Let’s just say I was wrong about this one. I’ll admit it. When I first heard, “Love Lockdown” I assumed Mr. West had officially decided he was too good for hip hop (and thus forever was leaving us to hobnob with Bono and Coldplay and ignore his hip hop roots as if he were Terrence Howard. I mean could you imagine if Beanie Sigel rolled up on Kanye and said hello if he were talking to Marc Jacobs or Anna Wintour’s bitch ass. Homey, would probably look as horrified if you told him his Louis Vuitton purse was knock-off or something.) and was about to get his Prince on. If you were to ask me the chances that Kanye West was not going to make an album that was a total, giant used tampon of a period bleeder relying heavily on the use of auto-tune and being primarily about how your girlfriend doesn’t love you anymore, I would’ve told you the chances were approximately slim and something resembling (but not limited to) nothingness. We already had Slug sucking at that massively and we certainly did not need anybody attempting to out-Slug Slug. It ain’t going to happen. However, I’d happily like to report that I am an idiot and should officially never doubt Kanye Omari West and his quest to re-invent hip hop. I apologize. “808s & Heartbreak” is great.
Despite what the lil’ homey noz might say, great art often springs from great pain. Not necessarily, of course, (See: Atmosphere, discography) but it’s very rare that artists make great music stemming from being truly well-adjusted happy individuals. Those who endeavor to be creative often find themselves at odds with the world (or at least, those worth a bit of damn. I mean honestly, if you are happy what are you doing being an artist, anyway? Being a lawyer or a doctor or a high school janitor is usually more lucrative, anyway…) and when properly harnessed that type of struggle can turn into something worthwhile of time. “808s and Heartbreak” is ostensibly about the loss of the two most important women in Kanye’s loss (hence the name, dumbass) and the sense of pain and loss is palpable throughout the disc. For those who aren’t being force-fed celebrity gossip or have not read every single solitary review of the album that has been released, Kanye’s mother passed away late last year after a botched plastic surgery and shortly thereafter his long-time fiancé broke up with him.
The album has decidedly cold and minimalist feel which does away with the bombastic, musical hyperboles of “Late Registration” and the warmth of “The College Dropout” and instead takes the futuristic, El-P-ish feel of “Gradution” to the next logical step to total and complete, absolute zero. The two best songs on the album, “Say You Will” and “Coldest Winter” are total New Wave-esque ‘80s pop which palpable sadness permeates through the record. In lesser hands, the record might come across as total emo-rap pap that can be found on any given Rhymesayers record but Kanye’s talent for musical arrangements and melodies help transcend this and push it forward into great pop music.
Each song on this album is absolutely dripping with pathos that is even put further in the wringer by Kanye’s legendary use of auto-tune on this album. A lot has been said about Kanye’s curious choice to eschew rapping on this album and instead attempt to sing (when he absolutely cannot) but Kanye’s use of Pro-Toolian technology is less necessitated by his genuine lack of singing ability (although that’s certainly part of it) but rather a way of infusing a robotic, emotionless quality to his voice which only furthers the theme of the themes of the album. It’s the exact opposite of what lesser artists like Roger Troutman-raping T-Pain has been doing for the last couple of years. Kanye wants us to feel his pain and the use of the auto-tune makes him seem distant and cold which I can imagine is a purely aesthetic choice. Some writers have been wondering why Kanye felt the need to sing on this record instead of rapping his (“alleged”) forte as if Kanye was feeding into the much discredited notion that singing is the only proper way of registering pain or “real” emotion in the musical vocabulary. Truth is genuine emotion and rapping often do clash especially when it comes to sad or break-up records. I keep harping on Slug and Atmosphere for their musical whininess but there have been little true success in the emo-rap genre. The only record that truly succeeds in my opinion is Cage’s “Hellz Winter”, a searing tour-de-force of familial and personal strife set against El-P’s trademark buzz. It’s one of the few true successes of the emo-rap genre and Kanye isn’t quite adept a rapper as Cage is (as weird as that sounds and I’m being real hesistant saying that). In Kanye’s case, I think we should just accept that if forced to rely on lyrical talent of rapping, he would’ve fallen straight on his face and the new album would be a travesty. The record isn’t without flaws, of course. Lil’ Wayne miraculously ruins “See You In My Nightmares” with one horrid line of sheer, unadulterated awfulness (just like he does EVERY song he’s on), Young Jeezy’s cameo is superfluous and utterly pointless and “Pinocchio Story” either should have excised completely from the album or recorded in a studio instead of being a barely audible live “freestyle” recorded to an indifferent crowd somewhere allegedly in Singapore. The record is pretty strong, otherwise.
Most people have been comparing “808s & Heartbreak” to Radiohead’s “Kid A” which on the surface is an apt comparison but to me, this is Kanye’s “Rumors” if interpreted by the ugly lovechild of Phil Collins, T-Pain and El-P. It’s a record that explicitly and implicitly deals with the pitfalls of Kanye’s love and family life shattering in front of him and the rise of great art that comes from it. I have one caveat with this album. I’m not sure if it’s going to hold up. Often with these post-rap side projects that hip hop artists have been creating over the years, the shelf life before it becomes an unlistenable monument to the artist’s ego is six months so I’m wondering if I will find this album as thrilling as I do now in a few months but for now, I’m utterly satisfied. Here’s to hoping, the heartbreak will fade over time and not the legacy of this album.