Kanye’s Electric Circus
Three albums in, Kanye West has built his empire on alternatively criticizing and celebrating his contradictions. This duality, which often manifests itself annoyingly in public, but brilliantly in his music, has made ‘Ye the self-proclaimed “voice of this generation.” If his first three records were a celebration of his rise to the top of the pop heap, then the fourth, 808s & Heartbreak, is the come down.
Between last year’s Graduation and 808s, Kanye’s mother died due to complications from plastic surgery. He also went through a highly publicized breakup with his fiancâˆšÂ©e earlier this year. Here’s the jump off point for 808s.
Moody and sparse, with heavy percussion and glacial synths serving as the backdrop for Kanye’s auto-tuned vocals, 808s amounts to two parts breakup record and one part early midlife crisis. Sonically, the record revolves around two pieces of gear: the classic Roland TR-808 drum machine referenced in the album title and hip-hop’s effect du jour, Antares Auto-Tune. Using two staples of hip-hop production, Kanye instead chose to make a pop record that lays out the vacant, dark side of his superstardom.
The opening coupling of “Say You Will” and “Welcome to Heartbreak” evoke the minimal melancholy of Phil Collins’ clinical, but soulful take on R&B in the ’80s. “Heartless,” the second single off the album, bumps the hardest out of the set. The drum track and precisely behind the beat flow is classic Kanye, thus making it a logical radio single. “Paranoid” has floor filler written all over it. A breezy hook, crisp drums, and lush chords make it the most fun track on 808s.
Two late album standouts, “Street Lights” and “Coldest Winter,” are more emotionally direct versions of the album’s first two songs. Seemingly, the focus on Kanye’s pained emotional state becomes sharper as the album progresses. Since 808s is fueled by its melodies, it is fitting that “Amazing” featuring Young Jeezy and “See You in My Nightmares” with Lil Wayne are the only tracks featuring rapping.
‘Ye gets props for having the creativity and balls to make a challenging pop album that’s likely going to alienate most hip-hop conservatives. If anything works against the record it’s the mood, which is so monochromatic that one has to be in a certain space to enjoy it in its entirety. The track-to-track diversity is much more subtle and slowly revealing here than on Kanye’s three previous studio efforts.
While 808s can be looked at as a deviation, a slate-cleaning release by an artist that takes the album format serious, it is also his first full musical acknowledgment of his own global pop stardom. Detroit techno, house, world music, sensitive guy rock (see Coldplay), and ’80s pop are among the genres stylized by West, who on 808s & Heartbreak proves to be quite the musical mastermind.