Sunday, November 23, 2008

808's and Heartbreaks Review

Kanye West’s new CD 808’s and Heartbreaks is a complete enigma; something that has to be separated from everything else he’s ever done. In fact, to enjoy the album you almost have to forget that it’s a product of Kaye West. Classifying its genre is near-impossible as it seems to be ¼ pop, ¼ R&B, ¼ Rap, and ¼ something totally new. As you know, if you’re even semi-cognizant, auto-tune is present throughout the entire album, which makes the voice just as unrecognizable as the music backing it. And as for that music, it’s spare in most places but occasionally erupts into an enormously busy mix of strings, synths, and vague beeps. The element which keeps the best of the songs afloat is this eruption of melody, the catchiness of which sustains entire songs as the listener waits to hear that refrain over and over again. Kanye keeps describing the music in various interviews as almost opera-like, and it does have a sweeping quality to it, with an additional pop sensibility (what with the refrains and all) which makes the whole thing very listenable. Look at it this way: If you’re a Hip-Hop purist and nothing else, you’re going to loathe this album. But if you like pop music at all, you’ll probably love it.

The album opens with the six-minute long ‘Say You Will,’ a total misstep and something that’ll probably turn off a lot of people when they first hear it. The song plods along with an irritating series of bleeps in the background, Kanye whining at his most irritating as a choir slowly moans along with him in the background. The next song, ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’ featuring talented newcomer Kid Cudi is a good deal better, featuring a brilliant chorus, and verses in which Kanye meditates on exactly what’s wrong with his life. These two songs are almost throwaways compared to the next six, all of which are lovingly crafted pop gems. The first of these is ‘Heartless,’ which is likely to be the most popular song from the entire album, featuring an incredibly catchy and well-sung chorus and verses which are actually rapped. Next up is ‘Amazing’ which true to its name is probably the best song on the album. The beat is incredible, and the piano loop on the song is addictive. That melody combined with Jeezy’s grunted ad-libs and killer verse make for a total success. Next up is ‘Love Lockdown’ which you’ve probably already heard. It’s pretty good. The heartbeat in the background works next to Kanye’s decent-sounding laments and when the piano and beat come in for the chorus, the song speeds up and gets even better. It’s about two minutes too long though, and those extra two minutes keep you from the second-best song on the album, ‘Paranoid.’ This is another song (along with ‘Amazing’) you’re likely to hear on the radio way too often, but it’s almost worth it. The song is a combination of rapping, singing, incredible melody on the hook and very talented guest vocal from unknown Mr. Hudson. Next up is ‘Robocop’ a song which wouldn’t be all that good if it weren’t for the bridge, which just consists of Kanye singing “OK, OK” over and over again. Trust me, it’s fucking great and it makes the entire song better. The last good song in the streak of six is ‘Streetlights,’ which is perhaps the best example of a song that simply doesn’t belong on a rap album. It’s good though, quiet chorus and simple melody, with powerful beat permeating the entire thing and making it a bang a little bit. After this comes the worst song on the album, the insufferably whiny ‘Bad News’ in which Kanye does his best to sound like Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin and fails in the worst way. ‘See You in My Nightmares’ is a mixed bag, with Lil Wayne putting forth a stronger and more emotional performance than Kanye does. It’s definitely decent but a little too weird for the mainstream and a little too slow-paced for multiple listens. The penultimate song ‘Coldest Winter’ is growing on me, but it’s still a little whiny and slow and anyone who identifies with the machismo of most rap will throw it away in disgust. Lastly, Kanye has included a live performance of a song called ‘Pinnochio’ which seems to have no place on the album and is annoying and tedious.

Overall the album is pretty damn good, bolstered by that six song streak in its center. It’s obvious that Kanye was especially inspired this time around by his mother’s death and his subsequent breakup with his long time girlfriend. According to Kanye, the entire project was completed in about two weeks in an almost Keroucian frenzy. Due to this creative style, you can’t consider it to be a normal Kanye album and if you do, you’ll probably be disappointed. Instead think of it as a pop side project from an extremely talented artist. Looking at it this way reveals that 808’s and Heartbreaks is a painstakingly crafted opus in which Kanye shows an amazing amount vulnerability (even for him) and in doing so succeeds in making a very human, very enjoyable album.