Kanye West announced long ago that mere hip-hop superstardom was not enough for him — he wanted to be “the number one artist in the world.” So it’s no surprise that his untrammeled egotism has led him well beyond the usual limits of his genre. With Kanye largely abandoning rapping in favor of digitally altered crooning, his fourth album represents a cultural high-water mark for Auto-Tune, that now ubiquitous pitch-correction technology. But Auto-Tune isn’t totally to blame for 808s & Heartbreak. A bold, fascinating, foolhardy, occasionally unlistenable Kanye West record was inevitable, with or without the cyborg-soul software.
So blame it on the heartbreak. The record arrives in the wake of a year in which Kanye lost his mother and split with his fiancée, designer Alexis Phifer. But aside from one bleak song written for his mom (“Coldest Winter”), 808s & Heartbreak is a breakup album — it’s Kanye’s would-be Here, My Dear or Blood on the Tracks, a mournful song-suite that swings violently between self-pity and self-loathing. “The coldest story ever told/Somewhere far along this road he lost his soul . . . How could you be so heartless?” he sings in “Heartless.” Kanye has often chosen introspection and self-exposure to the usual gangsta posturing. But here, the drear never lifts, and he never stops wallowing.
Thankfully, there are those 808s. Kanye constructed the songs using a classic Roland TR-808 drum machine, and the results are a pleasant shock: stark, spacey tracks, which owe far more to Eighties electro and synth pop than anything on hip-hop radio. In “Street Lights,” a haze of distortion floats above tolling keyboard chords and a hammering beat. The hit “Love Lockdown” is powered by thundering tribal drums and vocals that slide from digitized trills into strangled squeals.
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Kanye can’t really sing in the classic sense, but he’s not trying to. T-Pain taught the world that Auto-Tune doesn’t just sharpen flat notes: It’s a painterly device for enhancing vocal expressiveness, and upping the pathos. In “Bad News,” Kanye’s digitized vocals are the sound of a man so stupefied by grief, he’s become less than human.
Like many sad sacks, Kanye likes the sound of his own whimper, and mistakes sentiments such as “I could never seem to find what real love was about” for profundities. Many of his best songs have focused on his ambivalence about materialism, but on 808s & Heartbreak, the theme has hardened into schtick. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.” The low point is the freestyle “Pinocchio Story,” recorded live in Singapore, which finds Kanye bellowing, “There is no Gucci I could buy . . . there is no Louis Vuitton I could put on . . . to get my heart out of this hell.”
Of course, Kanye has always been emo. But in his most touching songs — “Through the Wire,” “Family Business,” “Hey Mama” — he tucked his confessions in between boasts and jokes. Kanye the Songbird has forgotten the lesson that Kanye the Rapper taught his listeners: Heartbreak is not incompatible with wit, or with sharply drawn details, or with a buoyant beat. This noble failure of an album might easily have been a noble success if he had tweaked the Fun-o-Meter just a bit. A slight pitch correction could have done the trick.