Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Kanye West, "808s & Heartbreak" (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam) [3 OUT OF 4 STARS]

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Although it's yielded several game contenders, hip-hop has yet to produce a dark night of the soul masterpiece or brilliant, introspective musing on the fleeting nature of life to match rock classics such as Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night," Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks," the Flaming Lips' "The Soft Bulletin" or the third albums by Big Star and the Velvet Underground.

Arriving in stores Monday, "808s & Heartbreak" by multi-talented Chicago chart-topper Kanye West doesn't rise to that level. But despite some flaws, it is a fascinating attempt.

Over the course of his first three albums--"The College Dropout" (2004), "Late Registration" (2005) and "Graduation" (2007)--this larger than life son of the city's South Side established himself as one of the most innovative and adventurous forces in hip-hop, with music that has stretched the genre's boundaries further than any mainstream artist since the early '90s, and lyrics that offer a portrait of young African-American manhood which, for all its inconsistencies and flashes of rampant egotism, is as refreshing an alternative to the prevailing gangsta caricature as the one provided by his former neighbor, our President-elect.

West's fourth studio effort originally was intended to follow the progression of life established by its predecessors: After all that schooling, he was set to earn his reward with a disc called "A Good Ass Job." But that album title and, one presumes, the next installment of the hip-pop trajectory of his earlier sounds both were abandoned in favor of an unexpected and utterly unique detour prompted by the painful losses of his mother and his long-time love.

The star's mom, co-manager and mentor Donda West died as a result of complications from cosmetic surgery in November 2007, and Kanye's engagement with Alexis Phifer ended five months later, in April 2008. West already had rapped earnestly and movingly about Donda on "Late Registration," while many of the lyrics on "Graduation" found him bravely questioning his own boastful public persona, admitting the insecurities that it masks and wondering if he is worthy of true love. It's no surprise that he shares even more on the new album, which comes adorned with cover art of a deflated balloon fashioned in the shape of a heart.

West is not always successful in voicing the depths of his pain: The disc ends with a track called "Pinocchio Story" that opens with a paraphrase of the 1961 Elvis Presley hit "(I Can't Help) Falling in Love With You" before shifting into the fashion-plate rapper bemoaning, "There is no Gucci I can buy/There is no Louis Vuitton to put on/There is no finer smell that they could sell/To get my heart out of this hell/Or my mind out of this jail." Ouch.

But the artist can be forgiven this stumble by virtue of the facts that the song is a freestyle rap recorded live onstage in Singapore, and that he turns things around by slowly working an effective if not especially deep literary metaphor: "They always say, 'Kanye, he keeps it real, boy'/Pinocchio's story is, 'I just want to be a real boy'... It's funny: Pinocchio lied, and that's what kept him from it/I tell the truth, and I keep running... There is no Geppetto to guide me, no one right beside me/The only one who was behind me, I can't find her no more."

West is even more eloquent in the preceding track, "Coldest Winter," when he sings, "If spring can take the snow away/Can it melt away all our mistakes/Memories made in the coldest winter/Goodbye my friend/I won't ever love again/Never again."

All of us have felt that way at some point, and as with the great albums cited above, the best moments on "808s & Heartbreak" offer a sense of redemption and uplift via the power of music, though they require fans to set aside almost everything they think they know about the Kanye West sound. Even his familiar and beloved string sections are employed in a very different way here than we've heard on his stellar hits in the past.

In scattered comments to the press and on his blog, West has cited the naked, minimalist vibe of Phil Collins' first solo album "Face Value" (1981) as a big inspiration. (A raw account of his divorce, this was an entirely different Collins than the pandering pop star of "Sussudio" and later hits.) West gets the primal, tom-tom-heavy African drumming right--generated by the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, one of the first programmable drum machines and the source of half the disc's title--but rather than the spare guitar and piano that subtly fleshed out songs such as "In the Air Tonight," the Chicago artist favors more elaborate synth sounds (shades of the Daft Punk electronica of "Stronger") and ubiquitous computer auto-tuning.

The only real rapping on the album comes from brief cameos by guests Young Jeezy and Lil' Wayne; West's vocals are all sung in a flat, Lou Reed- or Bob Dylan-like monotone that shows an almost punk disregard for key or melody. The auto-tune isn't used to improve the quality of his singing (it's doubtful that anything could), but to add a distant, metallic, echoey effect more akin to a vocoder, heightening the sense that this is a man reaching out from the bottom of a deep hole.

