It’s easy for me to respect Kanye West’s ambition. As someone who’s into just about every single genre of music with the notable exception of what I can only qualify as “extra-twangy modern country,” and "raver-style techno," I can understand the impulse to branch out into other musical areas.
Unfortunately, far as I’m concerned, that ambition is almost completely wasted on 808s & Heartbreaks. In places where it has the potential to be interesting, the album seems to fall flat on its face, and the more-traditionally hip-hop moments are just sort of alright in terms of Kanye's past production quality.
Case in point: the opener, “Say You Will,” which starts with a tom-tom paired up alongside a few digital bleeps… and stays that way for the next 6:18. A driving piano melody provides the backbone for “Welcome to Heartbreak,” but the part that SHOULD be driving it, the BEAT, has had all the treble removed and is playing the background like a retarded wingman.
Modern rap fans will probably begin the hating here by attacking my well-documented fondness for classic boom-bap, mid-‘90s-era hip-hop, and by all means, hate away. But that’s not it. I understand the concept for the record, it’s right there in the title: a juxtaposition of the intricacies of modern relationships and the alienation of fame with the simplistic sounds of the 808, which defined another of hip-hop’s classic eras.
What I’m trying to say is that too many of the songs here seem overly, intentionally simplistic, like ‘Ye is trying to drive the metaphor home with a sledgehammer and, unfortunately, it makes for a lot of sluggish songs during the course of 808’s 52 minutes (relatively short for a Kanye album).
The worst part about all this is his album-long penchant for Auto-Tune. It just mystifies me, particularly given that he’s actually got a pretty good singing voice, unlike someone of Lil’ Wayne’s caliber, who can barely speak, let alone sing. I get why he wants to Auto-Tune the shit out of himself.
But on 808s, with its already-spare soundscapes, Kanye’s voice plays front and center, and all of the manipulation gives things a weird, plasticized feeling. That leaves mainly the lyrics, and it's hard to turn a clever, punchy phrase as an R&B robot. The songs cover his grief over a death in the family, as well as some fairly generic love/hate/make-ups-to-break-ups, which in turn throws the spotlight back on the production, that at times sounds almost like an unfinished version of a regular mid-tempo Kanye song.
But even the Kanye West Mid-Tempo Jam has taken on a lot more character in the past. Not so much here.
I’m not totally down on it, though: “Heartless” works a bouncy flute loop and Kanye actually sings, sounding just fine; “Amazing” replaces Southern bounce with a heavy piano and organic percussion, providing a nice bedrock for Young Jeezy’s guest verse, and “Paranoid” is an modern uptempo take on ‘80s synth glam.
But the first single, “Love Lockdown,” largely misrepresents the depth of 808s & Heartbreaks. It’s a good example of what I think ‘Ye might have been shooting for on the whole album.
An R&B record with almost no harmony? Even T-Pain knows better than that. He uses Auto-Tune better, too, now that I think about it.
Ultimately, 808s & Heartbreaks sorta smacks of Kanye saying "Damn, I'm so great I can even make a hit R&B record." And I'm sure that it will be. But this time, it will be more about Kanye the Brand than Kanye the Producer that Made You Go "Yeah He's Arrogant But Damn!"
If you need any further proof that Kanye West is chock to the gills full of his own bullshit, listen to this New Zealand press conference and watch it come exploding out in fits of egomaniac verbal diarrhea (thanks to Pay Tray for finding this gem):