Kanye West
Credit: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images

Back in the 1970s, Allen Funt, of Candid Camera fame, put out an R-rated feature film called What Do You Say to a Naked Lady, which had, yes, live, nude women dropping trou (and everything else) in public so the startled reactions of strangers could be caught on film. It felt a little like that last night at the Ace Gallery in Hollywood, a warehouse-like space where a few hundred music industry types were herded up a ramp and confronted with about 35 motionless and completely naked (except for their high heels) ladies. But there was nothing to say to them, because we were all there to hear the world premiere of Kanye West’s forthcoming 808s & Heartbreak, with the stationary models as a sort of accompanying art installation, as imagined by Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft. For some, Allen Funt wasn’t the filmmaker brought to mind. “For the first time, I feel like I’m really in a Fellini movie,” said the fellow next to me. For those of us with really long memories, the phalanx of female birthday suits almost could have passed as an homage to the original, pre-censored, NSFW album cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, although Hendrix had a slightly higher tolerance for body fat on his models than West or Beecroft.

The women stood motionless as most of the album played out, backlit by a large, glowing screen controlled by a visual DJ in the corner. The crowd — which included hip-hop luminaries like Rick Ross and — gathered around the dimly lit gals in a semi-circle, as guards paced an invisible perimeter to make sure no one tried to engage the models. Three songs in, some of them began to sit down or strike other poses, seemingly at random, as we tried to imagine exactly what direction Beecroft had given them. The front half of the brigade appeared to be African-American, and the rear flank Caucasian; most (but not all) of the black women wore curly black wigs pulled completely over their faces, and most (but not all) of the white ladies had white wigs similarly obstructing their faces. Was there a statement being made here — besides the obvious one of trying to hold the first listening party in history where people don’t spend the whole night grouped around the bar?

Yes! West finally appeared after the album had run through in its entirety and offered some explanations. “I’ve always been a fan of Vanessa’s work and its strong imagery,” he told the crowd, explaining that Beecroft had only had a week to put the event together. “I liked the idea of nudity, because… in society, they tell us to wear clothes at a certain point… Crazy is anyone who breaks from the norm. The irony, for me, someone who’s talked about so many labels, [like] Louis Vuitton… ‘this girl looks good, I’m not going out with her if she don’t look good’… The irony for me [was] to lose the most important person to Hollywood.” It was left unspoken just who that was, but presumably he was referring to his late mother, who died from complications following cosmetic surgery in Los Angeles, and who he had previously noted was the subject of the album’s closing song. “And now it’s time to deliver ideas in the most naked form possible,” he added.

addCredit(“Jason LaVeris/Getty Images”)

Right then, a women in the crowd shouted, “Go naked!,” and he seemedto think better of pursuing that line of thought, shifting to thelyrics’ lack of materialism. “I don’t know if you noticed the album hasnothing about ‘I’m doing this and I just hopped off the plane.’ It’stalking about things people really go through, things I really gothrough.”

Indeed, it was easy to hear that 808s & Heartbreak is ahuge departure for West, even if the warehouse-like acoustics didn’tallow for any careful critical evaluation. We were a little distractedat first, so it took a while to notice: There is virtually no rappingon this album. Yes, he sings throughout the entire thing — albeit withthe constant aid of an AutoTune program’s electronic effects. Headdressed that subject at length, as well, when he spoke to the crowd.”I wanted to talk about the main word that I hear the most thateveryone learned in the past year… It’s like the new word thatrepresents wack, and it’s called AutoTune. It’s like a word that youshouldn’t know unless you’re an engineer or something, and now everyoneknows it…. So for anyone who has hang-ups on AutoTune, because it’sso played out in the urban world… We’ve used it for so long. We used iton ‘Jesus Walks.’ We used it on the first album, The College Dropout.If I was 8 years old and I went to the studio the first time, I wouldtell the engineer, ‘Give me AutoTune.’ It’s the funnest thing to use.”

But “fun” isn’t really the primary buzzword for 808s & Heartbreak,which is a departure in its subdued mood and musical style as well asits obvious vocal left turn. It’s too interestingly produced to becalled There are no club stompers like “Good Life” (which got everyoneroused, at last, when it came over the PA after West’s speech). Theremay not be a plethora of obvious singles on it, which he alluded towhen making remarks about not being a slave to radio. Although Westsaid that only the last track on the album is about his mother, therest of it deals with the loss of someone else near and dear to him,presumably a wife or lover. This is West’s dark-night-of-the-soulalbum. When it hits stores Nov. 25, will it sell the millions of copieseveryone expects of him (and pretty much of him alone, these days), orgo down as a brave experiment in stripped down emotionalism? Maybe itwouldn’t hurt to extend last night’s artistic conceit to an Electric Ladyland-style CD cover, just in case.

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