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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak: Review

"Kanye West: Better Than A Wilco Cover"

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.

36 comments:

jp said...

The use of the auto-tune is good in some doses. But using it for a full album gives me a fucking headache. Also Kanye whining and complaining gave me the shits.

I really struggled to listen to the whole album and found Ludacris' "Theater of the Mind" better than 808s and Heartbreak even though it contained mediocre tracks.

808s and Heartbreak is what I would listen to if I was driving my car off a bridge.

quan said...

"... 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."

It's easy to write T-Pain off as a lesser artist but then shouldn't he get some credit for at least trying to make robots sound something other than "robotic, emotionless" which I imagine is the easiest/most common way to go with the robot sound?

I read noz's review that you linked to and it struck me as odd that he'd say something like "great pain doesn't make great art", considering his Z-Ro fandom. Maybe he had a different meaning than we're taking?

Jay (d)eff Kay said...

"... it struck me as odd that he'd say something like "great pain doesn't make great art", considering his Z-Ro fandom. Maybe he had a different meaning than we're taking?"

I'm assuming noz means that great pain doesn't NECESSARILY translate into great art. which is a good point given that a good chunk of these reviews are reading maybe a little too heavily into the tragedy that inspired the album. I thought Breihan's review did a pretty decent job of discussing the offputting nature of much of the lyrical content - I'm not talking abt the corniness of the writing, I'm talking abt how he approaches the break-up, and to a much lesser extent, his mom's death.

Lets see what else, I don't think Wayne's Mrs. PU line was thaat bad (especially in an album full of clunkers), - the song works in my opinion, but yes another underwhelming collabo from two superstars. Amazing is a weirdly likeable song, and I actually thought Jeezy did a good job on it ( i do, however, think a good portion of my joy in hearing his verse is based on me just being glad to hear someone RAP over it.)

Though I'm not gonna rank it above his previous records, I still like the album - much like doc, i do have a sneaky suspicion about the album's shelf life though

Jason said...

Paranoid is nice, but I am going to have to agree with jp here. Auto-tune for a whole album is just plain awful.

tray said...

"it’s very rare that artists make great music stemming from being truly well-adjusted happy individuals."

I don't know. If you think about The Rap Canon, Doggystyle, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, Blueprint, 'Juicy,' and Kane's best 12-inches all seem to be the work of truly well-adjusted happy individuals. Even Kanye's own best moment on wax, Through The Wire, is, while a response to a painful moment in his life, ultimately as good as it is precisely because of how well-adjusted he is about the whole thing. I agree with noz. A lot of great art comes from great pain, but only after the artist has thought a little about it and has more to say than "being dumped really sucks." Which is why "All That I Got Is You" is great and this isn't. The fact is that this isn't great pop at all, it's crappy pop that sounds like a bunch of rough drafts to songs that could've been good if worked at a lot more and farmed out to a better vocalist, but instead he took the easy way out, recorded his rough drafts, and calls that experimentation. But nothing's experimental about this, it's warmed-over 80s and Neptunes. Dude isn't a good songwriter, and if you want to call yourself a pop artist that's the standard you're held to.

DocZeus said...

I wouldn't call Snoop a "well-adjusted" individual. Most people stop smoking dangerous amounts of weed after senior year in college.

tray said...

And now that I mention it, Tribe - bunch of happy well-adjusted folks.

Badmon3333 said...

I gotta respectfully disagree with the good doctor on this one, on two counts.

I think Kanye has a decent-enough singing voice; certainly enough to cover the melodies on '808s,' which rarely venture out of one octave. And while I did initially write off T-Pain as a "Roger Troutman rapist," I gotta give the nod to 'Thr33 Ringz' over '808s.' I'm not a fan of either, but T-Pain seems to be making a much-better attempt at integrating Auto-Tune into the rest of the song.

Re: the minimalism, there's a fine line between 'minimalist' and 'sounding like it's still a demo track.'

Sometimes it works really well. "RoboCop," to me, is a good example of trying to do something different with Auto-Tune, throwing some distortion and tremolo on it. "Paranoid" is a hot track.

But too much of the time, though, it just sounds like regular Auto-Tune run through a shitty amp filter.

Sach said...

Tribe - bunch of happy well-adjusted folks.

A fair amount of their material dealt with stuff that wasn't though. Date Rape, Problems, Stress etc.

If Tribe was 100% adjusted you'd get...Jurassic 5 *Rimshot*

tray said...

Okay, so we can all agree that a little PAIN IN YOUR LIFE never hurt any rapper. With the exception of Saigon. (Just kidding. His problem's more just not being very good.) But anyway, noz's point, my point, isn't that pain and good music are mutually exclusive, but that the former doesn't necessarily lead to the latter, or that you need the former for the latter. And here the former didn't lead to the latter, all I get from this is a spoiled celebrity bitchfest. Which I was originally looking forward to because I thought we'd get more interesting songs about his being in the closet like Love Lockdown, but obviously that didn't come to pass.

