Home > Michael Ashton > Review: “808s & Heartbreak” by Kanye West

Review: “808s & Heartbreak” by Kanye West

Gone are the usual high walls of sped-up R&B-soul samples and melodically clobbering beats. In their place, Mr. West favors sweeping strings, sparse programming, auto-tuned vocals, quirky keyboarding and, yes…808-assisted drums for his fourth studio album 808s & Heartbreak. Lyrically, he abandons his ego-stroking socially-conscious leanings in an effort to deliver the unloading of emotional baggage accrued from a the loss of his mother and a broken engagement over the past year (thus, explaining the absence of the mascot ‘Dropout Bear’ in support of the expressionless promotional pictures of Mr. West and a deflated heart-shaped balloon on the album cover).

Recorded over three weeks in Hawaii, the 12-track opus provides ample ground to convey his late-night introspection, confusion, loss and heartache. “Love Lockdown”, the album’s first single signaled a new chapter in Kanye’s musical career, puzzled fans and critics with its troubled lyrics, rumbling tribal drums and washes of shuffling keys, among other sonic effects. With this dramatic shift from popular hip-hop towards downtempo, 80s-tinged electronica, the album is somber (the dragging and indulgent opener “Say You Will”) and at times difficult to take all in one sitting (the lazy “Amazing” featuring Young Jeezy and percussive “Bad News”).

Nevertheless, West is focused in his lauded inventiveness to challenge his listeners and contemporaries to expand their musical capabilities. Case in point – the highlight “RoboCop” takes an arresting, machinery-sounding track awash with swirling strings to make humorous yet striking jabs at his now ex-girlfriend Alexis Phifer, (“You’re just an L.A. girl/You need to stop it now/Oh, you’re kidding me/Oh! You must be joking/Oh! You are smoking.” he ad-libs with a smoldering tone). “See You In My Nightmares” (featuring a guest spot by Lil’ Wayne) meets an annoyed Kanye snarling over a rumbling electronic beat with pulsing synth blips. But the most affecting moment comes from the final track, “Pinocchio Story”, freestyled and recorded live in Singapore with a mellow acoustic accompaniment (reportedly added at the last minute after Beyonce’s request). It is here that he delivers his most touching lines. “There is no clothes that I could buy that could bring back the time/There is no vacation spot I could fly that could bring back a real piece of real life/Real life, what does it feel like?” It is here that Mr. West strips down the ego that buoyed most of his past three albums and showcases an inherent insecurity that fame brings to the fore. It has been reported that he has begun recording his 5th studio album, tentatively titled A Good Ass Job for release in 2009. Apparently, he has already accomplished the feat.

(written in Fall 2008 for Stoic Audacity Magazine)

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