BY MATT EMERY
Managing Arts Editor
Published November 23, 2008
808s and Heartbreak
3 out of 5 Stars
I don’t believe Kanye West. When he says he’s the voice of our generation, I know he’s not, and I don’t think he even believes that. When he tries to pin the media as an all-out, blood-sucking vampire, he’s only partly right. He made himself the person the paparazzi want and need in their life, and he wouldn’t be anything without them. If photographers stopped taking photos of Kanye, he’d complain about that, too. And when Kanye says he’s pissed at MTV for not recognizing his achievements with VMAs, I don’t even know if he's really upset. If he swept the ceremony, he’d say he wouldn’t accept the awards because the network is racist and MTV is mainstream wish-wash, and that he, the voice of a generation, the top man in hip hop, is an underground artist sticking to what’s true — something MTV doesn’t stand for.
So this is why it’s hard to believe Kanye when he says his latest album, 808s and Heartbreak, is supposed to sound like Phil Collins and is made to win awards. Kanye is too good for that. He lies a lot, but in the most perfectly calculated way. He keeps his name in the media at the right time (punching a photographer; getting arrested; releasing lengthy, fiery blog responses that are picked up by every music blog, website and newspaper in the world) without even hyping an album. And he does it all while sitting in his version of the Bat Cave, brooding and rubbing his hands together, thinking, “Perfect.”
But things apparently aren’t perfect in Kanye’s world, and 808s and Heartbreak explains that better than anyone could have expected from Mr. West. Heartbreak is filled with images of — not surprisingly — heartbreak and loss, and by no means is similarly connected to his past albums. If Graduation truly was Kanye’s graduation from the world of hip hop, then this is Kanye’s awkward first job where he’s upset, moody and just downright depressed trying out new things.
Kanye had been working toward an album like this for a while, with the electronic elements of “Stronger” pulling Kanye into new territory. But Heartbreak shoves all dabbling efforts out of the spaceship window with flowery electro-flourishes and strings on “RoboCop” or the simplistic and snail-paced beeps on “Say You Will.” And whether the breathiness and inhales are meant to add realism and closeness remains foggy with such lines like, “I wish this song wouldn’t come true.”
From the onset, the aforementioned “Say You Will” ushers in a new Kanye — a toned-down, sordidly thumping Kanye. Even the tracks that should have all the qualities and guest appearances to make them the next “Touch the Sky” or “Gold Digger” don’t have the same sort of Kanye pep. Lil Wayne on “See You in My Nightmares” plods along well enough, but gets bogged down by the Auto-Tuned verses that don’t do much more than garble along with some interjections of “Tell everybody that you know.”
Heartbreak isn’t even so much a hip-hop album. Kanye sings on all but a few tracks, one being the odd “Paranoid,” which already sets itself apart from the rest of the album by moving along at a brisk pace. The rest of the album is stunningly tragic and shows Mr. Swagger in a place that wasn’t supposed to exist. Gone are the days of poppin’ champagne and “The Good Life.” Mr. West now spends his time lamenting things like friends showing him pictures of their children, and Kanye having nothing but vanity. He sings on the gloomily depressing “Welcome to Heartbreak,”: “My friends show me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs."
Auto-Tune plays a role in the computerized feel, emerging on almost every track, and whether that’s a selling point doesn’t seem to matter. Even technical splashes can’t save the fact that Kanye isn’t a good singer. The man can rap, and does possess melody — something he was gunning for on this album — but he’s not a singer. For a track like “Street Lights” to work, Kanye needs a voice that will dominate the empty space generated by the drum machine doldrums and wandering buzzes. Even when he crows, “I’m just nothing, life’s just nothing,” drowsiness sets in rather quickly.
But if there’s one thing Kanye does do well on Heartbreak, it’s that he makes a convincing argument he's been through some terrible experiences. With the passing of his mother, album closer “Coldest Winter” has a certain touch of homeliness to it that makes the words “Memories made in the coldest winter / Goodbye, my friend / Will I ever love again?” sound like more than just the usual Kanye whining. And standout single “Love Lockdown” has a thundering and bouncing quality that hints at empowerment, as Kanye sings, “I’m not loving you / Way you want me to” and “I got something to lose, so I gotta move / I can’t keep myself, and still keep you too.” It’s not standard Kanye, but it’s still an addicting stomper.
Even so, with all this heartache, some of it does feel just a tad manufactured. On “RoboCop,” Kanye cries against pounding, “Star Wars”-like sound effects (“I will never be your robot”) before dancing into the cheap, flowery words of “You spoiled little L.A. girl / You’re just a spoiled little L.A. girl.”
We get it. You’re not feeling the best. But instead of reflecting it with his usually quick-witted rhymes and wordplay, he opts for a more childish response.
Maybe this is just Kanye breathing a bit. For all the ranting he does on his blog, maybe it was time to get this off his chest. Reinvention is something Kanye doesn’t seem too far above, but returning to his roots is also a viable option. The swagger might be gone here, but inside Heartbreak is a troubled man, who's only partly able to convince us we should believe what he says, once and for all.