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Kanye’s Heart Broken. And No Longer In Rhyming.


“Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion/I wish her heart still was in rhyming/Cause who the kids gonna listen to/ Huh? I guess me if it isnt you.”

Kanye hasn’t gone into hip-hop exile (yet) and he’s still releasing music, but it’s funny that almost exactly one year after Graduation’s release, where he admonished–as both a fan and a kind of pop-culture ethicist–Ms. Hill for leaving the game, he’d release “Love Lockdown”, a raps-less, almost verse-less, mood-piece.

On his blog, Kanye proudly claimed that he’d only written the song a week and a half before he performed it and it shows. A week later, an even less exciting and rambling, recorded version is released and now, it seems to be part of Kanye’s “break-up” album, 808s & Heartbreak–a brilliant title by the way, but one that also sounds like the title of a VH1’s made-for-TV biopic on UGK, “808s & Heartbreak: The UGK Story–which apparently, comes out on December 16th.

The obviously rushed nature of the whole endeavor seems like an ill-advised mix of Kanye following his muse meets record exec desperation–to a record exec, Kanye’s seen as one of the only dudes still selling records–and if “Love Lockdown”s any indication, that’s a bad combination. Kanye does not work well in-the-moment, he’s too emotional and too convinced that everything he says or does is genius. He needs a few weeks to contemplate his ideas–or now, read a bunch of blogs that tell him what to do different–and so, expect a more engaging version of “Love Lockdown”, maybe a “remix” with rapping (and then the remix will be on the album, and the original version, a “Bonus cut”).

One gets the sense that all this T-Pain/The Dream/Rihanna/Everybody hip-pop futurism, along with the mind-boggling artistic and financial success of Tha Carter III has got Kanye chomping at the bit to jump back in and release the next out-there shit; maybe the definitive “out-there” shit. And so, we’re back to Late Registration mode, where it’s not so much about making a really good rap album like College Dropout and Graduation, as it is about courting mainstream (rock) critic praise, not being the one or two rap albums on Rolling Stone year-end lists but being spoken in the same breath as Coldplay and Wilco and/or whatever electronic group everyone’s creaming over!

And so, he makes “Love Lockdown”, a song tailor-made for discussion and celebration amongst the very people who grossly misread Graduation as materialistic and told us that Late Registration was a masterpiece (but haven’t put it back in their CD player in three years). The song’s beat–in a rock concession, he buries the rhythm in the background–does the oh-so clever trick of sounding like a heartbeat, the pianos are just a Coldplay chord progression, the too-easy switching up of “you lose” to “you choose” in the final verse is just silly, while the auto-tune attempts sophistication and not the goofiness of T-Pain (or even the jagged pathos he stumbled upon for his “Put On” verse where he both mocked and took seriously the auto-tune trend). This is self-serious, heart-wrenching stuff, and it will all play-out on an album that gets the dicks of all rockist critics hard: The break-up album.

Cut two minutes out of this and conflate all the music’s peaks into those two minutes and it would work as a pretty good, mood-setting intro for 808s and Heartbreak but at four minutes, it’s languid and limp (Warning: People will tell you that’s the point of the song and you just don’t get it if you employ those adjectives). Kanye’s mumbled chorus–a total let down and the biggest difference between this recorded version and the VMA live version–is the most glaring flaw of the song and it’s connected to Kanye’s irksome, over-conceptualization.

My best guess is Kanye doesn’t let the song blow up into anything resembling a joyous chorus because that’s not what the song’s about–again, easy to explain, teachable–and that may be true, but that explanation doesn’t make the song enjoyable. Critics and music nerds don’t enjoy this song, they pontificate and tie the music loose-ends together and applaud it for “being different” or cynically, say Kanye sucks at rapping anyway and so he shouldn’t do it (near-fascist in their genre expectations, but only when it comes to rap). I dare any readers to find one critical assessment of “Love Lockdown” that reads like the writer enjoys listening to the song.

And that’s because it’s not fun. Nor is it fun in the way that very cerebral or depressive music can be fun. It’s the other side of Kanye West. We’ve grown used to the quasi-rebel crybaby who talks his shit again, but think back to Late Registration or his wings-wearing spectacle at the Grammys and you’ll find the Kanye of “Love Lockdown”: eager to please, approval-grabbing. Will this be Mr. West’s career? One great album which isn’t unanimously praised precisely because it is great (and great stuff’s always a little polarizing) followed by calculated, intellectualized music critic rap that puts him on the cover of TIME magazine? It’s looking that way.

Particularly baffling and depressing though, is the song’s lack of rapping. Not because Kanye is a brilliant rapper not employing his talents–ala’ Andre 3000 or Mos Def–but because rap is the ideal genre for the break-up song/album. The sheer density and amount of words in the average rap allows the kind of complexity and over-abundance of emotions that perfectly fits the feelings of a break-up. The kind of complexity a singer-songwriter needs an entire album to establish can happen in one rap song.

Kanye plays the songwriter game here and loses. The relative lack of words puts greater emphasis on them and makes Kanye’s goofy robot/computer metaphors (“system overload”, “the danger zone”, the video game-like “you lose”) embarrassing instead of goofily sincere or mood-shifting as they would be in a rap. Like most rock-oriented music, “Love Lockdown” tells you that it’s “soul-bearing” and “honest” instead of just being soul-bearing and honest.

Written by Brandon

September 11th, 2008 at 5:17 pm