December 4, 2008

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak

Print More

2008 has been a difficult year for Kanye West; from the death of his mother to the splitting from his long-time fiancée Alexis Phifer, West has endured hardships that clearly have influenced his artistic vision. To add to these personal adversities, West has just come off a mentally draining hip-hop tour. Instead of opting for the more traveled path of a worn-out superstar — entering faux-retirement or simply seeking a low-profile — West unsurprisingly defied conventions and threw himself into the studio, rush releasing 808s & Heartbreak just in time for the holidays. His fourth album in five years, this record oozes with equal parts raw emotion and unfinished production. Whether West is lamenting the end of a romance or lashing out at his critics, 808s & Heartbreak is a bleak, utterly serious affair from an artist seeking a therapeutic release.
While this outpouring of emotion may be healing for West, his disarming joylessness makes for an uneven listen, as this album is as fascinating as it is flawed. For the first time, West sings every song on the record, (with the aid of the T-Pain-popularized auto-tune vocoder) a feat commendable for his fearlessness and not his vocal abilities. Nonetheless, West’ s equally heavy reliance on the Roland TR-808 drum machine (does the album title make sense now?) is overbearing, as nearly every track toes the line between innovative and lazily uninspired.
Promising album opener “Say You Will” and effective “Welcome to Heartbreak” are the former — featuring ominous drum loops, menacingly foreboding synthesizers, and hauntingly sparse piano riffs that are imaginative sounds for West. Lead single “Love Lockdown” is a fusion of efficiently melancholic verses and a climaxing, tribal-drumming chorus. The same applies for follow-up single “Heartless” and album closer “Coldest Winter” — both of which pair lingering drum loops with West’s anguished vocals.
All of this amounts to an album that, although it should be praised for its honesty and ambition, grows sluggish and plodding. Uptempo “Paranoid” — in spite of its burnished, buoyant ’80s synths — is bogged down by West’s woeful rhymes lamenting a relationship gone wrong. The hopeful strings on “RoboCop” are drowned out by an impossibly dense bass line. The intimate, bare-bones production of “Street Lights” attempts to build a personal rapport but ends up falling flat. Even album highlight “Amazing” — with its addictive, hypnotic verses — finds West admitting “I’m exhausted, barely breathing” in a dejectedly droning manner.
In the end, this record will be remembered as the work of an artist working through a trying transition personally and artistically. Ironically, West’s boastful on-record persona — a presence that has been detrimental to some of his previous work — could have provided this album with some much needed punch. In spite of its sizeable flaws, 808s & Heartbreak still deserves a chance, as it serves as a testament to West’s artistic audacity, however afflicted it might be.