Monday, November 24, 2008
Album Review: Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreaks
Artist: Kanye West
Album: 808s and Heartbreak
Label: Roc-A-Fella Records (2008)
I've now had a chance to listen to this album in its entirety a number of times, yet it still remains as polarizing to me as the first time I heard it. Since starting to write this review a day or so ago I've actually changed the rating assigned to it three times. At first I thought it was pretty great, than I listened to it while doing some mind numbing application shit, which really changed my feeling towards it. Suddenly, I was experiencing a Kanye LP that didn't instantly grab my attention. There were no crazy French house beats, no irresistible bangers, and definitely no fun lyrical play. 808s and Heartbreaks really lacks any over the top, deliberate attempts at attention grabbing. It's just not your usual Kanye album.
Instead, what you have is a moody, piercing, synth soaked, sometimes sparse, almost atmospheric album that is anything but light fare. These aren't things that you would necessarily associate with a Kanye album, nor are they things that you would necessarily want Kanye to be doing with his music, however, like he usually does, Kanye has delivered a genuinely entertaining album. The twelve song album is based around the ideals of love, heartbreak, resentment, and the yearning for something more. Admittedly, Kanye has been through some heavy stuff this past year with the loss of his mother and the break up with his long time finance, and that's probably why this album doesn't come off corny or too self involved. Some may even call it a concept album, but I wouldn't go that far. Just cause dude has made a coherent statement about some real life stuff, doesn't make this some next level concept shit.
I'll get it over with now: I don't really like this whole movement towards auto tune, and after making this album (and also after Wayne's horribly misguided attempt at it on Dedication 3), I hope Kanye has got this whole phase out of his system and hip-hop can escape from this without too much collateral damage. With that being said, Kanye really has, as emjay commented when this first leaked, given his own twist to the whole auto tuned thing. Unlike Wayne and the others doing this sort of thing right now, Kanye is able to manipulate his voice in a way that gives a somewhat vulnerable feeling, as well as portraying a overarching feeling of almost robotic alienation.
It's the songs that are able to communicate these sorts of feelings that work the best on this LP. Some of the highlights include: "Robocop", with its swooning strings, pulsating beats and lifted robot sounds, plays almost like an epic, and Kanye keeps it altogether with some bitter lyrics about not putting up with his girl acting like a Robocop (whatever that means); "Heartless" and "Love Lockdown", the singles that leaked ages ago and which I have already commented on here, are two great songs that really benefit from further mixing and some different sequencing from the earlier versions I heard; "See You In My Nightmares" ft. Lil'Wayne is almost a wild card song. I'm actually not sure how I feel about it. The Wayne verse continues to grow on me, and the synths and stabs of strings and drums really gives me some sort of apocalyptic feeling. Okay, maybe I am sold on this track; and finally, the standout track on the whole thing has got to be "Amazing" ft. Young Jeezy. I know I'm not the first to say this, but Jeezy might be the only rapper out there that is still on top of his game. He brings consistent verse after consistent verse of fire. As per usual, his lyrics are nothing impressive (he raps podium with sodium), but his delivery and presence are just incredible. Not to mention, the percussion, ominous piano/synths and classic Jeezy ad-libs are all on point. Kanye's rap/singing isn't bad either.
There are few tracks on this album that really hold this album back from transcending 'pretty good' and becoming one of those classic 'experimental' or pull the rug out from under the fans albums like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music or George Harrison's Electric Sound. Hold on, I did not just compare 808s and Heartbreaks to Metal Machine Music and Electric Sound. You know what, ignore that comparison, I almost just offended myself. But you get the picture: 808s represents an artist, at the top of his game commercially and critically, who just switched his whole style up and put out an album that may potentially alienate a number of his fans. And, if it wasn't for tracks like "Street Lights", which starts off promising but soon falls apart, or the contrived and overly dramatic "Coldest Winter", which actually does have some great things going on musically but ultimately fails because of its weak lyrics, Kanye would have been able to pull it off. Oh, and if I ever go to a Kanye show again and he plays "Pinocchio Story", I will walk out of that bitch, no questions asked. Despite these problem tracks, this album still has to be viewed as a major achievement, with Kanye delivering a record that pushes genre boundaries while revealing new layers to his already complicated character.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my rating of this album has changed three separate times since starting this review, and it wasn't until about my 10th or so listen that I was able to really sit down and give this album the attention it needs. It was then that I was able to hear how nuanced and atmospheric this album really is. So, if you don't feel like you can get into this album on the first or so listen, don't give up - give it a few more spins, or wait till you get some time to really sit down and give it a listen. I think if you have ever been burned by someone, or had your shit trampled on, you'll be able to eventually connect with this refreshingly vulnerable, yet not too emo material that is definitely some of the better pop stuff to come out this year.
As it stands now, 808s and Heartbreaks is making a serious push into my top 10 this year. Nothing crazy high, but definitely pushing for inclusion somewhere in the 7-10 range.
Looks like my concern about the direction of this album back in October was unfounded, and it also looks like I was way off for claiming that this probably would not come out on its announced 25 November release date.
The album drops tomorrow, if you haven't already got the leak, check it out tomorrow.