Kanye West's fourth album is a radical stylistic departure from everything he's done before, but the one thing he has retained from his previous life is his infuriating inconsistency
Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak (***)
album review for the skinny
Kanye West's fourth studio album 808s and Heartbreak must not be approached as a Kanye West album. It’s not hip-hop: it’s claustrophobic electro-pop, entirely sung with Auto-tune; and it’s pretty depressing. In fact it’s so shockingly different from everything he’s ever done before, and in such stark contrast to his ebullient public persona, that it initially sounds like the chronicling of a mental breakdown. In fact, it’s a breakup album, mostly, with each song being strongly influenced by Kanye’s recent split from long-time fiancée Alexis Phifer. It’s been a bad year for Kanye, because his mum died too, and it’s clear the loss of both women from his life has left his seemingly gargantuan self-confidence severely punctured. Some people will like that idea, and plenty will be waiting to hate on 808s, but it doesn’t deserve contempt: he’s taken a huge risk by pouring his heart out and changing his style, and some of it actually works.
Kanye might be known as a narcissist, but 808s’ self-indulgence comes from depression, not ego, and that’s the mood that pervades. Opener Say You Will sets the scene with a melancholic choir aahing for three vocal-less minutes of an outro; Street Lights ends with Kanye lifelessly concluding “life’s just not fair”; and an almost tearful vocal in Bad News - “my face turned to stone when I heard the news” - takes on extra meaning given the context. Welcome To Heartbreak contains a verse so breathtakingly trivial - about not having a date to take to his god-sister’s wedding, and leaving before the cake is cut - that it actually strengthens the conviction of his sorrow: only someone utterly consumed by self-pity could be so upset by that as to use it in a song as a definition of heartbreak.
But it’s the final (and hidden) song that delivers the real pathos: it’s a live performance, a lo-fi audience recording of a freestyle he performed on-stage in Singapore, later titled Pinocchio Story (because he hates fame and just wants to be a real boy, obvs). Why not a soundboard recording, or even a new studio version? In fact, the poor quality makes it incredibly effective at communicating the isolation he feels: the lower volume makes him sound distant, as if he’s had to retreat after doing the popstar thing for the first 11 songs; and the audience reaction - baffled silence as Kanye pours his heart out with punctuated cheers for misheard positivity - reinforces the disconnect between him and his fans. How can he be personal to thousands of persons he doesn’t know? When he cries “do you really have the stamina, for everybody that sees you to say ‘where’s my camera?’” on a recording that could very well have been ripped from a fan’s camera phone, his point becomes a pertinent one. Yes it’s self-indulgent whining, but that’s what heartbroken people do: they lose all perspective and complain about every little thing. In the unrefined vocal of Pinocchio Story, when he’s stripped of all adornments, you can hear he’s genuinely hurt and suffering; for all his history with sampling, this is the most soulful he’s ever been.
Not only is 808s far sadder than any of Kanye‘s previous, it’s also not hip-hop in any real sense. There’s two rapped verses on the whole record, both by guests, so vocally it’s almost completely sung, roboticised by the Auto-tune. The clear and deliberate use of Auto-tune hasn’t had much exposure here in the UK, but it’s become increasingly common (and divisive) in mainstream US hip-hop recently. Here, it’s better known as “the Cher effect”: remember the vocal in Believe, like a vocoder but not? Despite the controversy of its overuse, it’s not too intrusive here, mostly just adding to the sense of detachment which is a theme throughout. 808s is packed with 80s musical signifiers, ranging from Depeche Mode ambience to Hacienda-style piano lines and Phil Collins’ gated drum effects. It’s not all down: first single Love Lockdown builds from Portishead-like deep bass blows, adds a housey piano bounce and then big tribal drums into a brilliant pleading chorus; and Paranoid has an irresistible playful synth-line and reassuring chorus hook courtesy of Mr Hudson.
But if there’s one thing Kanye has retained from his previous albums, it’s his inconsistency. To match and reduce the impact of those two standouts, there’s two standout poor tracks: Amazing and Robocop. The first suffers from laziness: Kanye is apparently so amazed that so many people come out to see him, that he’s unable to articulate his feelings any clearer than by repeating “it’s Amazing” about four hundred times. Robocop is all kinds of ridiculous, with not one or two but three tacky synth-string motifs overwhelming the rest of the song: the underlying two come from the Strings FX button on his Casio keyboard, and the other, the big charging melody, is the result of pressing ‘Demo‘.
Still, at least when he’s bad, he’s bad in a ridiculous way. Did I mention the Haka grunting? Millions of Kanye fans will be disappointed by 808s and Heartbreak, and those who already dislike him will find endless ammunition for their snark here. Those who buy into it will need sturdy and well-rehearsed arguments to defend it, and the stamina to do so often. But although 808s is an album that will polarize like few others, once the stylistic change has been understood it in fact stands and falls by the same standards as his previous three albums: by conveying some ideas brilliantly, and some not, it hints at outrageous talent without delivering it consistently.