With Kanye's most recent re-imagining of the VH1 Storytellers format, here's a review of what I believe to be his masterpiece, 808s & Heartbreak...
Beeps and blips bounce back and forth over a sparse drum beat created by the generally reviled Roland TR-808 drum machine. Sampled vocals create a mournful choir and the occasional chord on piano drops. The light among this desolate arrangement? The melodies of auto-tuned Kanye West. A question arises - the same one that came to mind when I heard Charlie Kaufman would be directing a feature film of his own - why?
It all sounds too terrible to be true. A loudmouthed, arrogant popstar lamenting the life he's built for himself full of money, women and sports cars? 808s & Heartbreak would be worthy of contempt were it not so beautifully contradictory and simply strange. You get the sense that Mr. West is really trying something here. Trying to write a proper pop song. Trying to excise the pain of losing a fiancé (she left him) and a mother (to a botched surgery) in the same year.
Above all, Mr. West is coping with this loss using his music, hoping for some sort of catharsis. Each song has all the immediacy we've come to know from Kanye (the man's first single was sung while his jaw was wired shut after a car accident) with little reflection. This is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand it makes the album incredibly contradictory. Sometimes on the same song - "Heartless" laments the loss of a girl, while also bragging "you'll never find nobody better than me." But, in a way, its an honest snapshot of the conflicted, unfiltered emotions one experiences after a break-up. Kanye's not thinking straight and neither are his songs as they bounce through his doubts ("Love Lockdown"), the career he chose ("Amazing"), his regrets ("Street Lights"), and - most underrepresented on this album - his cool (the transcendent "Paranoid").
Then there's the formal elements, most specifically the auto-tune. The man can't sing. But in this day and age why should that stop him? His use of auto-tune I find most effective in his live performances, where the rawness of his voice often overpowers the electronic vibrato of the correction tool. Its not always the most aesthetically pleasing but its real in a way that is absent from most pop. The 808 drum machine is known as a punchline in the music industry for sounding unapologetically fake. It was introduced to Kanye by composer / producer / songwriter Jon Brion (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fiona Apple's When The Pawn..., Meaningless) who co-produced most of Kanye's sophomore effort Late Registration. Brion's love of orchestral strings appears to have also influenced Kanye (see "Robocop" on Storytellers below). The true beauty of 808s comes from the fact that Mr. West uses these tried and despised tools to create something wholly new and interesting. And the album ends up sounding like a robot discovering its humanity.
By "Coldest Winter" Kanye proves himself to be just as big as he boasts he is (or at least on his way), with a heart bigger than any of the written-by-committee trash found on most Top 20 radio. Its an album of awkwardness, ambition and honesty that is extremely refreshing coming from an artist who could just as easily keep shilling out more of the same with great returns. I didn't hear anything else in 2008 that featured an artist challenging himself and pushing himself to the edge of his limitations as much as 808s & Heartbreak did for Kanye. One hopes that once he overcomes this bout of self-pity and grief, this ambition will manifest itself in an even greater way. 808s deserves applause for its intentions and a nod for its achievements. Here's to the self-proclaimed Elvis of our day.
(note: Please delete all versions of the bonus track found at the end of the album as it is pretty lame. You'll be doing yourself and Yeezy a favor.)