Genre: r&b, electronic, pop
I hesitated to post this review here. You might be wondering what Kanye West is doing on a quality and clean blog. It would be like adding a review of one of Madonna’s albums- it almost doesn’t matter what the the content of their music is because their reputations are both so um carnal. Kanye has a reputation for his trash talking bravado, materialistic yet dapper fashion sense and possessing an appetite for causing and basking in controversy. Then there is the way he generally raps about women, similar to other rappers, he treats them like possessions to chalk up on his tally sheet. Kanye is a very talented beat-maker and rapper, consequently he rose to fame quickly. Maybe this is why he has such a big ego, or maybe that is just part of every rappers persona.
Actually what caused me to purchase and then decide to add a review to this blog was the contrast between Kanye’s reputation and the content of 808’s and Heartbreaks. When Love Lockdown came out I was it was not what I had expected. Stylistically and lyrically, Kanye West’s fourth album, is very very different from his past three. The name of the album lays bare the musical and lyrical themes. 808s is a reference to the analogue synthesizer the early 1980’s. It has a characteristically “hollow/tinny” sound which smoothly contributes to the lyrical theme of heartbreak. Instead of rapping, Kanye sings throughout the entire album causing the songs to feel more heartfelt. Instead of the light-hearted, feel-good tempo if his past albums, Heartbreaks is melancholy to its core. The instrumentation is sparse, minimalistic and lonely instead of fully layered and well fed. In the past Kanye has been a little different from other rappers, his production is richly layered and contributes to the message of his songs instead of just background looping. He heavily relies on his favorite tool, auto-tune, as well as as other electronic devices (ie. the electronic voice in Stronger) and uses live instrumentation (actual cello, piano, woodwinds and choirs). Heartbreaks keeps auto-tune as a faithful friend but disposes with the heavy layered devices. There are a few live instruments (including a lovely choir in the first track), but musically the themes are raw percussion with 808 sounding synthesizer beeps and shallow melodies that sound like they came straight from a midi or cheap home-Casio piano.
Lyrically, Kanye’s past songs have been full of bragging how good and easy and full of material possessions his life is. In contrast, Heartbreaks delves into the emptiness of his life, how material possessions mean little and making lasting positive relationships with women is difficult if not impossible for him. The song that best displays the “emptiness” theme is Welcome to Heartbreak. The lyrics are rich with contrast between the “good life” and his own:
My friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.
He said his daughter got a brand new report card, and all I got was a brand new sports car.
Dad crack a joke all the kids laughed, but I couldn’t hear em all the way in first class.
Chased the good life my whole life long, look back on my life and my gone…where did I go wrong?
Kanye’s mother died shortly before he began work on the album. The genuine yet not necessarily romantic heartbreak and grieving portrayed on the album fits with this kind of rift, the kind that rocks you to your core, the kind the death of a mother to a young person (Kanye is only 31) can cause.
The lyrics to several songs give off vibes of a desire for change, yet he is a bit like Peter Petrelli in the T.V. show Heroes. No matter how hard he tries to do what he thinks is right and even to fix past mistakes, he just makes things worse. I can see a man like Kanye deciding to find a real relationship, maybe even invest more in the one he already has. Yet, all he has trained himself to do thus far is treat women shallowly and create relationships based on appearances. One song, RoboCop, reveals the one-sided conversation of a dysfunctional romantic fight, first laying all the blame on the other party, then sarcastically making fun of and putting down that party. He wants to change over night but most people can’t do that. Kanye’s descriptions of the inner workings of his romantic relationships (in the songs, and who knows if they are autobiographical or just songs) reveal a desire for intimacy but a lack in compassion and patience. Perhaps these qualities will develop in time and then he will find and develop a loving lasting relationship, but for now he is caught in the middle; wanting to be someone he isn’t.
I’m fascinated by songs in the main-stream that describe yearning for eternal significance. To me it shows that no one is completely shallow and we all have the same needs at our core. I also know that anyone can change but not everyone does. To me this album shows that universal struggle: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” (Romans 7:21).
As an adult it is fun for me to analyze music with contrasting and unexpected images. However, If I had children between the ages of 5 and 15 I might not have purchased this album (perhaps they would be oblivious at a younger age?). It could send a mixed message to them, and they might not be mature enough to filter the bad from the good. None of the songs have swears but they do portray dysfunctional relationships and talking enigmatically about one’s sordid past. Also, unfortunately, we cannot separate the singer and his image from his music. Kanye is not the type of person I would want to put on display or admire around my young children. With older children however, I think that talking and analyzing media such as this would be very healthy. Teenager’s minds are developing the ability to think through complicated issues with contrasting messages. Parents and teachers are in the role to help teach them discernement in recognizing good and evil instead of just cool and uncool. I think it can be complicated and I am sure I know people who would not go near this album and others who would go to a concert with their children. Here is a situation that is very gray. Also I do not have children so I can only think about and speculate what I would do. Perhaps I would act entirely different.
Welcome to Heartbreak: