The album 808s & Heartbreak is the sound of pop culture’s most brash and arrogant figure being brought to his knees — haunted by those most human of tragedies: the loss of a lover and the death of a parent. Indeed, a noirish nimbus of poetic justice encircles Kanye West’s fourth album: Gone are the encomiums to consumerism, the fizzy club bangers and the workout plans for overweight women. In their stead is a chastened and humbled artist, confronting that hoariest of clichés: Money can’t buy everything.
Throughout his career, West’s success has been predicated on defying convention — from the pink and preppy sartorial style initially deemed too nonthreatening for mass consumption, to his insistence on assailing hip-hop’s notorious homophobia, to his embrace of European techno. But 808s & Heartbreak marks West’s most radical risk yet — it’s a naked, raw breakup album certain to reverberate throughout a macho and misogynistic genre.
Sonically, its production mirrors West’s wounded confusion, with the Chicagoan concocting a witch’s brew of electro-tinged ’80s pop (Phil Collins, Tears for Fears, Cameo); ’00s electro-indie (Radiohead and Chromeo); R&B; trip-hop (at times, the down-tempo dirges and punishing drums channel late-period Portishead); African tribal polyrhythms, and, of course hip-hop. Swaddling his vocals in auto-tune, West uses (and, at times, abuses) the device not as trend-hopping gimmick but rather to project a robotic and detached despondency.
Assessed through the rigorous rubric generally expected from standard hip-hop lyricism, 808s & Heartbreak fails; yet, quite clearly, West aims instead for a simplistic pop, or as he’d call it, “pop art.” Certainly his couplets occasionally veer toward the overly facile, but tracks like the Kid Cudi–aided “Welcome to Heartbreak,” “Heartless” and “Coldest Winter,” triumph from West’s unmistakable passion and sincerity. It’s hard to remember mainstream hip-hop (if we can call this hip-hop) ever being this soul-baring and vulnerable. Guest raps are sparse, save for two powerful turns from Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne; in particular, the former finally earns the plaudits usually accorded him, lending a gravelly rasp to the mad thunder of “Amazing”—a track that somehow channels both eerie apocalypse and Knott’s Berry Farms’ “Kingdom of the Dinosaurs” ride.
West’s melancholy hasn’t fully dimmed his megalomania, with the rapper-producer recently proclaiming himself the voice of his generation. But such bombast isn’t inherently false, considering the astuteness with which he’s tapped into the decade’s zeitgeist. The backpacker-with-a-Benz ethos of The College Dropout (2003) navigated the narrow nexus between the righteous Rawkus Records era and the overt materialism of the mid-decade major label rap. At the peak of our swagger and subprime phantasmagoria, West dropped Late Registration, a bloated, baroque Jon Brion–aided blockbuster drowned in sappy strings. And last year, with blog-house and indie becoming the prevailing cliché, West collaborated with Daft Punk, Justice, and Peter, Bjorn & John. Now, with the nation at its wintry and bleak economic ebb, West has dropped his most innovative and introspective work yet. Let’s hope that no one ever uses auto-tune again.
KANYE WEST | 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)