I don’t remember much about Michael Moore’s book Stupid White Men, but I remember beingperplexed by a false equivalency he drew between gangster rap music and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Moore was questioning why The Boss was allowed to write songs from the perspective of other characters who steal and murder but rap artists must always answer for their lyrics; he attributed the difference to racism.
Baloney. Well, maybe not entirely baloney, but a pretty weak argument nonetheless. There are perfectly valid reasons why we connect the performer with their poetry more closely in hip hop than in other genres of music.
The first is that the rise of hip hop has paralleled the rise of the music video, which more closely linked the song and its singer than any medium before. The second is that many hip hop artists actively connect their image with their lyrics. In hip hop, authenticity and credibility are everything, a trend even more pronounced since gangster rap washed the Vanilla Ices and Hammers off the face of the earth. If you aren’t what you say you are when you’re spitting, then you’re not going to sell and you’re not going to earn respect. This is why even the most talented MC’s like Eminem – who created and sustained an entire alter-ego on the mic – blur lines between where the artists starts and the art ends.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting at Kanye West. I’m on record saying that I think West is probably the most interesting and exciting pop star of the decade (only Eminem’s really in the same ballpark). Sure, he’s pure gold as a producer, and entertaining as all hell as a rapper despite not being a natural freestyler. But what fascinates me most is the persona he’s constructed for himself, either by choice or by nature. It’s a persona that sits in stark contrast to the stereotypical rap character that emerged in the mid-1990s and still reigns today: calm cockiness, cool confidence, a coldness in their bad-assery. To be blunt, rappers aren’t supposed to give a fuck.
Kanye West gives a fuck.
It’s more than that, though: what he wants more than anything is for you, dear listener, to give a fuck. All rappers – hell, all pop stars – want to be successful, to be powerful, to get attention. But Kanye West wants more: he needs to be loved. By everyone. It manifests itself through all his behaviour: his obsession with awards and award shows, his copious sharing (IN ALL CAPS) on his blog, his willingness to take advantage of every promotional opportunity presented to him, his taste for mainstream pop music (Coldplay, John Mayer).
I can get why this annoys people. Independently, this would all be easy to dismiss as simple attention-whoring, a way for West to keep his name in the headlines. But put together with all its quirks, I confess that it fascinates me. It’s as if this brilliant artist has the emotional needs of a child, and is fully content at living out his neuroses wide open in public, for all of us to scrutinize and speculate over. We got to explore all this on the record in West’s university trilogy: the “Bentley with a backpack” foundation of The College Dropout, the sonic ambition and sprawl of Late Registration, the pop- and electro-confidence of Graduation, a “celebration of success” record as only Mr. West could put to tape.
But 808s and Heartbreak, his newest record released in November, is a different sort of beast. Almost no rapping, simplistic confessional lyrics almost entirely lacking in humour or wit, dark electronic hooks and West’s auto-tuned robotic vocals over top of it all. It’s a pretty radical departure from anything he’s put to tape thus far, and it’s no wonder that it’s rubbing both critics and fans the wrong way. (While it’s hardly poorly-reviewed or slow selling, I expect it will end up West’s worst-received record thus far on both fronts). And I’m not about to sit here and declare it a great album; at best, it’s an inconsistent, neurotic mess.
But so is Mr. West.
In fact, I think the biggest problem with 808s and Heartbreak is that West has made a record that pretty much requires investment in “Kanye West” as a character to enjoy. If you listen to Kanye for the hooks, there’s a few gems buried within but aside from the obvious singles (“Love Lockdown,” “Heartless,” “Paranoid”), he never really unleashes them for the listener. No, the record’s pleasures come from how it fits within the bigger storyline: after years of living the consumerist dream, 808s is about West coming to terms with not only the emptiness of that experience, but the dark edges of life and love.
Not that he does this with a lot of depth; on the contrary, he attacks it with the same childish perspective with which he complains about award shows and paparazzi. How else to explain the embarrassing “Pinocchio Story” live freestyle that closes the album? It’s undoubtedly terrible, sure, but it’s fascinating because Kanye has to share this half-baked, poorly-recorded live track with us. It’s the same reason why he’s blogged more about this record at kanyeuniversity.com than any other, why he gave away its singles for free (re-recording them to improve them in the process), why he’s poured his heart and soul into promoting this record everywhere he can.
And this is what intrigues me about this whole scenario more than anything else. When most artists make a “ditch” record – a dark, depressing sharp turn from their traditional material – they don’t play the game. They don’t go on tour the same way, they don’t do the talk shows the same way, they don’t do music videos the same way. It’s what Bruce Springsteen did with Nebraska; he presented the public with the record as it was, a dark turn on his traditional artistic persona.
Had West done this, I honestly think that people would be less obsessed with 808s’ quirks (the autotune, the lack of rapping) and a little more generous towards its charms. But that wouldn’t be West. He needs us to share his pain, to love his confessions with the same vigor that we’ve loved his ambitions and his celebrations in the past. He has to show his new music video on Ellen. He has to debut “Love Lockdown” as the final performance of the VMAs, confusing a lot of us in the process. He has to go on Saturday Night Live and other late-night shows, even if he really can’t hit the notes like he does on the record. And he has to reprise “Pinocchio Story” at the same time, undoubtedly confounding everyone still watching.
Kanye West made his Nebraska, and yet he wants us to love it the same way as if it was any other Kanye West record. Because unlike Springsteen, he’s not asking us to explore a different set of characters, to experience his adolescent drama through different voices or perspectives. There’s only Mr. West on 808s and Heartbreak, begging us to sympathize with him. Those of us committed to the character not only forgive him the indulgence – we embrace it. I expect many won’t afford him the same generosity.