Kanye West knows one way to make guests pay attention at an album listening party: a room full of live nude women, standing and posing in silhouette against a wall of bright colored light in a performance designed by artist Vanessa Beecroft. That was the scene in a Los Angeles loft Tuesday night, as West unveiled his brooding, emotional 808s & Heartbreak album, set for release November 25.
More than 700 invited guests watched and listened as Beecroft's 40 models slowly changed position with each song, some of them wearing fuzzy wigs that covered their faces. Just as provocative were West's new tracks, including the singles "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless," mostly obsessed with romantic pain and loss. All vocals were sung and treated with the electro "auto-tune" effect. But there was no rapping or overt sampling, just emotional waves of electronic sound, beats and occasional strings.
"You want to tell your friends you're leaving me," Wests sings on one stormy, lovesick track. "You'll never find nobody better than me." Later, his voice is wounded as he surrenders, "Goodbye, my friend. Will I ever love again?"
When the album was over, West grabbed a microphone and stood beside Beecroft's models and called 808s & Heartbreak a very personal project. "These are pieces of real life that I'm putting out for people to judge," West said, and then ridiculed how it might be rated by critics. "It's from my heart. I don't give a fuck if someone rates it 'hot' or 'not.' I'm here to bring positivity that cannot be judged. It's like judging a grandmother's love, and someone says 'Your grandmother gets two and a half mics.' Or, 'You grandmother didn't sell a million the first week.'"
West, who said he has another album coming in June, noted that the closing song, "Cold As Winter," was written for his mother, who died at age 58 last year following complications from cosmetic surgery. "The irony for me, someone who has talked about so many labels — Louis Vuitton this, Benz that, this girl look good, I'm not going out with you if you don't look good — the irony, for me to lose the most important person to Hollywood. And now it's time to deliver ideas in the most naked form possible."
He put his arm around Beecroft, who created the living art installation on short notice. "When he contacted me a month ago, he caught me off-guard," she told the crowd. "But when I heard the album, I heard things that touched my own life."
Among the guests was Jimmy Kimmel, who arrived after West performed two songs on his show earlier that afternoon. "I'm sure it's beautiful art, and many people can appreciate it on a much deeper level than I can," Kimmel said of Beecroft's work. "But I look out there and see a lot of good-looking naked girls and it makes me happy."