After Kanye West’s trouncing of 50 cent in last Autumn’s album to album ‘feud’ most would imagine the outspoken Chicagoan’s next release would be unbearably triumphalist – especially from someone as normally triumphalist as Kanye West.
However, the death of his mother and the breakdown of his long term relationship with fiancé Alexis Phifer immediately changed expectations for West’s 4th album.
The surprise announcement of an album release this year, little more than 12 months after Graduation along with talk of a pop art aesthetic dominating the album, Kanye West’s new obsession with auto tune and his unashamed announcement of ‘mastering’ Hip Hop, only heightened feverish expectations.
When listening to 808s these expectations initially appear to be justified. ‘Say you Will’ opens the album in an extremely sombre and restrained tone; a relentless, unchanging three minute outro of a mournful choir and sparse programmed beats evocative of a heart rate machine – sets the scene, creates an atmosphere rarely seen in Hip Hop and appears to answer the critics more than any Multi-syllabic rhyme could.
Unlike other mournful Kanye West songs – such as Hey Mama and Roses – Say you Will features no bittersweet undertones or undercurrent of optimism; it’s a pretty unrelentingly hopeless song by most standards, let alone Hip Hop ones.
Things don’t always stay on theme though; the album suffers from a jarring lack of focus. If this is an eulogy to loss relationships, a shift away from superficial bragging in search for the answer to deeper questions, an attempt to create ‘art’ was it really the best idea to invite Lil’ Wayne along for a guest spot? One can only suppose that talking in such deprecating and self-pitying tones is only comfortable for so long; West has always been an egotist, his music always unapologetically about himself, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to dwell on the dour for too long. But it is the moments of forced celebration and boastfulness that provide the albums weakest moments.
The album’s temporary dalliance with personal, confessional lyricism does not extend far beyond the song’s first two songs. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is arguable. The aforementioned Say you Will is an exceptionally sparse song, lyrically as well as musically, allowing the listener to imprint their own experience onto the song. Whereas ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’ attempts a narrative style which, whilst more earnest and intriguing, can wander into areas of near parody. It’s hard not to smirk at maudlin couplets such as ‘My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs’ when they are delivered with deadpan precision. After the initial high point of the opening track, the rest of the album meanders between clichéd and empty expressions of loss, the lowest point of which being the heartbreakingly trite ‘I’m just not there/Life’s just not fair’ at the close of Street Lights, and the similarly empty posturing of the album’s unnecessary ventures into a more cocksure style that just aren’t pulled off with the album’s minimal/synth pop tone.
When you glance across the tracklisting and see a track titled ‘Paranoid’ you don’t quite expect the – admittedly excellent – glitzy neon lighted synth pop that the track provides.
With a track like Paranoid it’s hard to be too critical, it is a break in tone but it is also one of the album’s all too few highlights, but other breaks from tone, such as the reprehensible Robocop, are less defendable.
For something that feels so obviously like a temporarily shift of attention, a side project, surely it could have been possible to withhold the inappropriate guest appearances and uplifting club bangers for sake of an album as a whole? After all, Kanye is still riding on the mammoth success of Graduation, he doesn’t need this album to succeed, if he truly wants to pursue ‘art’ (whatever that means) you would think a project like this would be a great chance to dabble in something a little deeper, but it seems Mr West can’t quite let go of his more dazzling pop sensibilities.
With rumours abound that a ‘proper’ rap release by Kanye West is coming sometime in 2009, it’s easy to see 808s as a hurried side project, lacking the love, affection and commitment needed to grow as a fully formed album. The album fails to reach any comfortable consistency in its quality throughout; as soon as you are delighted by an accomplished piece of shiny synth pop, you find yourself doubly frustrated by a clearly unfinished song undeserving of being called even a B-side.
As it is, 808s and Heartbreak comes across as an awkward mid release E.P masquerading as a justified full album release. It’s most probably West’s worse album release, an album that continues a downward trend in quality with his work, but conversely it is also oddly encouraging. It’s no astonishing piece of experimentalism that will forever change the boundaries of Pop, it’s not even a particularly competent album. But 808s and Heartbreak offers a promising change in sound and style. Whether West will have the patience and focus continue to dabble and create an album full of Say you Wills remains to be seen. I reckon he likes playing the egotistical Pop star a little too much to get truly personal.