Badmon3333 said...

When it comes to translating pain into good rapping, there's precious few that have done it really, really well. 2Pac comes to mind, Ghostface in some of his strained moments and maybe Vast Aire, in his own abstract way.

Well-adjusted rappers...

• J-Live
• Masta Ace
• People Under the Stairs

Wow... that's actually a much harder list than I thought it'd be. I suppose it depends on how you're defining 'well-adjusted.'

tray said...

Also, if Tribe was 100% well-adjusted, we'd still have Scenario, Award Tour, Electric Relaxation, Left My Wallet in El Segundo, etc. Not a Tribe fan and totally ignorant of Jurassic's catalogue but I'm guessing any one of those is better than anything they've ever done.

Trey Stone said...

the thing about the Yeezy/Weezy collabos so far, not to sound like an apologist, is that it's not as big of a deal Wayne's had wack verses because both have been the weakest cuts on the album anyway. i dunno if any hot verses from Wayne could save "Barry Bonds" or this one for me, they both have pretty boring beats.

anyway, nice review man and i pretty much agree with your take. i'd agree with some of the criticism that some songs sound a little underdeveloped, but to me through "Street Lights," with the exception of "Heartless" (anyone else think this is one of the weakest songs?) the music's interesting enough it doesn't matter. and "Paranoid" should be the next single

Trey Stone said...

although, even though i'm aware of the fact that no hip-hop blog seems to like Pharrell as of late unless he's producing for the Clipse...N.E.R.D.'s latest is better as far as hipopexperimentalwhatever goes this year.

tray said...

Oh wow, I thought Barry Bonds could've been great if not for the poor Wayne verse. One of Kanye's better cocky moments.

DocZeus said...

I just want to quickly mention the boys at the What? for putting me onto the noz/O-Dub article and inspiring half this post. You know, who you guys are.

Jason said...

To second Trey, while Kanye gets all this undeserved attention for experimentation Saul Williams dropped an insane album last Nov. that blows 808s and Heartbreak out of the water.

Marcus said...

Wayne's verse on Barry Bonds was great.

Jeezy was great on Amazing.

Robocop sucks alot

Badmon3333 said...

"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."

You're killin' me, Doc... hands down, this is Kanye's worst album to date. I'd peg 'Graduation' as his best foray into pop sounds. While he's always incorporated them into his beats, the whole project was aimed in a much more pop direction than 'Late Reg' or 'Dropout.'

And while I initially bristled at the El-P comparison, I can kind of see where you're coming from, but El-P's work - to invite a marginally ridiculous metaphor - is more like a rusted-out spaceship, whereas Ye's is closer to the spiffy, shiny rocket from 'Flight of the Navigator.'

It's almost as if he was trying to do a super-poppy El-P impression on '808s,' but instead just rolled off three-quarters of the treble and called it a day.

Or in this case, called it an album.

brandon said...

I'm in the same boat as you Doc, I talked out my ass about how this album would suck and then basically think it's incredible.

I liked Noz's review though and I basically don't think anything he says is wrong except for the thing about choruses because the album is insane with catchy hooks.

Also odd that Noz would say the great pain thing because he used to have that series of XXL posts about how rappers do their best work in transition (DJ Quick 'Trauma', Operation Doomsday, Resurrection). I'd like to see him explain his point more.

Or maybe it just sounded good. Paid reviews demand clever quotable bullshit and sometimes you end up saying stuff you don't totally agree with...

tray said...

Noz is saying that Kanye thought he could just bitch about how he lost his girlfriend and because he's all tore up about it, bang, he'd have a great record. But that it doesn't always work that way. (Because we all know people who have interesting things to say about their bad breakups, and people who have very boring shit to say about the same topic. Kanye, obviously, falls into the 15-year-olds who post shit about their personal lives on their myspace blogs subset of the latter.) And that's all he's saying. Doom, Common, and even Quik, surprisingly enough, have interesting shit to say about their painful transitions. Kanye would simply like us to know that the bitch is VERY COLD AND VERY MEAN. What a poor little superproducer.

Badmon3333 said...

At the risk of hijacking the thread, I was not a big fan of Quik's "Trauma."

I think "Rhythm-al-ism" is his best album overall, followed by "Quik is the Name" (despite how dated it sounds) and "Balance and Control."

Jordan said...

I don't have a huge amount to add to this, as I've been avoiding actually listening to this album for a while, but there's something kind of weird about the trend of rap writers treating this album as a big artistic statement when that's not something they usually do. Either every album's a big artistic statement, or none are, none of this "if someone has a bitch fit about how what they're doing is art and can't be judged, then they must be taken more seriously."

Jason said...

I'm just curious, every now and then I'll bring up Saul Williams, (when appropriate to the discussion like in this case Kanyes' album) and no one else will even respond in the slightest. Is he like unmentionable for some reason? Is it because he's like every progressive white kids hero that he engenders such indifference amongst this group of bloggers? That you often only talk about more well known acts for the most part? What say you?

