Review: Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak”

Nov 25, 2008 12:06pm

  Individually or combined, heartbreak and the death of a loved one can be jarring to the system.  Recently, Kanye West lost his mother and split with his fiancée. Both of these events helped shape and influence the sound of his new album “808s and Heartbreak.”  For all those fans of his first three records, be warned.  This is really not a hip-hop record.  This is more of an experiment in electro-clash and computerized techno-pop.  It’s somber and dark.  He doesn’t rap at all.  Instead he sings, assisted by an auto-tuned vocoder effect.  The songs are vulnerable and show a man who has exposed his soul to the world.  In the bravado-filled hip-hop world, this seems like an amazing move.  Sung with the digitized voice, however, these songs, no matter how good they may be, are robbed of their humanity.  There’s something ironic about singing songs about human emotions in such a sterile sort of way.  The album’s focus might be acceptable if I had faith in West’s sense of irony.  I don’t.  He used this effect throughout because he’s not a singer and he wanted to sing.  In turn, the move sucks the life out of the record.  He thinks he’s being innovative.  He thinks he’s giving us a hip-hop “Kid A.”  He’s not.  He’s just giving us one of the strangest pop albums in history.  For those who don’t know, an 808 is a kind of drum machine.  West built his career as a respected beat-maker and producer.  It’s no surprise that the techno-infused beats on here are often compelling.  If a real singer were singing the songs, this would be a much different review.  The digitized vocal effect has become a pop and hip-hop staple.  It’s unfortunate to see natural talent replaced with studio magic.  The beat on “Say You Will” sounds like a game of Pong combined with some sort of drum circle.  The synths are dramatic, the pianos chord for effect, and while the song itself is well-written, it lacks the human element it needs to succeed.  If it didn’t reek of studio trickery it might actually be moving.  A string section sets off “Welcome To Heartbreak,” before it breaks into a rather frantic sounding, dramatic beat.  If nothing else, this record shows that West could have a movie-scoring career.  His instrumental tracks are interesting.  In the song he talks about his friend’s love for his wife and kids, while all West has is his “crib” and a “new sports car.”    That sense of emptiness does come through.  Knowing that you may be alone for the rest of your life can be a very upsetting realization.  Looking at people in relationships when your heart is broken makes you regret what you lost and it makes you hope that they know how lucky they are to find love.  Money and fame are no substitute for love.   To give West a little credit, in this case, the fact that his voice is somewhat altered and buried under a dozen or so layers of digital distortion only accentuates this alien-like feeling.  “Heartless” verges on hip-hop, and it recalls his earlier records.  He is almost rapping during the verses, but covered in digital weirdness, it loses its bite.  The hook is memorable and it will probably be a hit, but it would be so much better with a guest vocalist.  West wants to be a ground-breaker.  He wants to bend genres.  His intentions are good, but he lacks the arsenal to put his vision into motion.  Like it or not, he’s an excellent hip-hop producer, an OK rapper and a terrible singer.  He’s proven before he knows his way around a hook, but he’s best as a manipulator.  He’s not a worthy vocalist.

Young Jeezy pops in for a cameo on “Amazing.” He too sounds slightly digitized.  Once again, West’s backdrop and tune have potential to be moving, but the digitized voice kills the vibe as do the slowed down grunts during the chorus.  “Love Lockdown” is already a hit, which frankly shows what a poor state the pop world is in at the moment.  It’s a run-of-the-mill, limited blues number with a house beat and a marching drum effect.  This is not West’s best work.  It could work if it was covered by someone who could really belt, but here it sounds like a lame after-hours club jam.  It sounds rather generic when compared to West’s other work.  “Paranoid” has a futuristic German-synth-pop riff, which is interesting until West comes in and starts busting out lyrics robot-style. Beat-wise, it sounds like the Neptunes channeling Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom.” As intriguing as that is, West once again kills the momentum the second he opens his mouth.  “Robocop” almost works with its over-the-top synth-strings and the tune is catchy.  It’s strange to hear such overwhelming pop elements backed by a dark, pounding, pseudo-industrial beat.  If this album has any highlights, this is one of them.  “Street Lights” is a soft ballad lost somewhere in a sea of robotic fuzz.  The effect that goes over his voice here is really distracting. Once again, with different execution, this song could have been more enjoyable.  “Bad News” is a bare-bones pop exercise.  Much like “Love Lockdown,” this is not among West’s best work and the vocal effect robs the track of any genuine energy.  It sounds like generic robotic pop.  Even by techno standards, the track is somewhat boring.  “See You In My Nightmare” features Lil Wayne.  Fresh off the success of “Tha Carter III,” he’s a big guest of the moment, but he’s no stranger to vocoder abuse.  Personally, I prefer the more straight-forward hip-hop side he shows on his underground mixtapes.  Here, he and West bellow and croon like angry, raspy androids.  The song isn’t much.  It’s built around a simple synth groove which could’ve been found on an old-school Nintendo game.  In any case, this is one of the weakest songs on the record.  “Coldest Winter” on the other hand, is the album’s one true keeper.  It’s the one song I can imagine listening to over and over again.  It sounds like West’s vocal effects are turned down and made less obvious, so he sounds closer to natural.  The problem is, most of the song is stolen and restructured from Tears For Fears’ song “Memories Fade.” Coming from a hip-hop background, he’s used to sampling, but this is different. It makes the song lose a little of its edge, but at least he’s using respectable source material.    The album closes with a bonus “live track.”  Really, it’s something the album could do without.  It’s him singing a rant about Pinocchio and how he wants to be “a real boy.”  West probably thinks this is some deep expression.  It isn’t.  It’s just awful.  The record should’ve ended on “Coldest Winter” and gone out with a little bit of respect.  Some would argue that West’s first three albums are hip-hop classics.  I won’t deny that.  They are each worthy in their own ways.  Somehow here he has lost his way.  This record was not a good idea.  It screams “vanity project” without really backing it up with quality.  The concept is interesting.  The album, even though it doesn’t work, is occasionally fascinating, but it isn’t the big artistic statement West intended it to be.  It’s really somewhat unfortunate. In the end, one doesn’t feel West’s pain.  Instead one is amazed at what passes for pop today.  This is West’s ego finally catching up to him. 

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