Maybe Kanye West finally got fed up with all those haters disparaging his rapping technique, because on “808s and Heartbreak” the man who brought us “Gold Digger” and “Stronger” doesn’t rap a single word. Instead, Kanye’s first studio album since last year’s multi-platinum “Graduation,” finds West singing his little (broken) heart out, and – surprisingly enough – it isn’t bad.
Let’s get one thing straight: Kanye West can’t sing. Not well, at least. But with the help of a lovely piece of studio magic known as auto-tune, Kanye’s voice is always perfectly on pitch – if slightly warbly and robotic – on “808s and Heartbreak.”
The “808” in that title refers to the Roland TR-808, a circa 1980 artifact of a drum machine that gives every song a lo-fi electronic vibe, but the second half of the title, “heartbreak,” is even more ubiquitous.
“808s and Heartbreak” is Kanye’s most downtrodden and vulnerable record to date and he has earned it: in the last year, Kanye has broken up with his fiancé, gotten arrested and lost his mother to complications following surgery.
So it’s no surprise that tracks with the potential to be feel-good radio jams, like the piano-pounding “Welcome to Heartbreak” or the staccato “Heartless,” are instead steeped in regret and melancholy.
But whether discussing “memories made in the coldest winter” or how “life’s just not fair,” Kanye often relies on vague sentimentalism rather than raw, personal emotion. When coupled with production that’s a notch less original and varied than what Kanye’s capable of, “808s and Heartbreak” can be underwhelming.
“Pinocchio Story” embodies the worst of both worlds. It’s a live, six-minute freestyle, in which the sound of the screaming audience drowns out the bare-bone’s instrumentation but unfortunately can’t manage to drown out the embarrassingly introspective lyrics (“there is no YSL that they could sell / to get my heart out of this hell / and my mind out of this jail”).
Thankfully, the song is more the exception than the rule. And when Kanye isn’t moping around, he’s at his best. Take the delightfully unexpected, string-laden “Robocop,” in which he explains an ill-fated relationship in terms of Stephen King novels and a certain law-enforcing cyborg.
The truth is, as easy as it would be to dismiss “808s and Heartbreak” as a hurried misstep fueled by the usual self-indulgence and egomania, the album is surprisingly good. Kanye will always know how to write a killer hip-hop song.
Still, for his sake and all of ours’, I hope West has a little bit more to be cheerful about by the time he comes out with his follow-up in June.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.