Fresh off the success of his now-near-classic LP, Graduation (and subsequent album-sales-shalacking of 50 Cent), tragedy rocked through Kanye West's self-important world when his mother, Dr. Donda West, died from cosmetic surgery related complications. The loss of his mother, along with ending his engagement (to Alexis Phifer), combined with the obligatory difficulties dealing with pop-star status provided the inspiration for the concepts behind The Louis Vuitton Don's fourth studio album, 808s & Heartbreak.
808s & Heartbreak is unlike any other album in Kanye's catalogue. For starters, he's not rapping, opting to half-sing-half-croon through T-Pain's ubiquitous Vocoder electronic voice manipulator.
Thats right. All beats. No rhymes.
Furthermore, Heartbreak's all 808-drum beat production and all love content mark the first true concept album of 'Ye's career.
Always pushing the envelope.
But the risk behind this concept is whether or not Mr. West's loyal fan base and Hip Hop heads alike will buy-into this form of artistic expression. Emphasis on buy. This isn't a Rap album. This is a Pop album.
THATS RIGHT. ALL BEATS. NO RHYMES.
And Hip Hop is notoriously critical of its most-valued Emcees veering left creatively (Common's Electric Circus nearly ended his career relevance and most cats cringed at the thought Andre-Three-Stacks rockin' without rhyming. Then he dropped "Hey Ya" and all was good. Its funny how winning multiple Grammies can make people forget). Not to mention that Kanye's lack of humility and perceived bitchassness has supplanted a Times-Square-Target-sign sized bullseye on his back. People want him to fail. Can't wait to hate. Prey and pray on his downfall. Does Ye's Pop experiment provide ammo to the enemy? Ride with us as...
THE QUOTABLE REVIEWS: 808s & HEARTBREAK
"And my head keeps spinnin.' / I can't stop having these visions. / I got to get with it." - "Welcome to Heartbreak"
Bass and heartache abound all through 808s & Heartbreak. The album opens with minimalist production and a plodding 808 drum beat on "Say You Will." Yep, Ye's definitely singing. Or something something like it. Honestly, this is the worst track on the album. The beat is dope, moving almost. But I'd fall asleep if it wasn't for the bass line. Plus, the vocals are underwhelming and the lyrics sound like the internal justifications of a date-rapist ("When I grab your neck / I touch your soul").
Following a 3 minute and 14 second instrumental to end the opening track, the album rises with one of the LP's brightest spots, "Welcome to Heartbreak." "My friend showed me pictures of his kids. / And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs. / He said his daughter got a brand new report card. / All I got was a brand new sports car." My oldest friend and his wife just had a baby. A beautiful baby girl. I remember back in '99 when he was sweatin' her at The Racquetclub, and now they're starting a family. Me? I'm still chasing the dream - searching for something real in the world. And theres nothing wrong with that - nothing at all. But it is a reminder that I have yet to truly own, truly create that which is most important in this world - love and family. This cut hits close to home (minus the cribs and sports cars. More like...rent and Metrocards. I keeps 'em clean, though).
808s hits its stride on tracks 3 through 10. "Heartless" is a head-nod enducing ode to the eventual heartache of an unwanted breakup. 'Ye borrowed Dre's repetitive-keys, layed them over a thumping bass-line, and crooned his ass to a hit record. Possibly one of the hardest heartbreak tracks ever. "Amazing" feels like a marching tribal revolution with Young Jeezy's gruff ad libs adding the exclamation points. Even Da Snowman's verse here is quality (and I'm certainly not a Jeezy fan). This is the first track worth running back after first listen.
"Ok, I'm back up on my grind. / You do you, and I'm just gon' do mine. / You do you, and I'm just gon' be fine. / Ok, I got you out my mind." - "See You in My Nightmares"
Kanye continues with the brooding 808s and tribal-drum break down on "Love Lockdown," while opining on not loving the right way in a relationship. The beat and piano keys feel like that scene in The Matrix: Revolutions when Morpheus gives his I-know-it-looks-like-we're-marching-into-our-fiery-destruction-but-trust-me-it-will-work-out speech followed by all of Zion erupting into a massive, primal, half-butt-naked, tribal, dance party. Or, as my homegirl Noelle calls it, an "audio aphrodisiac".
