Mosaic / Music / Reviews / January 14, 2009

Kanye’s 808’s reinvents with mixed success

On first listen of Kanye’s latest, 808’s and Heartbreak, I was convinced Kanye had finally jumped the shark. His ballads appeared vapid, devoid of talent and creativity. In fact, I denounced them as little more than the juvenile sobbing of a rich brat, a star isolated by his own self-imposed man-on-top persona. His use of the vocoder seemed to spread rampant through the album like an epic case of syphilis worthy of a medical journal. I was convinced Kanye was taking comfort in his own masturbatory pet project, fully aware that it would sell whether or not it was any good.

But as I listened more closely some semblance of honesty began to show through. My initially passionate denouncement of the album started to ebb. Cold fear gripped me: was it possible that I was growing to respect what I had formerly described as “Kanye puking through a vocoder”?

I came to a reckoning, and decided to drop the ego. Let’s be straight: this album represents something finally worth respecting. Kanye has produced his most honest album yet. His past works have been hits, but not because of their emotional expression. They banked on excellent production and catchy lyrics. He allowed the pop hit successes to gloss over the dirty truth that his subject matter was often surface material, barely piercing Gucci deep.

808’s is Kanye’s most (I might say only) narrative work to date. It’s an exploration of his own isolation, and the dead end that his pursuit of material wealth has ultimately yielded. In “Welcome to Heartbreak” he takes an impressive step back and takes stock of his life, finding himself unfulfilled:

“Dad cracked a joke all the kids laughed, but I couldn’t hear ’em all the way in first class / Chased the good life my whole life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?”

“Pinnochio Story” devotes an entire song to Kanye’s attempt to soothe his soul with excessive consumption. Lyrics like “There is no Gucci I can buy / There is no Louis Vuitton to put on / There is no YSL that they could sell / to get my heart out of this Hell” struck me initially as so fundamentally moronic I could scarcely believe this was the same man that had built an empire on his music. But reinterpreted we might consider this a self-criticism.

Unlike in past albums, he’s not name dropping hot fashion designers as a display of wealth, but as examples of the futility of material pursuit as means to fulfilled end. It’s important to consider that Kanye is by no means a stupid man. This song is him expressing concrete acceptance, not confusion, as to why material wealth no longer soothes his soul.

Ironically, given the title, it’s Kayne’s love songs that come up short. True, they are catchy and already dominating charts — there’s no question that Kanye’s classic production skill is still in full effect — but he seems to regress to his prior style. The album displays a newfound melancholy but fails to go deep. Over the course of the album, the love songs ultimately become repetitive.

Make no mistake, my initial disgust with the album wasn’t wholly unwarranted. “Robocop” is a catastrophic failure, ending with a whining sing-song conclusion so awkward I considered soaking my speakers in gasoline and setting them on fire. I found the experience painful, and had to stop listening to the album until my ears stopped bleeding.

In the end 808’s and Heartbreak is an admirable attempt by Kanye at reinvention. He succeeds in some areas and fails in others (sometimes epically). And when he does succeed, he excels. With the exception of “Robocop,” his weak tracks usually fall short out of their failure to innovate, not an inherent lack of quality.

Give the album a chance, and leave your preconceived notions at home. The man is trying something new, and that is rare enough in mainstream hip-hop to be worthy of some respect.

Matt Baker

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