Hip-Hop’s Heartbreak: Kanye West – “Street Lights”

Kanye West
808s and Heartbreak

“Seems like / Streetlights / Glowing / Happened to be / Just like moments / Passing / In front of me so I hopped in / The cab and / I paid my fair, see / I know my destination / But I’m just not there / In the streets.”

And that’s about it.

“Street Lights”, the eighth track on 808s & Heartbreak, might be the most irrelevant song on the album to the naked eye. But from the “Let me know / Do I still got time to grow / Things ain’t always set in stone / Let me know / Let me know” stanza that opens the song with bare piano and moody effects, it would be unwise for any listener to completely dismiss the importance of this track in the grand scheme of things.

Repetition doesn’t always work. When executed correctly, it’s what turns any run-of-the-mill pop song into a great, memorable Top 40 hit, and a Top 40 hit is something “Street Lights” is not. But what it is, is a perfect transition into the final stretch of the record, a three-song (and one additional bonus track, mind you) sprint that’s as memorable as anything art-pop has seen in recent memory.

The most important element of the track is what happens when West combines talents with producer Mr. Hudson to offer tribal-sounding tom-tom drums that literally make any listener sway to the bare-boned groove. It’s so simple, it’s scary how infectious the song truly becomes. Forget the twinge of sound effects or the minor chords a piano provides within this three-minute romp. The creativity oozing from that drum pattern from a traditional musical sense should be enough to draw any music fan’s attention.

And as if that’s not enough, the rapper turns the Auto-Tune to 11 here, forcing the vocal track to appear somewhat delayed. His “I’m just not there / Life’s just not fair” is a line all too poignant for a record aiming squarely at emotion. That sentiment is amplified by the deliberate off-time recital of the line merely spoken in a soft, calm, somewhat numb voice. The vocal performance alone creates that undercurrent of dark atmosphere that is prevalent throughout the entire album.

That prominent vocal track is trumped by the backing effort heard harmoniously backing the performer in a hauntingly subtle manner. Kicking in just after the minute-and-a-half mark, the addition of complementary vocals behind West’s mope-laden performance is a sheer act of accidental soul that the song needs to survive. To say they simply give the song a nice cushion on which to lay its head would be quite the understatement. Those vocals don’t just add to the track, they make the track.

So it’s fitting that such a buried element to “Street Lights” is what makes the song as good as it is. The song itself is a buried element of an entire album that makes the entire album as good as it is. But Kanye West is good at making the listener question the little intricacies that make his work great. And without “Street Lights”, 808s & Heartbreak wouldn’t be nearly as great an album as it turned out to be.

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