Trey Stone said...

i mean, i just haven't heard the Saul Williams album, which i would think is probably the case with a lot of other blogpeople as well.

Jay (d)eff Kay said...

"Is it because he's like every progressive white kids hero that he engenders such indifference amongst this group of bloggers?"

Jason, that statement maybe just a stereotype for all i know, but thats the most logical conclusion I come up with when I think of why Niggy Tardust got slept on (Like, for god's sake, it was given away for free). I get the feeling people have this preconceived notion of him being this hippie blipster thats too cool for hip hop.

Another possible reason the album didnt do as well or isnt discussed as much - 2007 was a pretty competitive year, and blogs were pretty much busy drooling over the massive fourth quarter hip hop push. wu tang,lupe,jay-z,ghostface....i cant hate on anyone who went bananas

In comparison to the attention kanye's garnering - well, the obious: ye's a superstar with a global fanbase, and as a pop cultural icon, the impact of his music is going to be discussed in under magnified light - Kanye's making experimental music in a pop landscape. Saul Williams is making an interesting, innovative album with an alternative music fringe background(this is maybe less exciting). A discussion about moulding the direction of pop music tends to be a more interesting topic, maybe? I dunno

I personally really enjoyed the album and I can totally understand anyone getting salty @ the album being dismissed. The album features some surprisingly great, accessible production from reznor -though the sonic direction may not be as startling and fascinating as kanye's turn on 808s, the whole aggro-electro hip hop feel of niggy tardust definitely is an interesting look that deserves to be discussed.

and lyrically and conceptually, though he didn't market the album with the same level of provocation that Nas did with Untitled, Saul Williams threw some pretty sharp race-related darts that deserved shine.

Badmon3333 said...

Saul Williams is one of those cats that a lot of heads have heard OF, but not HEARD.

I remember hearing his name four years ago, when he'd released the self-titled LP. He's one of those underground dudes that you always say you'll get around to checking out, but don't, like Kankick or Mass Influence.

brandon said...

Saul just doesn't matter to me. It would be the same if say, El-P was brought up. The like hyper wordy style of rapping well...I see it as about as connected to rap as Kanye's singing on '808s'.

I also think Williams or say, Sage Francis or El-P (all of who, have done work I like mind you) don't really seem to have ANY connection to hip-hip anymore or want one, and as a result, fuck em?

Jason said...

Oh Brandon no no no. This is a real insult to Saul who at least where rap and hip-hop music is concerned knows more about it than all of you combined, and actually does perform it. I have heard the man speak 6 times, and perform more than that. He is not El-P, he is not just some wordy rapper, his poetry books are amazing verse, and his raps, especially on Amethyst Rockstar are some BDP type shit.
This is where I don't understand your thinking Brandon. You stand up for a lot rap that is just effin stupid, and sometimes you can point out to me that it is more than meets the eye. Which is why I don't think you're a contrarian or insincere, but when you do this fiending of ignorance about a guy who is incredibly smart and although not a good rapper per say has made good hip hop albums albeit a little left of the norm, I call you on bullshit. Saul has more of a connection to Nas, or UGK which I have heard proclaim his like for than say Francis. Who are you to say Williams doesn't have ANY connection to hip hop? Hyper wordy style is that a bad thing, coming from a guy who blogs a hyper wordy style often? Not very often, and I stress that it does seem like you are being a contrarian listner for seemingly no apparent reason.

DocZeus said...

Admin's Note:

There will be no bashing of El-P on this site. I love that man.

Badmon3333 said...

"I also think... El-P ... [doesn't] really seem to have ANY connection to hip-hip anymore or want one, and as a result, fuck em?"

Are you really being serious right now? If you peel back a few of the layers of corrosion, most of the beats on 'Sleep When You're Dead' are similar to classic Run-DMC drums.

Also, I'm not sure why "hyper, wordy" rap somehow does not equate to hip-hop in your book. Would you say Mighty Underdogs' "Ill Vacation" isn't hip-hop? That's just being obtuse and foolish.

tray said...

I'm not a huge fan of hyper wordy rappers, but that shit is very connected to hip-hop and you'd have to be a moron to think otherwise. Consider that G Rap, Kane and Rakim were all pretty hyper and wordy in their day (see 'Men At Work,' 'Raw') or think about someone like Percee P or Canibus. It's a pretty short step from Canibus name-dropping David Hume to El-P.

Charlie Hilton said...

I totally agree with you. I wrote my first album review about 808s because I, too, was so convinced (after hearing that it was all auto-tune) that I would hate the album. I almost hate to love it - I hate Kanye's ability to exert his pretentiousness onto EVERY scenario and boast unnecessarily, but I love the album. I wish he had stayed humble about the album, not claim he is "the sound of the generation" and let us appreciate damn-good music. He has never ingratiated himself with me through his personality and that is what holds me back about him, as well as his egregious lyrical ability (although some lines in 808s were very thought provoking). The album was terse and that is why it worked...

Etc.

Etc.

You know.

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