Written By: Samir Siddiqui
808s & Heartbreak
Roc-a-Fella/Island Def Jam
True to form, Kanye West pushes forward in his quest for creative greatness by doing what he’s done throughout his career -the unexpected. Pulling further away from the sound of contemporary hip-hop than even his euro-pop-influenced last album Graduation did, 808s & Heartbreak contains eleven songs in which Kanye laments the recent losses of his deceased mother, and his ex-fiancé. While much has been made about how drastically different 808s is from West’s previous three offerings, there are some signs of musical continuity. The LP is far from a two-headed monster (though the influence of the auto-tune technique and the use of the TR-808 drum machine dominate the sound) – unlike Graduation, the synths no longer serve as the primary element of the album’s production, but instead beep over and prod at the layers of instrumentation underneath. The sonic arrangements, most notably those of “Bad News” and “Coldest Winter,” recreate the dramatic feel of Late Registration’s more touching moments, and the overall soulful nature of the album harkens back to the sentimentality of The College Dropout.
An aura of gospel enlaps the introductory “Say You Will,” while “Welcome to Heartbreak” features one of Kanye’s simplest, yet most effective allusions to his feelings of despair: “My god sister gettin’ married by the lake…but I couldn’t figure out who I wanna’ take/ Bad enough that I showed up late…I had to leave ‘fore they even cut the cake, welcome to heartbreak.” “Heartless” features the most T-Pain-esque usage of the auto-tune, as Kanye builds around the immediately catchy, dominating chorus with stabbing drums and a striking piano loop. However, the rest of the album sees Kanye finding new and more interesting uses for the device, as he tampers with the auto-tune effects to churn out echoing choruses, dreary, low-register tones, and static-filtrated verses.
Sounding muffled and trapped on its original inception, the much reworked version of “Love Lockdown” transforms the initially head-scratching lead single into one of the album’s finest tracks. The vocals are notably cleaned up, and the knocking tribal drums play triumphantly over a infectious blend of keys and synths. While the album-wide use of the auto-tune certainly helps mask some of West’s shortcomings as a singer, he consistently displays a penchant for carving out great melodies. Kanye’s minimal vocal inflections throughout “Streetlights” allow the melody to rise and fall at his will, creating an almost lullaby-esque charm that compliments the poetic imagery evoked by the lyrics.
Despite Kanye’s ability to transcend the lack of rapping on the album (Young Jeezy drops the only true 16 on the swagger-heavy, and epically sombre “Amazing”), there are certain moments which stand-out in a negative light. The up-tempo groove of the almost dance-pop “Paranoid” is a stark contrast to the overall tone of the album, and is hampered by a show-tune-like hook. On the lyrical side, Kanye’s not-so-subtle descriptions of his ex-girl, as an overbearing “Robocop,” and a “spoiled little L.A. girl,” among others, makes the dedication of almost an entire album to her somewhat peculiar. Worse, the endless tales of heartbreak rob Kanye of his natural ability to cover vast thematic ground, best evident from his first two LP’s.
In the end, 808s & Heartbreak serves as another example of Kanye playing to his strengths. The precise, sweeping production serves as the highlight, with the individual songs working off anthem-worthy hooks and generally straight-forward lyricism. However, whereas ‘Ye armed his earlier albums with guest features to hide what some felt were mediocre rap skills, he overcomes his lack of singing talent by his own merits as a superior artist. He may never become the best rapper or the best singer, but there aren’t many of his peers matching his ability to consistently put out great music.