Critical Voices: Kanye West , “808s and Heartbreak”

November 20, 2008

Much has been made of Kanye West’s transformation from gloating hip-hop megastar to brooding synth-popper. Would 808s and Heartbreak be a disposable gimmick or a real artistic statement? Surprisingly, the answer leans more toward the latter.

When the album kicks off with the bleep-bloops of “Say You Will,” it’s much easier to buy into his heartbreak than when he’s just talking about it. It’s an epic opener-at just over six minutes, it’s one of the longest tracks in Kanye’s oeuvre-and it has an irresistibly melancholy auto-tune hook that keeps it interesting.

The rest of the album largely repeats that blueprint-simple electronic beat, subtle Japanese drum complement, and super-catchy auto-tune hook. Kanye is clearly miserable here, and in the most introspective way. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs,” he sings. His maturation might not come easily, but it’s coming nonetheless.

There are some raps here, but surprisingly, they’re two of the weakest moments on the album. “Heartless” is the only song here on which Kanye raps, but even then, it’s inflicted with auto-tune, though it’s less intrusive here.

The album’s finest moments come when Kanye completely surrenders to his inner diva. “Robocop” is perhaps the best example, as Kanye’s ridiculous refrain is 808’s most memorable hook. It’s followed by “Streetlights,” a pulsing, depressing ballad with layers of vocal harmonies that is miles away from anything hip-hop.

808s and Heartbreak closes with “Coldest Winter,” an ode to Kanye’s late mother. With a melody borrowed from Tears for Fears, a great tribal rhythm, and tons of emotion, it’s a fitting closer for an album meant to evoke feelings of heartbreak. While it’s not what most of us were expecting, it’s an album that only Kanye Omari West could make, and for that it’s worth a listen, even for his most ardent critics.

Voice’s Choices: “Paranoid,” “Robocop,” “Coldest Winter”

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