The formula is touching and very effective at times, notably on "Say You Will," "Welcome to the Heartbreak," "Coldest Winter" (which builds on the 1983 Tears for Fears song "Memories Fade"), "RoboCop" and "Love Lockdown." But a formula it is, and it wears thin and becomes slightly predictable and repetitive over the course of 12 tracks.

If West had interspersed the more mechanical tracks with some that were the exact opposite--say, simple piano interludes provided by his old collaborators John Legend or Jon Brion--he might have made a masterpiece. Instead, he's merely given us an extremely intriguing, sporadically gripping, undeniably fearless and altogether unexpected piece of his troubled soul.

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19 Comments

did you really just liken kanye's voice with Bob Dylan? geez. please do not contribute to the dumbing down of music. this is a horrible attempt at a vocal record, not a 3/4 star album. Coming from someone who thought Graduation was on point...i expect a lot more from this guy than out of tune hallmark card lyrics.

I agree with the author of this article. Ive heard the entire album ands its decent. And so was Graduation. I dont think its on par with his first two albums, but I have to give Kanye some respect for this artistic turn in his music. 3 out of 4 stars is pretty accurate.

Kanyes newst album isnt sapossed to be compaired to his last three peaces of work. 808's and Heartbreak should stand on its own. The record was writtin and recorded over the span of three weeks. From the lyrics and the sound of every song on this cd, kanye only wanted to find the emotion, for him self, and maybe for people that are going through some of the same things. This is a healing process for him, much like through to wire on the first album, but this is much larger then that. He is at difficult part in his life and for him to share his emotion and experience with us is truly admierable. As for the album, it is different but if we take it for what it is, it is great. He has already promessed another album in June of 2009, so for now enjoy something fresh and unperdictable.

"say, simple piano interludes provided by his old collaborators John Legend or Jon Brion"

Obviously although you act like you know Kanye and his old collaborators, you don't know anything about this new album.

Jon Brion did in fact contribute strings to 'Welcome to Heartbreak' so it can't be the lack of Brion stops this album from being a masterpiece. But the lack of knowledge and research by the author of this article strips any validity away from this review.

-Ike

This CD goes beyond words. He paints such a vivid picture of how these past few months have been for him. The fact that he gets so personal is a testament to how he isn't a pop artist or a rap artist. He's an artist in the purist form of the word. He didn't make this CD for you or me, he made an album that he would have to live with for the rest of his life. While we can just turn the radio station or hit next on our Itunes, he has to sit with the work he's produced.
Its sad to see how people are comparing 808 to his other pieces of work because each one of his CD's is so much different from the last.
What he has just given us is something that can't be appreciated yet because we haven't seen the outcome of it yet. Chances are that he just completely changed the way things are going to be done and has inspired so many people who are thinking of getting into the music game.
No one here has mentioned this yet but with an artist like Kanye, people aren't ever going to be happy. People say he used to sample too much and now he hasn't sampled on a single track on 808 but they don't like how he's using the Vocoder.
I listened to this CD the minute he posted it on his blog and I was amazed. Best complete album I've heard since Deloused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta and thats an amazing CD

ALL KANYE WEST ALBUM ARE TIGHT ASS HELL EXCEPT FOR THIS ONE THIS ONE IS SO GARBAGE, WTF I THOUGTH ID NEVER SEE HIM PUT OUT TRASH LIKE THIS

Dark night of soul masterpiece = cannibal ox

I feel what he's trying to do as a artist,
but aesthetically feel he might have went a bit overboard.

check out this remake of Good Life
by Brooklyn "indietronica" band nite club.

I think they hit it right on the money

Enjoy!

http://www.myspace.com/niteclubmusic

I feel what he's trying to do as a artist,
but aesthetically feel he might have went a bit overboard.

check out this remake of Good Life
by Brooklyn "indietronica" band nite club.

I think they hit it right on the money

Enjoy!

http://www.myspace.com/niteclubmusic

a rapper that can express his feelings?
now that's pretty amazing, something like 2pac
or even eminem, any rapper today couldn't drop a 808's & heartbreak replica.

kanye's new album is amazing.

