SINCE DEBUTING with The College Dropout in 2004, Kanye West has straddled the increasingly-entangled worlds of rap and pop, touting himself as the best of both. When an artist blends two disparate pieces in an attempt to cash in on the lovechild, it’s often stillborn: a gimmicky whim bound by the conventions of one or both genres. In West’s case, however, the end result—while dodgy in doses—was surprisingly viable. Follow-ups expounded on what developed into a formula: samples of pop culture staples (here Daft Punk, there Chaka Khan) set to freestyles on everything from the civil rights movement to the modern slave trade to guns and hos.
808s and Heartbreak frees West from the dangers of being pigeonholed, at best distantly related to his earlier trilogy of college-themed albums. “Say You Will” and “Welcome to Heartbreak” are harsh and mechanical, strings setting a sparse, disturbing mood. (“My best friend shows me pictures of his kids, and all I can show him is pictures of my cribs.”) Success is a fickle mistress, and Kanye spends most of his time complaining about it, his Auto-Tuned vocals stretching out in whiny, thin wisps.
“Amazing” is the closest thing to predecessor Graduation all around. The tempo is slow and methodical, a sort of ugly sibling to the bubbly plod of “I Wonder.” Young Jeezy makes an appearance reserved for the drizzling finish, before which Kanye gives himself a pep talk: “I’m exhausted, barely breathing, holding on to what I believe in.” And what is that, exactly? His own celebrity: “My reign is as far as your eyes can see.” “Paranoid” is an anthem, bred to be sung in large numbers, sporting a retro dance beat that’s almost club-worthy, held back in its potential for wide appeal by bad poetry on a lost love, though one of the few tracks that doesn’t wear out its welcome after a couple listens.
Pacing is consistently the most grounded complaint against 808s. West builds momentum steadily, then, drops it without warning. Tracks like “Say You Will” and “Love Lockdown” rely too heavily on atmospherics that aren’t as minutely crafted as West hopes they are. Persistent buzzing and one-note repetition might work if you’re Radiohead, but in pop like this, it’s out of place, leaving too much empty room between tracks and eventually causing this reviewer to hit the skip button, simply to get to the point.
“See You in My Nightmares” is easily the highlight of the record, with a guest appearance from the raspy Lil’ Wayne. It proves the staying power of both these artists when they’re at their best: one for his creativity in the producer’s seat, the other for his ability to spout “You think your s— don’t stink, but you’re Ms. P.U.” without eliciting laughter. Or erupting into it.
808s and Heartbreak might become a forgettable footnote in Kanye West’s discography, depending on listeners’ willingness to embrace his oddities (and ever-expanding ego). If it sells, expect more of the same to come soon, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Although it can be hoped West fully realizes his premise next time he’s in the studio, sparing his audience bare soundscapes and repetitive effects between a hodgepodge of memorable pop melodies. This record could stand to more concise and less fixated with its own gimmicks.
John Wofford is a writer in Fairmount, Georgia.
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