I just unearthed something I wrote 2 years ago when Kanye released “Love Lockdown.” I am an unabashed fan of “Love Lockdown.” My feelings about 808s and Heartbreak on the whole are somewhat mixed, but ultimately I stand by much of what I said in this little essay I wrote (and never finished) back in fall of 08. Enjoy some fragments of thought:
The first time I heard “Love Lockdown,” it was a grainy, difficult to understand live version performed at the VMAs. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. I was astonished by it. To say I’d never heard anything like it doesn’t quite capture the sentiment. I’d never expected anything like it. Particularly from an artist like Kanye who, for all his faux-avant garde bluster and Murakami obsession, is a populist at heart. He knows where his bread is buttered, and so a song like “Good Life” or “Gold Digger” is never far from his fingertips. “Love Lockdown” is a different beast. Its verses are percussionless. Its chorus soars over taiko drums—a possible first for Hip-Hop. It is rap-less. It is auto-tuned to the max. Most notably it is empty, completely lacking the lushness that made old favorites like “Heart of the City” and even recent single “Stronger” so lovable. Every second was full of exciting, hidden elements. “Lockdown” thrives on space, the void.
In a recent interview, Kanye said these were the songs he needed to make and they needed to be sung. It was necessary for him, as an artist and a man, to release these songs at this specific time. There’s something to be said for this notion that a certain sentiment can only be expressed through a certain style and medium. I’m not completely convinced, but, in listening to “Love Lockdown” for probably the 100th time, I’m beginning to understand what Kanye means. The sentiments of the lyrics are too simple for rap and, accordingly, rap would fill the emptiness of “Lockdown” with too many unnecessary syllables. There are no place holders in this track. It is almost exactly the musical expression of the title of Ye’s new album: 808 drums providing the foundation for Kanye to sing about his heartbreak. Style matching substance, in a rare economical move on the part of the usually extravagant producer, rapper, and style savant.
Is it a success? I’m not entirely sure. I know I like it. I know it’s doing well and legions of Kanye fans love it. The general reaction I’ve heard from those around me, Kanye fans and detractors alike, is puzzlement and often outright hate. The common refrain is “He can’t sing.” Indeed, he can’t, but I’m not really sure this is the point. The auto-tune makes Kanye bearable enough and, in his defense, he can at least carry a tune. Lauryn Hill he isn’t, but serviceable and emotive he certainly is. This is the point. His emotions are on full display and perfectly expressed in this song. Pain is his m.o. and you can feel it in nearly every line delivered. It is a sort of theatre, more so than simply a song, and in this Kanye is once again ahead of the curve. It may not be the most interesting, complex, or catchy piece, but it appeals to the listener on a visceral level that is often lost in Hip-Hop, found more readily in old Soul and, ironically, I suppose, Heavy Metal.
I think this is fairly appropriate in light of all that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has proven to be–in the words of Andre 3000, “an emotion filled theater.” But extended MBDTF reveries are for another time.