A childless dog
Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 02:05 AM
Here's my review for epinions:
From the beginning of time, music has always been a means of releasing pent-up emotion. From the weepy confessionals of 70s singer-songwriters, to the men blasting the trumpets at war. I'm sure the harpists even got into it from time to time. It's only natural; music is a medium that provides an outlet for self-expression while often being simultaneously entertaining. Raise your hand if you'd rather an artist you love release a book detailing their deepest emotional baggage than make an album about it.
........That's what I thought.
Curiously, hip-hop has never struck me as a genre that's particularly accepting of such emotional openness. This is especially odd because it's often more lyrically direct than rock music, and its playmate, R&B music, tends to be the #1 source of breakup songs in the industry. Largely, this comes down to expectations; the earliest hip-hop made for excellent dance music, but was seldom soul-bearing, and the considerably darker east coast rap of the '90s came closer to angst than mourning. Most commercial rap you hear these days is so blatantly misogynist that even one song focused on a rapper's feelings about a single woman would be considered strangely out of character. Why would he care if she dumped him anyway? He has another five women crammed into the backseat of his Bentley.
Seeing this and responding accordingly, Kanye West decided to put hip-hop aside and create something new...something that could be more easily tamed and fitted to his needs...he calls it "pop art", but we all know that painting pictures of soup cans is a weaker emotional outlet than bawling over metallic, new-wavy synth-hop.
Mr. West, a Chicago-based rapper known originally for his production skills (specifically his work on Jay-Z's The Blueprint, which, ironically, featured one of the better rap breakup songs in existence, "Song Cry") is no stranger to placing himself in precarious musical situations that should prove themselves to be failures of the highest order; West himself received many an eyebrow-raise over his claims that he had recognizable talent as an MC. Truth is, his albums never really lived up to that, but made up for it several times over through excellent production, creative sampling, and witty, thoughtful lyricism.
808s & Heartbreak, strangely enough, features none of the above. The album is minimalistic to a fault, featuring chilly, claustrophobic production, limited sampling, and little in the way of wit or humor. And Kanye does not rap at any point during this record. Yes, you heard me right. Instead of rapping, Kanye elected to sing every track with the help of hip-hop's favorite new toy, the Antares Auto-Tune, a utility that corrects pitch and renders vocals metallic and wholly inhuman, all the while keeping the singer's original voice somewhat recognizable.
Keeping all of that in mind, 808s & Heartbreak was written following what was presumably the worst year of Kanye West's life; his mother passed away due to complications from plastic surgery in November 2007, and his long-time engagement with designer Alexis Phifer was ended back in April. He carried on his tour for 2007's Graduation, but you knew that something incredibly unusual was on the horizon for Kanye. Regardless, there's no way anyone could have predicted that he would craft an album that plays against every single one of his strengths, and based on such juxtapositions as processed vocals communicating the most emotionally naked lyrics of West's career.
As easy as it is to get hung up on the lyrical side of the proceedings, 808s & Heartbreak is actually a very logical progression for Kanye West musically. While his first two albums were based on grandiose production, sped-up soul samples, and endless guest appearances, 2007's Graduation delved into European dance music and utilized more obscure samples, creating an intriguing and often quite surprising musical backdrop for what was an otherwise rehashed record thematically. 808s & Heartbreak is similarly steely, creating its musical backdrops with loads of keyboards and synthesizers, but is, ultimately, Kanye West's most minimalistic and singular record to date. This is largely because, as previously mentioned, sampling is kept to a minimum, and each song utilizes the exact same tools: a keyboard, a bass, TR-808 drums, and Kanye West's auto-tuned vocals.
There are positives and negatives to this narrow musical palette. Using the same instruments on every track encourages a certain level of musical cohesiveness, but the consistent lyrical themes of love lost, death, and personal reflection do their part to make 808s extremely listenable from front to back, despite the individual shortcomings of certain songs. However, if you hate the sound of auto-tuned vocals or the particular keyboards he chose, this album will be lost on you. Of course, I'm sure a guy like Kanye West who has spent his entire career up to this point doing his very best to make his audience feel something wouldn't have it any other way. As I mentioned earlier, Kanye does not rap on this album, and enlists only three guests, Young Jeezy, Kid Cudi, and the ever-present Lil Wayne, the first and third providing verses. Though this (as well as the 808 drums) may create the facade of hip-hop in your mind, make no mistake, this album has more in common with The Cure and John Legend than the Kanye West of old.
