Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak

After several closely monitored weeks of leaks, it’s time to take a look at the year’s most anticipated album that doesn’t feature Buckethead. Given Kanye West’s reputation for finding musical inspiration in unlikely places (be they leftfield samples or genre-bending collaborations) it’s surprising to see the superstar rapper/producer embrace such a restrictive palette. As you’ve no doubt gleaned from this and other blogs, every song on this album is built from a blueprint of TR-808 drum machine beats and conspicuous digitally manipulated crooning. It’s a departure that’s especially confounding given the prevalence of Auto-Tune abuse in countless recent hip-hop hits. Kanye knows the pitch-shifting mechanism is played out, he just doesn’t give a shit. It’s still a crutch (a more skilled singer wouldn’t rely on the gimmick) but we won’t harp on it. The absence of samples is one key difference between this concept album and the acclaimed school trilogy. The lack of pop singer guest appearances and co-producers is another (though Jeezy and Weezy make high-profile if totally unnecessary cameos, and No I.D. co-produces two songs with Kanye). Those creative choices coupled with King of Pain (T-Pain?) lyrics help define 808s as a solitary pursuit. Don’t expect any club bangers, this is more like a soundtrack for stalking ex-girlfriends on Facebook.

The album’s first single “Love Lockdown,” premiered live at the Video Music Awards in September, is a fair representation of West’s new minimalist rhythm and blues. Its formula of tweaked vocals plus piano plus retro beats sees little variation from “Amazing” to “Bad News” to the wistful “Street Lights.” In a recent interview the singer credited Phil Collins as the inspiration behind his newfound melodic sensibility, but structural and tonal similarities arise too if you reconsider the pop star’s earliest hits like “Man On The Corner” and “In The Air Tonight.” Likewise, take a look at Kanye now and there’s just an empty space. When they’re not breaking his heart, shorties are snooping on his cell (“Paranoid“) and generally turning his life into a horror movie (“RoboCop“).

Here “Welcome To Heartbreak” improves upon a leaked version that paired Cleveland rapper Kid Cudi with aggressive synths out of an eighties Nintendo game. The updated track’s new beat and more delicate instrumentation fit the sentimental lyrics, which are also sort of goofy: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids / and all I could show him were pictures of my cribs / He said his daughter got a brand new report card / all I got was a brand new sportscar.” It’s lonely at the top, and Kanye’s unfulfilled by The Good Life (he even implies that flying first class makes him feel isolated). In this way “Welcome” hints at the regrets and soul searching that have replaced Louis Vuitton luggage as the driving force behind his songwriting in 2008. Kanye’s staring down his thirties, and the implications of growing up are most clear on the bleak “Coldest Winter,” a tribute to his mother who died last year after botched cosmetic surgery of all things. It’s a smart reworking of Tears For Fears deep cut “Memories Fade” with new lyrics, and closes out 808s on a chilly march.

Less remarkable is opener “Say You Will,” in which a dreaming Kanye sings over a beeping heart monitor because he’s dying of heartbreak. Lil Wayne’s gritty but lowbrow performance in “See You In My Nightmares” is another letdown (“You think your shit don’t stink but you are Mrs. PeeUuu.” Wha?). “RoboCop” has the catchiest and only comic moments, with fat hooks fleshed out by FRESH KID Herbie Hancock and jubilant orchestration that would sound tight on a playlist with these guys. An earlier iteration that dropped the strings from the verses was far superior, though.

Every track on 808s leaked, days apart, in varying levels of clarity, from seemingly different sources. It’s as if someone was orchestrating the most pervasive, drawn out marketing plan imaginable! But Kanye insists he was only responsible for two of those bootlegs, and in linking to presumably non-sanctioned MP3s on his blog, he’s exhibiting his trademark confidence that people will pay for his music no matter what. Granted, muffled YouTube rips with constant DJ drops do not do this album justice. But they do do a fine job of showing how samey it is. While 808s doesn’t match the artistic triumph or sheer thrills of Graduation, it’s inspiring to see an artist stubbornly follow the beat of his own drum machine. Now someone please confiscate the man’s Auto-Tune.

808s & Heartbreak is out 11/24 on Roc-A-Fella / Island Def Jam.