Review Summary: A mainstream rapper sings an album about how sad he is and it somehow comes out excellent.
Kanye knew exactly what he was doing when he cast himself as Tetsuo in his Akira themed "Stronger" video; he was creating his own perfect metaphor. A normal guy discovers he has amazing powers (The College Dropout); that power develops at a rapid pace (Late Registration), seeks refuge in a stadium (Graduation), and looses control of his powers subsequently destroying everything around him. 808’s and Heartbreak is, in the wake of unthinkable tragedy, Kanye's ego bursting free from his body, mutating him into a fusion of flesh and machenery. His mother died of complications caused by cosmetic surgery, complications that were foreseen and preventable. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Kanye’s on/off girlfriend Alexis Phifer broke off their 18-month engagement. Kaneda severed Kanye’s arm and this mutated out of the gaping hole left by tragedy.
The number one complaint lodged against this album is Ye’s decision to sing everything. The prevalence of auto tune when it was released probably made it harder to tolerate at the time but this is no ordinary album. This is an album about personal tragedy; if he had outsourced the hooks to a more capable singer it looses that feeling. The auto tune is not here to fix poor singing; it allows Kanye’s voice to become a pure channel of torment. It’s as if Kanye is singing to you while in suspended animation. Unfortunately, it can get pretty exhausting lyrically. The problem isn’t so much in the lyrics themselves, they can be a tad clumsy for sure but Kanye never writes beyond his abilities. The issue is that there is no counterpoint to all the misery on display here. The album stays firmly in “Woe is me” mode from start to finish that makes it near impossible to listen to front to back.
From the opening “click-bleep-woosh” of “Say You Will” it becomes evident that this album is a whole other beast musically. Musically, this album is damn near flawless. The use of taiko drums as a musical motif, a sense of space unparalleled in popular music, only two guests, and an overall sound like a robot breaking down in the middle of Siberia add to create a desolate landscape not too unlike Disintegration updated for the year 2020. If you need a quick reference, crank your headphones and listen to the cavernous drums and dead eyed swagger of “Amazing” or the passenger seat of a Corvette in 1988 synth rush of album highlight “Paranoid”.
If Kanye kept up the quality of tracks one through seven for the whole album, this would be a perfect score. Unfortunatley, after the wide-eyed insanity of “Robocop” comes a run of three songs that bring the album’s momentum to a crashing halt. The first two (“Street Lights” “Bad News”) are not bad but forgettable; “See You In My Nightmares”, on the other hand, is a total disaster. It’s the worst written song on the album by a mile (Rhyming “life” with “knife” is usually a bad sign) the drums are almost nonexistent and Lil Wayne calls someone “Misses Pee-yoo”. So thank god it doesn’t end with that, “Coldest Winter” is a stunner of pounding drums and an out of nowhere Tears for Fears sample.
Kanye and Tetsuo would get along just fine if they ever met each other, blessed/Cursed with amazing power, bursting with ego, and causers of a world-changing event. So if the sublime My Beautiful Dark Twisted fantasy is Kanye bursting into pure energy and becoming his own universe, 808’s and Heartbreak is the massive, grotesque mutation that precedes it, painful to bear but utterly engrossing to watch and well worth a purchase if for the very least to get a bearing on the state of rap music in 2012. This might be the most influential album to be released in the last 5 years. It’s important enough to already have its own legacy section on Wikipedia and I can’t find many Drake reviews that don’t mention this album in some way. Kanye made a bold move with this one and it paid off, it’s not perfect but even in its weaker moments I cant help but admire just how brave it is. Kanye has always been a weird one but for him to come out of nowhere and sing a whole album about his own misery" Only Kanye.