The first 5 tracks of the album make for an informal suite of sorts, segueing together almost perfectly (for an album recorded in 3 weeks, 808s is exceptionally well-sequenced). The melancholy, hypnotic "Say You Will" opens the album a crawling chord progression, the "ohhh"s and "ahhh"s of a synthesized choir, and a sound very much akin to a human pulse run through a load of effects. The song is unchanging, and its final 2.5 minutes are that exact same chord progression over and over. Thankfully, it's a beauty, and it has all the grace of a funeral procession (forgive that analogy, the album is making me morbid). "Welcome To Heartbreak", at a similar pace to its predecessor, takes the classic theme of "fame vs. domestic life" and buries it in piano, attaching a hummable chorus to it in the process. First single "Love Lockdown" is surprisingly naked, making a throbbing bass and single piano its only bid for musicality. It eventually bursts open with some tribal 808s and a breathless Kanye vocal.
Elsewhere, "Heartless" and "Amazing" diversify to an extent, at least musically. The former, a bouncy ballad with synthesized woodwinds, concerns itself with a woman who is, apparently, heartless, while the latter, all clattering percussion and pounding piano, sounds hot, heavy, and weary. Young Jeezy tears through the song with an angry guest verse, and Kanye sounds like he's dying of thirst in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club.
"Paranoid" and "RoboCop", two '80s throwbacks that sound like perfect music to pump out of that funny-looking car Doc Brown's been working on lately, prove to be a welcome respite from the sadness. The former is my favorite on the album, boasting an absurdly catchy chorus, squawking synths, and a breezy tempo, it's fluff, but absolutely glorious just the same. The latter takes an industrial beat and crosses it with a saccharin string sample, topping it all with a title and lyrics referencing everyone's favorite crime-stopping automaton. Forget fluff, this track is cheese, and it's extended at least minute past its expiration date, but it's a guilty pleasure.
After an exceedingly effective first half, the second half settles back into the emotional tar pits, this time with more fluctuating quality. "Street Lights" is simply brilliant, and almost frightening in its lyrical vulnerability. Musically, it crosses the most frayed vocal of the album with creaky synths and takes it to an epic climax of Coldplay proportions. It's all very tasteful and beautiful, wrapping up after a very eventful 3 minutes. "Bad News" is mostly just Kanye West with his piano, and his vocal limitations come back to bite him here. It's pleasant and lyrically affecting, but ultimately nothing special. "See You In My Nightmares" is pretty damn bad, a mediocre, keyboard-heavy pop track that makes a ton of racket but never takes off. Lil Wayne's rap confirms my suspicion that he would be better served acting in a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest remake than ever making music again.
The album closes with a respectful and ultimately quite gorgeous tribute to his deceased mother, "Coldest Winter". It's a heartbreaker, featuring an extremely passionate vocal performance and chilly synths, perfectly communicating the emotion he's attempting to get across. It's not too shabby lyrically either, though certainly less adorned:
It's 4 AM and I cant sleep
Her love is all that I can see
Memories made in the coldest winter
Goodbye my friend, will I ever love again?
If spring can take the snow away
Can it melt away all our mistakes?
Memories made in the coldest winter
Goodbye my friend, I won't ever love again
"Pinocchio Story", a live freestyle, is a bonus track of sorts. It doesn't amount to much, and comes across as more of a rant than anything, but it has a certain jarring fascination. It's the only track here without auto-tuned vocals (instead, it just has a ton of echo), so Kanye's lyrics about seeing himself as he really is and not liking what he's observed are felt with the full brunt of their intensity. There's some piano and light percussion here and there, but the song often sounds a cappella because they're mixed so low. Don't expect traditional rhyme schemes either; I cracked myself up when I first heard this by comparing it to R. Kelly's bizarre Trapped In The Closet hip-hopera. Regardless of all this, the song has a certain visceral intensity that makes it worth a listen, although the album truly ends with Coldest Winter in my opinion.
What Kanye has crafted here is a microcosm of his current feelings and musical influences. To that end, 808s & Heartbreak is a huge success. Unfortunately, Mr. West, in his infinite hubris, has been hyping this album up as a new musical movement of sorts, which it most certainly is not. Rather, it's a distillation of pain that juxtaposes the processed with the human to often fascinating results. It's cohesive, interesting, and often quite beautiful. Expect nothing more or less than this and you're likely to be pleased. I recommend this album because, in spite of its many flaws and sheer divisiveness, it challenges the listener and makes them feel something, good or bad. And that, in my mind, is what real art is all about. Good work, Kanye.