808s peaks on the infectious "Paranoid." Sounding like straight out of the '80s pop-music, this club ready track is the closest 'Ye gets to rappin', as he questions why she's "so paranoid" about infidelity ("Yeah you heard about all the word of mouth / don't worry about what we can't control. / All the talk in the world, lost in the world / til you finally let that thang go. / You wanna check into the Heartbreak Hotel, but sorry we're closed").
"Robocop" explemplifies 'Ye's masterful production, showcasing another thumping beat (this albums' designed to bump in the truck...err...Hybrid) with bouncing, triumphant violin strings layered within. "Street Lights" is more of a subdued extended hook than a conventional song. The Louis Vuitton Don repeats the same chorus five or six times with ad lib-like interjections on life's unfairness arising sporadically. Its as if he only had the hook and the melody and decided not to fill in the blanks. Oddly enough, it sounds pretty decent. "Bad News" is an unfortunate, near-ballad about finding out you're getting played. Similarly to "Say You Will," if it wasn't for the bass line, I would have fallen asleep. Lil Wayne assists on the anthemic "See You in My Nightmares," providing his own Auto-Tuned crooning for the hook. The LP closes with rumbling drums and electric keys on "The Coldest Winter," and then "Untitled," a live performance of "Pinocchio's Story" where 'Ye expresses his frustration with pop-stardom and mourns the loss of his mother. A suitable close to an uncompromising album.
"Do you really have the stamina / for everybody that sees you that say 'wheres my camera?' / For everybody that sees you that say 'sign my autograph. / For everybody that sees you, crying, sayin' 'you all of that'" - "Untitled"
Ending after only 12 tracks, 808s & Heartbreak is sleek and to the point. It never wavers from its concept, and stays true to its title: 808 beat-laced production and a contextual focus on heartache. At best its a thumping, melodic, drive-by on matters of the heart. Tracks like "Welcome to Heartbreak," "Amazing," "Heartless," showcase 'Ye's top-shelf songwriting and production skills and overshadow the fact that he's not rapping. Like Graduation, (read review here), the production is anthemic. Its melodic, bass heavy, and crafted to be felt physically and emotionally. In fact, the soundscape reveals as much, if not more, of the emotional revelations Mr. West has experienced over the past year than the lyrics (and the Vocoder actually allows Kanye's voice to meld into the electric bass-line and keys, acting like an instrument in the techno-esque-ensemble). And in that sense the album is effective. The stadium-ready production, infectious melody, and memorable hooks are so rich that they nearly compensate for the fact that Kanye West cannot sing at all!
I mean at all.
Even with an electronic voice enhancer.
But 808s & Heartbreak is crippled by its potential lack of replay-value. "Untitled" is unlistenable. "Say You Will" is saved by the beat. And "Bad News" is one of those tracks that, more often than not, you probably won't be in the mood to hear all the way through. Thats 3 tracks out of 12.
1/4th of the album!!!
Think about it like this. Lets say you're walking down 6th Avenue on a brick-cold day. So cold that you're questioning why the hell you're outside in the first place. But you're bundled up nicely with you're earbuds in and iPod tucked away in your inside coat pocket, bumpin' your favorite track in the world - perfect enough to keep you focused entirely on the music and not on the blistering cold 7 blocks you have left until you reach your subway station.
Then suddenly your favorite track ends. And some wack track comes on right after.
Now you have a choice to make. Do you: A. Undo your perfectly bundled arrangement, letting that BRICK winter air dart your skin, erasing every semblance of warmth collected inside your fabric body armor, instantly reminding you that it is so cold even chicken soup won't help - reach into your pocket, pull out your iPod, and skip to the next track? Or do you: B. Spend the next 4 and a half minutes rushing to the subway while listening to one of the wackest tracks ever, immediately refocusing on the fact that you have no business being outside because its so damn cold???
Unfortunately, on the wrong day, 25% of 808s & Heartbreak will put you in that muttaksuttin' situation. And thats something a great album just doesn't do.
"When did you decide to break the rules? / Cause I just heard some real Bad News." - "Bad News"
 November 10, 2007. The saddest form of irony considering 'Ye partially made his name by openly discussing self-consciousness on tracks such as the seminal, "All Falls Down"