Review Summary: The world's biggest ego learns to hate himself with unexpectedly brilliant results.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have officially been inducted into phase three of Kanye West.
Phase One was hip-hop. No doubt you were intrigued, at the very least, back in 2004 with the young upstart who had recorded an entire rap song with his mouth wired shut, entitled “Through the Wire”. The College Dropout
followed, and rave reviews lead a young Mr. West to be hot property amidst a thriving hip-hop scene. Despite some success in songs like “All Falls Down”, “Slow Jamz” and especially “Jesus Walks”, nobody could have possibly expected what would happen next.
Phase Two: hip pop. With the “I Got A Woman”-sampling “Gold Digger” becoming a global smash, Kanye became an internationally-recognised star. Awards ceremonies, a five-star Rolling Stone album review for Late Registration
and the opening slot for a leg of U2’s tour would follow as West’s profile expanded exponentially. If that wasn’t enough, Graduation
would spawn several hit singles (“Stronger, “Good Life”, “Flashing Lights”) and would present Yeezy (as he began referring to himself as) to his biggest demographic yet. Whether for his music or his tendency to loudly voice his opinions on next to anything (remember “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” or “I'm typing so fucking hard I might break my f
ucking Mac book Air!” at all?), the man’s presence was practically inescapable.
We now enter Phase Three: pop.
Kanye West’s fourth album, 808s and Heartbreak
is a radical departure in plenteous ways. No longer does his cocky, self-assured side take prominence in his music as it has so frequently done in the past. It seems both the passing of his mother, Donda, and the separation with his fiancé, Alexis Phifer, have not only shaken West’s foundations, but humbled him. There’s certainly no “Good Life” to be found on 808s
- this is an album of frustration, distance, loss, anxiety and a life in lethargy.
The themes are a consistency on the album, which makes it a far more concise and focused effort than Graduation
. Yet another credit to Kanye is the fact instead of wear it down, the album’s theme creates a flowing, emphatic concept. At any given time, West dissects everything that is wrong with his world. He sings of dissatisfaction with a superficial, materialistic life in the wonderfully orchestrated “Welcome to Heartbreak”, which sees West tackle important, personal issues: “Chased the good life my whole life long/Looked back on my life and my life gone/Where did I go wrong?”. Elsewhere, the very moment of a breakup and its aftermath is documented in “Bad News” (“You just gonna keep it like you never knew/While I’m waiting on a dream that’ll never come true”), whilst looking for a direction in life is the subject matter of one of the album’s true focal points “Street Lights” (“See, I know my destination/But I’m just not there/Life’s just not fair”). West’s open, self-despising lyricism not only eclipse but also belie the man whose lateness we were supposed to honour just eighteen months ago.
Certainly, it is strange that these deeply personal and introspective songs are expressed in possibly the most contrasting way possible- sung, not rapped, with the assistance of the highly-criticised production tool, AutoTune. Often, this is a gimmick that wears thin (T-Pain, hellogoodbye et al), and especially out of the ordinary for West at this stage in his career. Having said that, it seems that the tool is used so frequently that it simply becomes another element of the musical environment. Surprisingly enough, it then evolves into something to give appraisal to, rather than criticise. The fact you could easily dismiss the AutoTune sound as superficial almost immediately becomes a redundant argument when the pain within Kanye slices through even the thickest layer of production.
Kanye’s refashioning of his vocals is given variety, texture and- perhaps most shockingly of all -emotion. The lengthy six-minute opener “Say You Will” sees West in two worlds, exemplifying the effects of the AutoTune usage perhaps better than any other song on the record. Lyrically, the song deals with a sex-driven relationship with no real commitment, as a character referred to as “Mrs. So Fly” “crash lands” in West’s room. Whilst she is obviously there for only one thing, West obviously feels more: “When I grab your neck”, he laments, “I touch your soul”. Conversely, the production on West’s voice gives a sense of distance and disconnectedness. Normally, this wouldn’t work, but the use of both honest, unadulterated lyricism and a cold distance in their presentation works perfectly. “Say You Will”, as a result, is a brilliant highlight of the record, as well as of West’s discography.
Of course, the Heartbreak
is only half of the story. The other is, of course, the use of the Roland TR-808 in the beats of the songs. Next to no sound found on the record is typical nor expected, given West’s past. There’s no chipmunk soul samples, cruising beats or celebratory horn sections to be seen. This time around, it’s all Taiko explosions (“Love Lockdown”, “Coldest Winter”), smacking white noise snare (“Paranoid”, “RoboCop”) and a minimalist kick drum undercurrent accompanied by moving, perfectly tessellating arrangements (“Street Lights” and “See You in My Nightmares”). There is not a song here that makes for a boring or unsatisfying listen- the mood of each song is partnered with its perfect musical counterpart, giving yet another credit to a record already overflowing with them.
808s & Heartbreak
is much unlike any other release this year, let alone in Mr. West’s discography. It has challenged him on a personal and musical level far more than any of his other albums, and is almost certain to challenge his fans even further. The fact it’s a rapper making an album with no rapping is a very bold statement at this point in both his career and his position within the industry. He has more or less risked commercial and critical success in favour of creating something completely on his own terms. At the end of the day, he really doesn’t seem to care whatsoever. Chances are you won’t either.