Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak

23Nov08
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Kanye West is an enigma. He’s got this weird brain ninja thing going on, where you never really know how you feel about his work. You start to hate it, then the next thing you know, you’re bouncing to his beats. You try to to shake it off and tell yourself, “This is not good.” But then he comes back on the next track and completely mindfucks you.

This is the fourth time I’ve tried to review this album. Each time I sit down to write, I come up with something different. I’ve listened to 808s and Heartbreak every day for the past five days (Yeah, I got it a little early) and am still completely mystified by it.

I’ve been a Kanye fan for a long time now. I was talking about him when he was still just an up and coming producer. His work on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint was phenomenal. Heart of The City is still one of my favorite tracks of all time. And when College Dropout dropped in 2002, I was all over it. I played that album nonstop for almost a year.

College Dropout showed that Kanye was more than just a producer. He could rhyme a little bit. And not just ghostwritten rhetoric like Dr. Dre or Swizz Beatz, but actual meaningful verses. Verses that said something, that spoke the truth.

But most of all, Kanye made Hip Hop accessible. It was no longer restricted to the streets or those who longed to identify with that culture. He broke down boundaries of race and class. And he did so without forsaking the roots of Hip Hop or the struggle it represented.

Yet since then, Kanye has been on a downward spiral. Late Registration and Graduation were both just a little less spectacular than the album it followed. I say this not to dispute Kanye’s talent or question his integrity. But to say, he became less of an artist and more of a commodity–a fashion icon, blogger and celebrity rather than Hip Hop innovator. It seemed like the music took a backseat to his status.

Those two albums stepped away from his signature soul samples in favor of synth-beats. He became less Hip Hop and more MTV. Instead of collaborations with artists like Freeway, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, he featured Adam Levin, John Mayer and T-Pain.

Maybe it was a natural progression, Kanye just growing in his music and expanding his horizons. But to Hip Hop purists, like me, it felt like a degradation.

And despite his perceived fall off, there were things I loved about those albums. Crack Music and Drive Slow off Late RegistrationStronger and Barry Bonds off Graduation were all great songs.

It was because of tracks like these and Kanye’s undeniable talent as a producer that I remained a fan–hopeful that his new album would mark a return to his bold early work.

The first song I heard off 808s and Heartbreak was Heartless (amazing video by Hype Williams, if you haven’t seen it, check it out). What struck me first was his use of the auto-tuner. I absolutely HATE auto-tuner. It was stupid when Cher used it, played out when K-Ci and Jo Jo used it and just incredibly retarded when T-Pain decided to swallow it. But somehow, in Kanye’s hands it didn’t seem so bad. The hook was catchy and I was really feeling his verse. As a single, Heartless did its job–it got me excited about the album.

After my first full listen through 808s and Heartbreak, I was drowning in auto-tuner. Every song on the album is awash in auto-tuner. I could accept it on one or two tracks. But on an entire album, it felt forced. Maybe Kanye really does love using it, but it seemed like he was just buying into the fad. I really like the way Jay Smooth, of illdoctrine.com, summed it up.

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The production on 808s and Heartbreak is superb. His beats are infections. But the lack of rhyming and such pervasive use of auto-tuner make it a hard album to absorb. The vocals coupled with tracks like Robocop and Love Lockdown drag the whole album down.

However, Kanye does manage some decent songs. Heartless, Coldest Winter, Amazing and See You In My Nightmares are his best work here.

But overall, I can’t fully endorse this album. It is, at best, average–a lateral step, rather than one backward.

It’s worth a listen. But definitely not the album I’d hoped for and expected from someone as talented as Kanye West.

Final Grade: C

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2 Responses to “Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak”

  1. 1 Robby

    mindfuck is the best word I’ve heard today

  2. Yeah, I like your more in-depth review over mine. Kanye+auto-tune isn’t un-listenable, by any means, it’s just that I’ve come to expect more. He’s more talented than this album lets on. Maybe he’s just sad. Or, maybe he’s saving all the good stuff for the “Graduate School: Class Clown” album…


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