Sunday, December 14, 2008

Kanye West -- 808's & Heartbreak

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: The eclectic mash-up of T-Pain and Phil Collins works.

Cons: When does the auto-tune backlash begin?

Bottom Line: Kanye's creative gamble pays off in a big way.

Recommended Tracks:

Love Lockdown

So Amazing

After defeating 50 Cent during last-year's same-day album
"showdown", Kanye West was at the top of his game. Graduation
pulled off a delicate balancing act -- on critic's top 10 lists while
producing top 10 hits.

But after a tumultuous year personally, his latest album 808's
& Heartbreaks
differs drastically from his previous work. While
and Later Registration re-used songs and concepts
from his days as an underground rapper, 808's was completed
within the span of a few weeks. It's the rare album from a rapper
released sooner than expected, perhaps because Kanye isn't
rapping anymore.

For someone who rapped before he produced, his Andre
3000-like turn towards musical experimentation is surprising.
As is his decision to make a break-up album that sounds like a
mash-up of Phil Collins and T-Pain. Most surprising of all, he
manages to pull it off.

Lately Auto-Tune, the computerized synthesization of vocal
melodies, has become inescapable. So if you've become weary
of it, be forewarned. 808's is an Auto-Tune overload, with the
vast majority of Kanye's lyrics sung through it. It's a good decision
-- Andre 3000 can carry a tune while Kanye largely can't.

The album beautifully merges the main song archetypes of modern R&B -- the up-tempo club songs and the melodramatic personal ones. He varies the instrumentals, moving seamlessly from the violin ("RoboCop") to the piano ("Welcome to Heartbreak"). Instantly catchy melodies abound; singles "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless" have several different refrains.

The one lesson he learned from his previous work is brevity; 808's clocks in at only 11 songs. It's aiming to be larger-than-life, with music meant to be blared from stadium speakers. As Kanye noted in an interview, he spends the majority of his time touring the world in stadiums and auditoriums.

He's become one of the rare rap stars -- like Eminem, Jay-Z and Snoop -- so successful they're bigger than rap. 808's is a reaction to the absurdity of pop stardom: "Chased the "Good Life" my whole life long / Looked back on my life and my life gone." It echoes many of the same themes of Britney Spears prescient hit "Lucky", where she bemoans how unsatisfying fame is and how it overwhelmed her previous identity.

His lyrical meltdown was triggered by personal tragedy -- the untimely death of his mother and a broken engagement. The result is a string of break-up songs that wouldn't be out-of-place on an emo album, as Kanye swings from triumph ("I'm not loving you the way I wanted too / Where I'm going I don't need you") to heartbreak ("lost his soul to a women so heartless").

Such vulnerability is unusual in the macho world of rap, where the perils of fame and heartbreak are often ignored. The genre’s roots in the lower class make it harder for rappers to complain about their success. And while Kanye’s raps on a bonus track don’t vary lyrically from the rest of the album; they come across as more petulant and self-absorbed.

Where he goes musically after 808’s is unclear, but the album ensures the spotlight won’t be leaving him anytime soon.

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