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Kanye West examines real vs. fake, puppet vs. human on '808s and Heartbreak'

Kanyealbum 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 Monday on Roc-A-Fella Records but now 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. Though 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.

Kanye400 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 2008 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 forces 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 persona 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.

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 <i>oeuvre </i>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.

--Ann Powers

Photo of Kanye performing at the 2008 MTV Europe Music Awards earlier this month by Mike Marsland/Getty Images

 
Comments () | Archives (20)

ESTHERO!!! Awesome! I hate West but now I HAVE to buy this ONLY for Esthero's cameo...well...and maybe 'Love Lock Down."

I think this reviewer is far, far too kind to Kanye. Chalking up Kanye's love affair with auto-tune to a deliberate satire of the sound is rubbish. As Kanye himself said "I love auto-tunes." Kanye likens himself to be a genius who can change his style however he pleases and his fans will follow him wherever he goes on his creative journey.

No, Kanye isn't out smarting us with auto-tunes, he was already on his way to his "new sound" with his last album, and it was a move many of his fans don't like: using synthesizers on every track. Throw in a repetitious use of 808s and auto-tune, (the real name of this album) and voilĂ , his new album.

And guess, what, it is GARBAGE! You have completely alienated your original fanbase Kanye. Nice one!

I'm all for hip hop artists expressing a need to be creative and different (Common, Andre 3000), but this isn't artistic. This stuff is autistic. I can't even wipe my rear end with this stuff.

As Dave Chappelle would say, "your done SON!!!"

I feel bad your momma died, but damn homie! This? Get outta here.

I am buying 50's new album simply as a way to cast my vote against this bullshwizzle.

Oh, and this is not "high-concept" stuff. Kanye is a macho materialist. He is not beyond it. Please don't feed his ego with reviews like this. It is already as big as the globe.

@johnnyblaze: Dude, it's not that deep. I'd even say that Ms. Powers gave 'Ye too much credit here. This is nothing more than yet another case of a major artist taking advantage of his popularity by doing whatever the hell he/she wants to do. And it's not like this is the end of his career, or he's never going to go back to doing what he does best.

Kanye has earned the right to make this album. That doesn't mean we have to like (I'm a fan of his, but I doubt I'll go back to this one much if at all in the near future).

At the same time, this could be one of those albums that years from now will make a lot more sense, and serve as a pretty interesting component of his complete catalog.

In short, you don't have to like it, but it's hardly a reason to act like he's "DONE, son". Far from it, actually. Don't forget--he's an ARTIST. If you want pointless, of-the-moment club bangers, I'm sure Puffy has something for you...

Wow, this is a decent review. Even if members of our site feel... differently (to say the least LOL) about the album, what balanced this review out is that of the commentators.

I've been seeing both sides of the line on various sites, either people love it or hate it, with some grey shades in between. I witnessed a similar reaction when the "Flashing Lights" video came out.

This interviewer praised it, but from his perspective. We reviewed it on our site from a different perspective. All over last.fm people are either praising or going in on this album hard, but either way it's being discussed.

I remember what he says about his mother passing away, and one day soon maybe I'll be able to get past the puppet effects to get to the real story. But real talk, I was probably one album away from a Kanye stan myself. By Graduation, he was already losing me for the reasons above. As ill as "Good Life" (video & song) may have been, it was skipped many times while listening. "Stronger" held me for the samples (both were favorites), and it was a solid album, but I wondered where he was going. Shoot, he had me amped for "A Good Ass Job". ;x

But yeah, if anything, I still think he's creative. The album doesn't do it for me, yet the artwork definitely does. Same for Graduation. What I felt it lacked in any area, it made up for in presentation. He's presenting you the whole package, whether you take it or leave it, keep it or delete it.

i just really. Really. Really hope this is a phase, LOL.

Great essay. Really interesting stuff. I admit that i soely miss the previous incarnation of kanYe and the incredible production work he has blessed us with since the turn of the century (down, gone, lucifer anyone?)... but this album, if ingested in its entirity, is quite a cohesive and somewhat interesting piece of work.
I was qick to dismiss it on the merits of the tracks I heard pre-release, but geddammit if its isn't growing on me in its melancholic subtle glory.....

Kanye is doing his thing. Why do the same thing over and over? We need change. He's on the right track.. get that money big homie!

Way too sympathetic....I feel kanye has alienated his fans, honestly I feel disappointed by his new venture. However I do I believe we will be talking about this album in many years to come. The overuse of the auto tuner and the drum machine make me feel cheated, couldn't anyone have produced an album like this. I pretty sure if a well renowned singer with the aid of a machine began rapping it would be greeted with much negativity. It as though Kanye philosophy is 'I am doing this for myself, I dont care'. I hope this is only a 'grief' side project I cannot see him being able to have continued success if he carries creating talentless music.

