Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak

Jamie Milton 04/12/2008

Rating: 4/5

Recording all your vocals on an album with a vocoder? What a ridiculous idea. Surely, Kanye West has lost his mind somewhere in the midst of stardom and set-backs. Or perhaps he's the most forward-thinking pop star of our time. Sometimes, to excel, you need to take risks. West had lost the incentive to excel the second 'Gold Digga' was released as a single but last year, he experienced the death of his mother alongside a nasty break-up and you just get the feeling that he's gone entirely with his heart on this album, no matter how broken it may be.

For someone not in Kanye's position, to release an album full of autotuned vocals probably wouldn't go down as well as this might. But he's a global superstar who to this day has played all his cards right. He grasps at a broad appeal and he gets it; urban kids in the ghettos of New Orleans love him but so do the liberal elite, for crying out loud. But if there was one action he could take musically that could possibly split opinion, it would be this. '808s and Heartbreak' is the darkest, most ambitious album he's likely to make. Deep, moody strings follow the pulsating but polished opener of 'Say You Will', giving you the sense that this sadness could continue. And it does, only this time disguised under magnificent melodies, drum samples and somehow, you can hear genuine passion behind all those vocal effects. And why not? If there was ever a time to give everything you've got it would be now, experiencing something so unprecedented, so unexpected, so unfair. Call it rude but something so harsh and unforgiving can give you the inspiration as a musician to write the best material of your life and Kanye West has reached that point.

It's a typical hip-hop album in the sense that it features plenty of collaborators, plenty of attitude, arrogance, like any other West album but it feels like a "proper album" in the way that Bon Iver's 'For Emma, Forever Ago' does and believe it or not, you can draw comparions between the two; both terrific albums, both focusing on sentimentality. Again, it's a typical hip-hop album in the sense that it's crammed with potential hits, 'Heartless', 'Amazing', 'RoboCop' will urge you to dance, to do something different and their lack of authenticity in sound is completely made up for in West's earnest lyrics. The opening line of the record, "why would she make calls out of the blue?" sets us out for a near-unbearbale, pessimistic, distraught slap in the face. At times it's hard to tell whether West has been brave enough to tackle the subject of death but its indicative that he's gone for it when listening to 'Bad News', which could simply tell of another moment of heartbreak but is delicate enough in sound to suggest otherwise. Whilst all this is happening, West takes times out to bulk up his self-claimed arrogance, 'Amazing' being the high-point of his egotistical gloating - "I'm the only thing that I'm afraid of" he claims.

So whilst he refrains to let loose this supposed heartbreak, the best parts of '808s and Heartbreak' arrive when he's his usual self, vocoder only improving it all. Pop is in a state right now, in which you can try almost anything and get away with it if the substance inside is right. You might even be right in thinking that because West is so exposed lyrically in this album, he's decided to cover it up with the autotune. Who knows, all that matters is that it's his greatest work to date.