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808s & Heartbreak Week: "Heartless"

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By not being a rap album, 808s highlights everything that’s vital and specific to rap music as a form of expression. Contextualized as the non-rap album from a rapper, it’s nearly impossible to hear each song and not think about how much more interesting and complicated they’d be if the monster hooks had raps between them.

But after living with the album for a couple weeks and really enjoying it, the surprise is that, “Heartless”, the most rap-like song on the album, is one of the least interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good song and probably one of the more like, platonically “good” songs on the album, but in context, it’s the second song in the “Welcome to Heartbreak” to “Streetlights” monster run that makes up the best parts of 808s; neither a highlight or low-light.

Not a surprise that it’s co-produced by No I.D as it’s got boom-bap immediacy, but also this gelled-together musicality. None of the jagged edges of most rap beats but a smooth cohesion, carried along by fluttering pan-pipes or something and a series of defiant piano chords.

The music on 808s either falls into the category of the first two tracks (and “Love Lockdown” and “Bad News”), this interesting but skeletal mix of electronics, or these fully-formed explosions of sound like “Heartless” (and “Paranoid”, “Robocop” “Streetlights”, “See You In My Nightmares” and “Coldest Winter”). That the album’s sequencing begins slow, jumps into warp-speed, and then interrupts this energy for the languid “Bad News” is confusing.

Ultimately, it works or works well enough. Hours on iTunes rearranging the tracks to find a better or more logical order didn’t hide the inherent flaws of the album. There’s too many tracks that introduce the titular heartbreak (like “Heartless”) or present it as if you’re already aware of it from reading Perez Hilton. Although the album’s not conceptual–as I said in my City Paper piece, it’s a context album–there’s the semblance of a narrative to the whole thing but then a song later on the album like “Love Lockdown” plays like a thesis statement that would fit better as an introduction than mid-album track. It’s weird.

Kanye’s protected himself from criticism by saying junk about “expressing himself” or how there’s a beauty to making something in just five minutes, and there is, but it obviously goes both ways. There’s something sloppy and off about 808s that makes it cool, but its not the rough edges that make hip-hop vital, but a half-worked on piece of art, excuse me, “pop art”. In the liberal arts world, it’d be labeled “problematic”.

Rapping though, helps the track and moves it out of the problematic realm and more toward those aforementioned rough edges almost exclusive to hip-hop. If only for the simple fact that rapping requires way more words than more conventional songwriting, the ideas and expressions can bounce off one another and complement or create weird counterpoint. Kanye’s not paring everything down for melodramatic, maximized effect here.

The first line falls back on those much-joked about “cold” similes but it’s followed up by Kanye speaking tough-talk to his girl (“you better watch the way you talkin’ to me yo”). It’s playing with the “contradiction” Kanye’s always played around with, but it’s not being a backpacker with a Benz but the kind of bullshit everyone does when their lovelife’s crumbling: Be an asshole, equal parts wounded and ready to wound.

There’s also an interesting confluence of voices and point of views going on in the song. Seemingly speaking to his ex through the song, other times quoting scenes from their argument, and even jumping into an imagined discussion with a friend about his girl’s chaotic moods: “Why does she be so mad at me for?/Homey I don’t know, she’s hot and cold.”

In a way, “Heartless” is the only pure hint at what 808s could’ve been if Kanye’d made a rap album. But as the album stands, it occupies this weird place of not getting to the rarified weirdo brilliance of 808s’ best tracks or farting out like the album’s worst half-songs.

Written by Brandon

December 9th, 2008 at 4:06 pm

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