Any writer worth his sodium chloride—whether he be a novelist, poet, or rapper (yes, yes, I know, there are women novelists and poets; not so sure about rappers)—knows that it’s through the specific details that one gets to the general understanding. It’s through those specifics that alchemize into generals that I, a young kid growing up just outside the D (what up, 11 Mile Road), could actually understand what Jay-Z was talking about on his records, even if the closest my life intersected with his was this girl in my homeroom named Marcy (who kinda looked like a dude, but that’s a different post).
Kids all over the world—Black or White or even Barack-ish—could listen to Eminem and really feel what he’s talking about, because Em wasn’t just talking about growing up in Detroit or having a mother who sniffed glue or a girl who sniffed other dudes, he was talking about basic growing-up things we’ve all been through in one way or another. The artist paints the picture with the details, but the story behind it isn’t so new. That is: new details (Kim), old story (sniffing). That’s how most good art is made, whatever the genre.
Which gets me to human sunglasses mannequin Kanye West (gracias, Stephen Colbert) and his recent foray into the murky waters of heartbreak and break beats. As a whole, I really like the record, and I think it deserves the rating we gave it (check the next print issue of XXL to see the review). Buuuuuuuuuuut…
In the spirit of dudes who wear eyeliner, ’Ye really falls out, boy. He commits the crime of every naïve emo-rock band that warbles their songs as if no one in the world before them has ever come home, early because the movie they were supposed to see with their boys, The Departed, was sold out, to find the goalie from their soccer team all up in their girl on the blue leather sofa in the living room (hypothetically speaking, of course).
When Kanye says “the coldest story ever told,” in “Heartless,” his usual over-the-top bombast falls flat. I’m fully willing to listen to him talk about how he’s the greatest rapper/producer, Louis Vuitton sycophant, or this or that, because whether he actually is the best or the most or whatever, he’s usually not far from the truth. But when he says that his breakup is the coldest one ever, I can’t feel the slightest thing for Kanye. His abject solipsism is perfectly in line with the emo model of whoa-whoa-whoa-is-me songwriting, in that it trades in clichés and signifiers at the cost of insight and examination. If ’Ye was actually trying to make a record that would connect to listeners on an emotional, heartbreak level, he fails utterly. Which is, actually, my big problem with the record: I don’t think he was even trying to.
Instead of the clichés—“How could you be so cold as the winter wind when it breeze, yo,” for instance—he should have served up some actual details. ’Cause that’s what writing—or good writing, at least—is. And, no doubt, Kanye is quite capable of writing complex, inward-looking, outward-reaching songs (see any of his previous albums for proof). But 808s is so disappointing, with its by-the-numbers portrayal of heartbreak: the girl, a cold-hearted B, is completely in the wrong, and the only transgression Kanye will cop to is, “Ayo I did some things but that’s the old me.”
It’s saying something that the real emotional content, the main theme of the album, is carried by the Auto-Tune effect and the sparse 808 beats, and not at all by the words ’Ye penned. Kanye’s lyrics are almost beside the point, they’re so bad (which is why I didn’t quote more; there’s nothing there!). That the album is actually good says something, only I’m not sure what. —Devo