808s & Heartbreak

Kanye West

Island Def Jam Records, 2008

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/10/2008

The rap/hip-hop world has developed an image over the past decade and a half that most would not consider to be a positive one. Middle America has long seen “danger” within the genres, from the thuggish personal behavior of its stars to the lyrical trend of glorifying the degradiation of women. Much like Elvis was seen as a sexual abomination in the ‘50s and the Beatles as drugged-out hippies in the ‘60s, rap/hip-hop has been attacked as an affront to the ethics and morals of the nation.

Ignoring the arrogance of those who attempt to label a certain art form as dangerous or wrong does not alter the state of popular music or the lack of creativity that can occur within.  Any objections one might have against an artist like 50 Cent do not have to come from some deep, inbred fear towards the genre; in his case, there are definite artistic flaws one could pick at.

The critical darling within the hip-hop world for the past few years undoubtedly would be Kanye West. Since 2004 saw the release of The College Dropout, West has gone on to enjoy massive success and become a pop culture icon. His tirades on and offstage are practically legendary, and are revealing of a man who does not display the best judgment or common sense (“George Bush hates black people”).

Yet West has deserved the accolades showered upon him; he has taken hip-hop and made it interesting. My preconceived notions about what hip-hop/rap could encompass changed dramatically after listening to his records. My longstanding distaste for the practice of sampling toppled after realizing that it took genuine talent. Yes, West has never displayed an amazing mastery of lyrics, but he has still moved in a direction that is decidedly not what my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Middle America would normally expect.

For all his success, however, West also experienced pain in his personal life. The death of his mother was a tragic story, especially considering the relationship West enjoyed with her. Breakups and other lows ensued, and as a result, West turned inward for his next record. 808s & Heartbreak rarely reaches a sustained period of optimism, and the focus never shifts from the travails West has gone through.

West’s decision is unquestionably selfish, and at times too self-indulgent for the masses to sympathize with (say what you will, but there are some who would take West’s popularity and millions of dollars in a heartbeat if he feels constrained by them.) But it’s a fascinating descent into what makes the man tick, and a seemingly shockingly honest and vulnerable expression on his part (“Bad News”). There is no attempt at crafting a machismo image, or engaging in crude boasts (again 50 Cent, I’m looking at you).

The aspect of 808s & Heartbreak that interest most would be West’s choice to essentially record the album with a full and complete dependence on Auto-Tune, a much reviled technology that draws cries of protests from music “purists.” West makes it work, achieving a level he otherwise would not have had the capabilities to do (just listen to any clips of West performing these songs live...). The robotic, alien quality lends credence to the emotional state West is in. There are genuine vocal hooks (“Love Lockdown,” “Heartless”), again something I would not have expected if West sang straight-up.

West has made mention that a direct influence for this record was the early solo work of Phil Collins. For the most part the comparisons between the two are tangential; really the similarities come in terms of attitude more than anything else. The opening track, however, is a brilliant attempt by West to recreate the inner turmoil and dark nature of “In The Air Tonight.” Beyond that, West rarely touches upon Collins-era pop.

I will grant West the more general notion that 808s & Heartbreak has it roots in the music of the 1980s. The gurgling synthesizers and 808 drum machines on tracks like “Paranoid” and “See You In My Nightmares” more then hearken back to the days of Reagan and New Coke. This new sound has the potential to alienate those expecting a more traditional hip-hop sound; in fact, West barely raps on the record. The material present is in many ways a complete 180 from West’s earlier work.

Kanye West is one of those artists who is legitimately trying new things and pushing boundaries in a genre that has long been dismissed as lacking integrity and creativity. The changes that ensue may not be radical or even genre altering, but they represent a popular artist who has achieved worldwide success yet is willing to mix things up and move in ways few would have expected. That earns him my respect.

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Island Def Jam Records, and is used for informational purposes only.