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808s & Heartbreak Week: "Street Lights"

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While 808s at first, seems messy and all over the place–an impulsive, angry bitchfest by one of the few artists that’s popular and selling enough to still get away with such a thing–multiple listens pull out a non-linear but thought-out narrative of his relationship. A relationship that dissolved not long after the death of his mother, a point that West leaves only up to your reading of the gossip pages and album ender “Coldest Winter”. For all its rockist, album concessions, Kanye’s latest doesn’t actually play by anybody’s rules and, like a lot of out-there weirdo, minor masterpieces, it looks and sounds a mess at first.

When the over-production of “Robocop” somehow elegantly fades-out and 808s‘ inertia’s interrupted by “Street Lights”, it sounds arbitrary but it’s not. It’s Kanye finally opening up at the dumbest, weirdest moment to open up: Right after he was just the most full of shit. While the sentiments of this song are affecting and at times, the right mix of simple langauge and quasi-cliche, it’s the music that makes this song so affecting. That moaning electronics that open the song is more affecting than his cornball sincere opening line (“Let me know, do I still have time to grow?”) but Kanye’s done something to the auto-tune so that it vibrates around his vocals. It sounds cool and its inexplicably affecting–by making the vocals even more obvious computerized, it’s sadder, some true Kraftwerk shit–and connects to “we just gonna be enemies” on “Heartless” or “system overload” on “Love Lockdown”, both of which have the same in-the-red effect.

Just as “Robocop” was a merciless, unfeeling, over-produced dick move, “Street Lights” totally goes for it too, it’s just tugging at your heartstrings sad bastard transcendance instead. Twinkling The Natural pianos, post-rock sturm and drang, conversational singing dropping confessional lyrics, and background vocals from Tony Williams and Esthero that push it all along. It’s all really obvious, especially combined with leaving town in a cab imagery/sort of metaphor but it works, which is more important.

Additionally and well, quintessentially Kanye, there’s a great deal of subtlety that support and conflicts with the Explosion in the Sky theatrics of most of the song. That opening electronic wail returns throughout but it’s not quite as whiny when it returns throughout the song and the background vocals, which could easily be over the top melismatic bullshit, are well just that, but they’re kinda hushed at the same time. There’s a point where Esthero coos and Tony Williams does this sexy mumbling soul-singer “mo-o-o-ments…” thing and it’s perfect. One more weird detail to put this song over and make you feel it in your gut or maybe even ruin your day the way all great sad music can ruin your day.

Lyrically, it gets better after the groan-inducing “do I still have time to grow?”. He’s working with the image of “street lights” and the cars as escape to nowhere imagery that can be traced through 50s rock to Springsteen or something like “Fast Car” to hip-hop’s requisite car jams; Kanye’s using the same committed to pathos imagery as Pimp C when Pimp tells you, “still like to get my dick sucked under the street lights” on last year’s “Gravy” or “…as I get swallowed under city lights” from “One Day”.

The assertion “I know my destination, but I’m just not there” is the mix of confidence and half-”I’m a fuck up” confessional, but there’s a personable quality to it when Kanye prefaces it with the word “See”. He’s explaining himself to us or his ex or whoever and the “see,” is the same kind of qualifier he’s been putting in his lyrics since Graduation which adds a level of modesty, but it’s still a bit accusatory, implying that at least he knows his destination, what about you? It’s a more complicated version of the bile he’s been spitting the whole album and it works because Kanye’s at least sort of being real on this track.

Written by Brandon

December 15th, 2008 at 8:10 pm

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