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LABEL: Roc-A-Fella Records RELEASE DATE: November 24, 2008 GENRE: Pop Rap
// review by Jeff

For some funky beats and free auto-tune, dial 808-WEST!

Many things can be said about Kanye West, most of which has already been said in the press. Above all, they talk about his inflated ego and how he believes that he deserves every award and every accolade that mankind has ever created. He has become a self-proclaimed ‹bermensch in the hip-hop universe, and vows to take over the pop world with his latest album, "808s & Heartbreak". But whether he is demanding that the world re-address him as Lord Something-or-Other or proclaiming that George W. Bush has no interest in aiding African-Americans, it all makes no difference in relation to the actual music. All I really need to know is whether the music he releases is good or no. I generally don't spend much time paying attention to this guy, but there is something different about this album that made me stand up and lend him an ear.

There are a couple of things different with this Kanye West album that you wouldn't normally have expected from him. First of all, Kanye has chosen not to rap at all, proclaiming that rapping could not adequately express all the various emotions that he was keeping inside of him. After the death of his mother due to complications from cosmetic surgery and his break-up with former girlfriend Alexis Phifer, no simple words could describe his feelings. Melodies and regular singing help get these messages across, I suppose, but he has opted to use the coveted Auto-Tune program to cover up all his vocal foibles (and they are indeed numerous). Secondly, the album is far more minimalist than his previous works, relying more on beats from a TR-808 drum synthesizer than anything else. It certainly doesn't have the same danceable vibe as previous albums, but that won't bother Mr. West one bit. He follows his heart...and this is where he has led us.

The album begins with Say You Will, a downtempo track that gets us in the mood for heartbreak and also introduces us to what we can expect from the Auto-Tune vocals. The song will not raise any roofs, but it will make anybody who likes repetitive tinkly beeps and bops happy because they are prominent throughout. It's actually a fairly dark-sounding song; I wouldn't be surprised if this song later became the anthem for some independent goth film set in a blood-bathed forest. Or maybe that's just me. This opus ends up being over six minutes long -- a tad unnecessary, but the song is calming enough to allow it. Welcome To Heartbreak, featuring the funky stylings of Kid Cudi (whoever that is), is a bit more brash in presentation but still has a noir aura surrounding it. The beat is punchier, the piano work is pretty enticing, and the chorus work alongside the work of the voice-altering software also works. Heartless, one of the singles from the album, also follows this pattern. After the first two songs, this one feels almost like a carbon copy of the first one (except that the verses sound a bit more monotonous); luckily, the chorus makes up for it... almost. The theme of being heartbroken is certainly brought forth with each tune. This certainly isn't the wild, upbeat ride I had expected! Let's trek on...

Amazing starts out with a very cool tribal drumstick intro that immediately can suck you in. But that's pretty much the highlight of this song. Kanye's singing isn't very impressive here, and the intermittent neanderthal barking noises can't possibly help anyone's musical credibility. The addition of rapper Young Jeezy doesn't add to the atmosphere anyway, especially when he is rapping about "tryin' to watch my sodium." I had no idea he was such a health fanatic (or possibly a closet geriatric). Then there's Love Lockdown, the song that brought my attention to this album in the first place -- for a relatively uninteresting song, it certainly is interesting. Repetitive and a little bit tribal, it's still home to a surprisingly addictive melody, and that's all we ask for. Oh, it has lyrics, too. Yes, and they are about heartbreak. Go figure. Paranoid actually starts out sounding a bit dire, later including maniacal laughter and some 80s-style synth work. ...Yeah, it definitely sounds like a house track that throws back to something hip from 1983. It's pretty damn funky, although both Kanye and the unknown Mr. Hudson have nothing to do with that funkiness. However, RoboCop tweaks it up a notch with 808 sounds that resemble explosions, immediately bringing forth the mental image of a neo-metropolis after a nuclear siege or something. This song is accompanied by strings that I wouldn't have expected to pop up right after the rough beats were laid down, along with Kanye lyrics that don't seem to contain much effort (he says "okay" a few too many times in the chorus for any sane person's taste). Not bad, though.

Street Lights is like a ballad, but with jerky fading synths that jar the experience a bit. The piano work is decent, but is a bit too subdued to save this unappealing track. The same fate falls upon Bad News, although he seems to try a higher octave and a bit more soul in the process. It is moderately effective, but I think we can come to the general conclusion that Kanye can't really sing and that the Auto-Tune function is his only saving grace. This seems to be the case with many singers now, including T-Pain and Chris Brown. Can they not sing without it? Many vocalists certainly can. Perhaps there is less talent in this crowd than the general population has been led to believe. Anyway, See You In My Nightmare is another dreary tune, this time including another member of the Auto-Tune royalty, Lil Wayne. Somehow, this has become the official third single from the album, although I can't see why because it's not exactly the most exciting of songs. There is no building of tension in this song -- what you hear is what you'll get for over four minutes. This is followed by the last ballad, Coldest Winter, which has been credited as a tribute to West's lost mother. It's not bad, and Kanye even shows some singing effort this time. It's very subdued and synthpoppy (as it should be, considering it borrows from "Memories Fade" by 80s melancholics Tears For Fears), but overall fairly heartfelt. This will probably end up being one of those tracks that never becomes a single and remains a hidden gem in the mainstream. Plus the tribal drumstick solo parts are always cool. The album ends with a bonus live track, Pinocchio Story, which was pretty much a freestyle track from his tour in Singapore. Nothing special, but for Kanye fanatics, it's something else to listen to.

I actually don't see any significant flaws with this album, although it's not always as ear-catching as one would hope from Kanye West. His overuse of Auto-Tune technology might raise a few eyebrows, though. I am personally not against Auto-Tune, although it certainly is used frequently enough to indicate that Kanye can't sing well enough for a pop album; rapping might be his true calling. This album also doesn't sample as much as other West albums do, so in a sense, this one is far more original, so I'll give it bonus points for that. Overall, it's a nifty experiment for West, one that has received ovations and negative feedback alike from West's fanbase, causing a bit of a divide. I predict that his next album will go back to his original style, but this was a solid effort on his part to try something new.


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