808s and Heartbreak, Kanye West’s fourth album, is certainly groundbreaking. It might just be the first-ever black emo record. 808s shows Mr. West at his most vulnerable. A year removed from being harder, better, faster, stronger and nearly invincible, he tries–sometimes in vain–to prove that he is human; that he hurts like the rest of us. The success of the album’s daring production, songwriting, arrangement and themes is dependent on whether West’s listeners can truly empathize with an artist whose incredible talent has been matched only by his incredible arrogance.
You got to hand it to West–even when falling short of his previous efforts, he still manages to find ways to be innovative. You can’t really call 808s and Heartbreak a hip-hop record. You can’t really call it R&B. Nor can you call it techno, dance, trance, electronica or rock. 808s is so out there, it makes OutKast’s hip-hop/blues disaster Idlewild look like Straight Outta Compton.
808s introduces us to Kanye West, the singer. West sings on all of the album’s 12 tracks, mostly with the assistance of Auto-Tune in a style similar to the Daft Punk-influenced vocals he gave us on last year’s mega-hit “Stronger.” Such a mega-hit, however, is what 808s is lacking. The two lead singles–The melodramatic “Heartless” and the Jamiroquai-meets-Coldplay funk-piano driven “Love Lockdown”–are both solid tracks. However, even the staunchest of West supporters would have a hard time arguing their pop merits to the likes of “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger.”
“Paranoid,” featuring Mr. Hudson, is about the closest West comes to crafting a bona-fide club-shaker. The keyboards and drum samples are so awesomely 80’s, the only thing missing is a verse from Huey Lewis and a didgeridoo solo from the guys in Men at Work. Later on, he uses wailing guitar feedback and moody pianos on “Street Lights,” borrowing a page from Ben Gibbard and Wayne Coyne to craft a song that is less hip-hop, more indie rock. Why not? Remember, this is the guy who made Daft Punk relevant to inner city rappers.
West’s ambition is admirable, but it gets the best of him. His overuse of Auto-Tune sometimes causes his songs to bleed together without distinction. Innovation aside, West benches his all-star talent as an emcee–a move equal to West’s hometown Chicago Bulls benching Michael Jordan– yet he still expects to win. His heart may be broken, sure, but listening to West’s gloom is about as believable or enjoyable as listening to a Slayer record about peace and love.
“There’s no clothes that I can buy that can turn back the time,” he sings on the bonus track, “Pinocchio Story.” “There is no vacation spot I can fly that could bring back a piece of real life.” In these hard times, those lines come off as callused, insensitive and–as Obama would say–out of touch.
In the end, Kanye West does prove that he is human. He can fail just like the rest of us.
Words by Bill Reese[Rating: 3/5]