Kanye’s made a career as both a rapper and producer of pushing boundaries, making sure that you don’t “act like you can’t tell who made this,” and he appears to want to continue to do so with his newest album, “808s and Heartbreak,” which is due the Monday before Thanksgiving.
As Kanye explained in a recent interview, “Heartbreak” is a technique he created that involves a mixture of Auto-Tune, distortion, and delay effects. However, on first listen it’s the Auto-Tune, cranked up past pitch correction to a distinct “effect” most frequently heard in T-Pain songs. The “808” alludes to the Roland TR-808, a famed drum machine which Kanye reportedly insisted be featured on every track.
The majority of the album has leaked by now in one form or the other, and as a whole, I think that Kanye’s pursuit of pop sensibilities in elevating hip-hop has steered him wrong this time. While obviously the album should be judged on its merits as a whole, I listened to the leaked tracks, with the obvious caveat that they might be different versions than on the album.
The first single, already released, was the unexpectedly moving “Love Lockdown”. Kanye’s tale of a doomed relationship begins, “I’m not loving you/Way I wanted to…I’m in love with you/But the vibe is wrong/And that haunted me/All the way home.” The chorus, backed by African drums, instructs the listener to “keep your love locked down” but concludes, moodily, “You lose.” Here Kanye’s thesis is not only clear, but in fact aided dramatically by his digital effects; Kanye’s voice bursts with emotion, and the backing beat, mimicking tribal drums, adds to the drama. It’s a catchy, perfect heartbreak tune, and if the rest of the leaks had lived up to that standard I might be more excited about the album.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It’s clear there’s a great deal of emotional turmoil that went into this album, but in some sense, the robotic effect of Auto-tune dampens the emotional power of the song; the narrative of “Big Brother” has more impact than “Heartless”, a catchy song at first, but whose hook quickly wears.
The leaked “Tell Everybody That You Know” is a messy breakup song featuring Lil’ Wayne, who is only one of two guests on this album (the other is Young Jeezy). Here both Wayne and Kanye forsake conventional rapping for a pseudo-howl of “Tell everybody that you know/that I don’t love you no more” and Wayne dabbles in the Auto-Tune stylings of “Lollipop”. This song, like “Heartless” and the Jeezy-featuring “Amazing,” drags in its later minutes as the novelty factor wears off quickly.
“Coldest Winter” is most notable for its Tears For Fears sample/lyric cribbing. Interestingly, this is the only album track featuring a notable sample, previously a hallmark of both Kanye’s production style and of the tracks he chose for his first three albums. Part of the emotional catharsis that Mr. West appears to be seeking in this album comes from his ability to express himself outside the constraints of rap as a genre. Along those lines, I think West decided to refrain from using samples to express his own emotions, which is why in “Winter” he chose to re-sing the lyrics, rather than use a direct vocal sample.
“Street Lights”, like “Love Lockdown”, is a bright spot, where Kanye’s vision really shines through. The song is quiet and contemplative, and the digital trickery fades into into the background as Kanye’s voice and the instrumental take center stage. Kanye observes, “streetlights glowing/happened to be just like moments/passing, in front of me;” Kanye sounds like, mostly, a lost little boy, and the strong is much stronger for it. It seems that here, truly, we get a glimpse of how West is grieving for his recently deceased mother.
I do hope that there prove more pleasant surprises on the album itself; we’ll know in three days. There are moments of genius to be heard (“how could you be so/Dr. Evil” is hilarious in delivery), but on the whole I was disappointed by what we’ve heard so far. Hopefully, having gotten much of this raw emotion out of his system, Kanye refocuses in a new direction altogether. Despite these missteps, I remain excited to hear Kanye’s future output. At the very least, he is anything but predictable.