808s & Heartbreak is probably the most controversial album released in 2008. More Phil Collins than 50 Cent, Kanye has abandoned his trademark sound and swagger for a stripped down and emotional record. Yes, he sings and yes he uses autotune heavily. I don’t really care and I know Mr. West doesn’t.
The songs on Heartbreak are minimal and futuristic, built on the concept that every beat must contain something made on an 808 drum machine. The results, at times, are engaging, but mostly leave the tracks void of any real percussion or driving force. Songs like “Love Lockdown” and “Say You Will” build extreme tension but never explode or go anywhere musically. I assume this is intentional, to draw the listener into the emptiness and desolation of the tracks (and Kanye’s mindset) but I feel songs like “Robocop” and “Street Lights” could be amazing if he added some live instrumentation and solid background vocals. Young Jeezy and Lil’ Wayne guest on “Amazing” and “Welcome to My Nightmare,” respectively, but both rappers feel somewhat out of place with their aggressive style and street image.
Kanye certainly has gone through a lot over the past year and I applaud him for expressing his raw emotion on his terms in a form that he is extremely proud of. His heart wasn’t into hip-hop, so he created music that spoke to his soul and aided in the grieving process. Heartbreak will no doubt alienate a majority of his fans that still quote “Gold Digger,” but like he’s said in several recent interviews, he makes music only for himself now. While this album is not in line with Graduation, it never was intended to be. Life does not always happen as planned.
“Heartless,” easily the best single on the album, will most likely represent the best commercial success for the album. Beyond the bouncy track, the dissonant and dark songs only dive deeper into Kayne’s pain and sorrow. I think the album will get better with age and we’ll look back on it like Pinkerton or Pet Sounds-unvalued in their time, but appreciated by die-hard fans with a legacy that will grow with time.
This record could change rap. It could show artists that honesty and artistry are more important than boastful and empty rhymes. It could show that you don’t need the same synth effect for every hook and that sing a long dances don’t make a great song. It could change the tide or it could fade into nothing as soon as Kanye’s next CD, Good Ass Job, drops. Time will only tell.