Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Album Review: Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak

808s & Heartbreak finds Kanye West moving in a new sonic direction, and it works best when the songs are crafted into concise, (relatively) subtle statements. "Welcome To Heartbreak," finds the Louis Vuitton Don poignantly expressing regret over the sacrifices he's made to get to where he is.

Dad cracks a joke. All the kids laugh.
What I couldn't have, way up in First Class.
Chased the good life, all my life long.
Look back at my life, and my life gone.
Where did I go wrong?

Also providing insight is "Heartless," where West gives you a view into the end of a relationship. A headnodding beat gives the song the feel of an inverse of "Golddigger," with hurt and tension replacing the one-liners.

How could be so Dr. Evil?
You bringin' out a side of me that I don’t know.
I decided we weren't gon' speak, so
Why we up 3 A.M. on the phone?
Why does she be so mad at me fo'?
Homie, I dont know, she's hot and cold.
I won't stop, I won't mess my groove up
'Cause I already know how this thing go.

The proceedings perk up with "Amazing." Utilizing minor key piano chords that call to mind some of Eminem's production work, the song marks the return of the braggadocious Kanye of old.

It's amazing, I'm the reason
Everybody fired up this evening.
I'm exhausted, barely breathing.
Holding on to what I believe in.
No matter what, you'll never take that from me.
My reign is as far as your eyes can see.

Although the guest appearance of Young Jeezy could be read as a concession to the streets, he infuses the track with an energy that is palpable.

They like 'Oh god!
Why you go so hard?'
Look what he's been through.
He deserves an applause.

Although these tracks work well, a Kanye fan would probably think that there is an element that is missing: humor. Well, "Robocop" remedies that problem. On a track complete with machine noises that mimic the ones used in movies whenever robots walk slowly, West uses wit to convey the anger and terror that accompany a relationship with someone who, in his view, was overly controlling.

About the baddest girl I ever seen.
Straight up outta movie scene.
Who knew she was a drama queen?
Thatll turn my life to Stephen King’s.
Up late night, like she on patrol.
Checking everything, like I'm on parole.

Having the most impact, however, is “Pinocchio’s Story,” where Kanye sings a freestyle in concert. He uses the wish of the titular character ("I wanna be a real boy.") to frame a searing look into the dehumanizing side effect of fame.

What does it feel like to live life, to be real,
Not some facade on tv that no can really feel?
Do you really have the stamina
For everybody that sees you and say 'where's my camera’?
For everybody that sees you and says 'sign my autograph'?
For everybody that sees you and says that 'you all that'?

Unfortunately, there are many other moments on this recording when I wished that someone would have dissuaded Kanye from following through on his impulses. "Paranoid" sounds like a more extreme version of Pharrell's "Number One." Imagine the St. Elsewhere theme song, as interpreted by early-period Prince, with a sing along chorus attached to it. It's such a mess that I couldn't help but be amused by its audacity. Furthermore, album-opener "Say You Will" has tearjerking chords and laidback trip-hop percussion, but is ultimately undone by processed crooning, a lack of direction (You'll never hear the saying "Hey, hey, hey" in the same way, again.), and its mind numbing (for a pop song) length. Likewise, "Love Lockdown," the abysmal choice for first single, begins intriguingly with a sparse bassline and haunting lyrics, but the treatment of the vocals and the galloping drums on the chorus create a wall of noise that obscures the song. You wonder what the result would have been, if the production had more restraint and if the arrangement was performed by someone who could legitimately belt out a tune.

"Say You Will" and "Love Lockdown" exemplify a major problem with the album: many of these songs start off promisingly, but are ultimately aimless, with Kanye saying the same lines, ad nauseum. Rarely has the line between catchy and resonant, with regard to the work of a critically-heralded artist, been so distinctive. Frankly, some of the tracks, among them "Coldest Winter," West's dedication to his dearly departed mother, sound unfinished. (This occurrence leads me to believe that Island Def Jam was determined to have another big, fourth quarter release (along with Ludacris's), in order to improve their bottom line for the year, especially in light of Jay-Z's album being pushed back.) (At the risk of incurring the wrath of my readers, I will also point out that one of the lackluster tracks, "See You In My Nightmares," is nearly saved by a fellow Auto-tune convert: Weezy F. Baby.) Making matters worse is that, even on the better songs, Auto-tunes's occasional off-key warble is off-putting.

Groundbreaking artists make missteps. Now that West has gotten 808s & Heartbreak out of his system, here's hoping that he regains his footing.

Bottom Line: 808s & Heartbreak is a mixed bag. When it's focused, it's an insightful, captivating look into loss, regret, and resentment. The collection is marred, however, by self-indulgence, and, ironically, a feeling of incompletion.

Rating: 6.0/10

Track Listing:

1. "Say You Will"
2. "Welcome to Heartbreak" (feat. Kid Cudi)
3. "Heartless"
4. "Amazing" (feat. Young Jeezy)
5. "Love Lockdown"
6. "Paranoid" (feat. Mr Hudson)
7. "RoboCop"
8. "Street Lights"
9. "Bad News"
10. "See You In My Nightmares" (feat. Lil Wayne)
11. "Coldest Winter"
12. "Pinocchio Story" (freestyle live from Singapore) (bonus)

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