That's a pitty, this album sucks! Nothing new, it's only an other Lil Wayne album but 10 times worst

Previous albums were soo much better. Don't buy it!

PEOPLE! THERE IS ANOTHER NEW ALBUM CALLED
THE SKYHIGH PROJECT GIVE THAT A LOOK YOU'LL LIKE IT IF THIS NEW ALBUM ISN'T YOUR THING
I wouldnt listen to Kanye's new album, but I know some people will, but I'm sure i'll have a mood for it sometime.

I believe the lyric in Pinocchio Story reads "YSL" instead of "finer smell". This fits with the two other brands he names. Whether it makes the lyrics any better is a matter of debate.

S.P.
Thanks for the link .
I agree with you on 808's
and this band from New York
Does kanye better than Kanye!

http://www.myspace.com/niteclubmusic

TO ALL THE NAYSAYERS & IDIOTS WHO--BEING BLACK THINK THEY UNDERSTAND BLACK MUSIC.

LET ME SAY THIS-- I LOST MY MOTHER IN 2000. IF YOU U HAVEN'T LOST UR MOTHER U HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE'S GOING THROUGH ESPECIALLY IN THE PUBLIC EYE. HE'S HUMAN HE'S MADE MISTAKES. THE ROOTS OF THE SOUND IS BLUES THROUGH AND THROUGH. ALL POPULAR MUSIC IS BLACK. PLAIN AND SIMPLE. THERE WOULDN'T BE KRAFTWERKS LATER SUCCESS IF NOT FOR HIHOP. THE SAME GOES FOR HOUSE AN D 'N' B. FOR THOSE WHO DID NOT GROW UP IN THE 'HOOD' YOU WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND THE EFFECTS OF SUCH MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF EMOTION THERE IS AROUND US. THE 'EMO' GENRE IS REALLY A MISNOMER FOR THE FACT THAT IT IS A TESTAMENT TO THE LACK OF EMOTION AND EVENTFULLNESS IN THEIR LIVES. THIS BEING KANYE'S DESCENT INTO A WORLD HE'S NEVER REALLY KNOWN AND PROFESSED THAT IT WAS A SIDE OF HIM HE DIDN'T KNOW REALLY EXISTED. FOR THAT AND MORE IS WHAT MAKES THIS HIS FINEST WORK. NOONE (RAP OR OTHERWISE) CAN SAY THEY MADE A 3-PART CONCEPT ALBUM THAT WORKED AS WELL AS THE COLLEGE SERIES DID. AND WHY IS BOB DYLAN SO GREAT? NOBODY MENTIONS PRINCE, OR KENNA, OR MUDDY WATERS--HENDRIX FOR CHRISSAKES! I BET IF THIS WAS KANYE'S FIRST ALBUM EVERYBODY WOULD BE KISSN HIS U KNOW WHAT!!

In the opening paragraph of your review of Kanye West's new album you state, "...hip-hop has yet to produce a dark-night-of-the-soul masterpiece or a brilliant, introspective musing on the fleeting nature of life to match rock classics." I disagree with this statement somewhat. In the last fifteen years, the albums crafted by DJ Shadow (...Endtroducing in '96) and Prefuse 73 (One Word Extinguisher in '03) could easily be labeled masterpieces that evoke feelings far more profound than the usual bravura associated with hip-hop. Yet, the reason I said somewhat is because I think you do have a point. Once you put an MC behind such soulfully produced hip-hop intstrumentals, ie those that were made by Josh Davis and Scot Herren, the music loses a bit of sensitivity/sentimentality. Whether or not a "dark-night-of-the-soul" or introspective MC-led hip hop album is a contradiction in terms is up for debate. Just wanted to throw my two cents in! I do enjoy your column in the Sun Times very much.

Thanks,
Elliot Gaynon

No thank you, please stop showering this mass media, tool of X corporation, manufactured, glossy product with accolades and instead shower them where they belong-to albums by any of the following real artists in the hip hop genre:

Freestyle Fellowship
EPMD
Jungle Brothers
De La
Del
Poor Righteous Teachers
Tribe
Public Enemy
Jurassic 5

I'll stop there

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