the whole album, provided by the electronica queen Esthero; the absence of R&B; guest divas and sampled giggles and squeals is notable.
Throughout the album, women appear as phantasms, supervillains or voices on the phone, as hard to fathom as the feelings of the puppet boy they torment.
West undoubtedly will find his way out of this purgatory, and fans will be happy when he returns to the wider vision he’s communicated on past projects. But as strange and even tedious as “808s and Heartbreak” might strike some listeners, it’s not just a puppet show. Or rather, it is, and all the more fascinating for that.