Okay.... how do I say this... Alright first Kanye is a musical genius, while everybody has a opinion it doesn't make each opinion valid. I can see how RAP fans are taken back by this new sound but HIP HOP heads should love it. "Amazing" is most the hip-hop song I've heard in a while. "Robocop" is just crazy good! I'm a big hip hop fan, all my life that's been my main lane of music (while I like other genres too). I could go on about my opinion about Kanye's new record, but I leave this challenge: Listen to it for what it is... art... from one individual's perspective and don't let your final verdict be confined by a genre. At the end of the day enjoy it!

Terrible record. Listened to it three times now and it pales in comparison to Graduation. Ann may have missed the mark on this one....just because it's an interesting concept to write about, doesn't mean it's going tp hold up over the years to repeated listening the way Graduation or Late will. I find it far from facinating myself. There might be another word for it...boring, perhaps.

Sorry Zo, my comments were at, beautiful.

on some real i think this is Kanye's Sistene Chapels right here.Its so drenched with emotion throguhout the whole album and it feels like a lifetime put into an album. I for one like the new direction. OBVIOUSLY ALL HIS SONGS IN THE FUTURE ARE NOT GOING TO SOUND LIKE THIS, THATS A DUMB STATEMENT BECAUSE NOTHING ON LATE REGIS. SOUNDS LIKE ANYTHING ON GRADUATION. THIS IS HIS ALBUM TO EXPRESS HIS EMOTIONS HIS FANBASE IS BASED OFF PEOPLE WHO LIKE HEARING HIM. IF YOU CAN CHILL WIT DUDE WHEN HE GOOFY BUT WHEN HE GLOOMY YOU CALL HIM WASHED UP DATS NOT A FAN DATS A GROUPIE. BUT ON SUM REEL DOUGH I FxKZ WIT MR. WEST ON DIS ONE.

Being an artists of any kind os about creating what is true to YOU first and foemost, and hoping that others (fans) can empathize and appreciate it. Being an artist has ntohing to do with purposefully pleasing others (fanbase) but rather, incidentally doing so.

All of you who seem to think Ye owes you something, as you were a fan of his fopr yoears, well you're sorely mistaken. For each one of you hwo choses not to listen to him ever again, he'll gain 2 or 3 who fall in love with 808s and Heartbreak.

@M...Thank you for letting that be known. I mean sheesh cut the man some slack. Music is music regardless of how its made, Yeezy felt this was the way to go, you can't knock him for doing what he want to do. The album is full of raw emotions, just like his prior albums. People love when Zapp did their thing with the vocoder, hell even Chromeo gets down on the vocoder and look how much people digg them as artistes. The fact of the matter is, if you can't enjoy music as a whole(auto-tune or not), then your not a loyal fan. Whatever the artiste brings to the table whether its the same gutta raw type stuff or just simplistic music, who are you to judge; if you can do better then step in the booth and prove yourself. If not just show some support and stop bickering.

um...@johnnyblaze....Kanye said "I love the auto-tune stuff, because it sounds like a robot. In a world full of fake people, why shouldn't we all be robots." DIRECT QUOTE. Way to be wrong. How can you presume to tell what he thinks and does. That's stupid. THe album is dope, just because YOU can't comprehend the emotionality of it doesn't mean you have to hate on it.

HEy i think kanye needs a little
credit for mixing the indie sound with
modern hip hop.
really into this Brooklyn band
who's cover of Good Life is on my Top
List.
http://www/myspace.com/niteclubmusic

Yeah, honestly, Kanye lost me after Late Registration. The only reason I am thinking of checking this album out is to listen for Esthero in the background. I heart that girl. She is such a good singer

music is art. art is difficult to understand if your heart is not open to it. to open your heart to it you have to place yourself in front of it. Understand where the artist was when they created it. Who cares who likes it and doesn't like it. The artist doesn't. If you don't understand it what it really means is that you dont want to understand it. You dont want to get it. So why should your opinon matter.

Get your heads on straight, kanye isnt al;l about what we want. he started rap cause that was his thing and that genre just happened to be big at the time. people say he's alienating his old fans, well maybe thats not the kind of person he is anymore. how do you expect him to go back to singing about the good life when this happened. if you ask me, more rappers should listen to this then they know things arent always amazing and the good life may be good when your lving it, but one thing can cast you back down, then you dont have anyone to turn to.he sings from the heart and this is what he's gonna do now, and if thats the way he wants to do who are we to change his personality. what happened here is kanye got a reality check, and i think its for the better

All artists put their work/emotion(s) out on the line for us. An excellent artist has the ability to instill the emotion(s) behind their work. Kanye does it for me everytime, including this album. Unfortunate for those not feelin' it.


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