I suppose it’s a sign of the times that a superstar rapper can release a throwback homage to a legendary drum machine and it can come off sounding more like a hybrid of new wave punk.
Kanye West has done just that with his latest release, 808s and Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella Records). What’s most notable is how little it resembles what we’ve come to expect from hip-hop these days. The contrast is startling, especially coming from one of hip-hop’s most celebrated figures. And in some ways, this is a very good thing.
As is the case with most of West’s work, 808s and Heartbreak is rife with contradiction. The titular number is a reference to the Roland TR-808 drum machine, an iconic instrument of hip-hop with a history and tradition as rich and proud as that of Gibson guitars or Stradivarius violins. Kanye’s extensive use of the 808 would seem to be an intentional act of nostalgia, yet there is no sense of warmth or reverie here. Rather, West has, if only for the aesthetic of this release, transformed his persona into a cold, languid soul. Hence, the rest of the title: heartbreak.
Much has been said about Kanye’s ubiquitous use of auto-tuning, the pitch-correcting effect that often leaves a vocal track sounding cold and robotic. (Oliver Wang, reviewing the CD for NPR, has the line of the day: “Who knew ten years ago that Cher would predict the future sound of hip-hop?”) Auto-tune has been the saving grace of many recording artists, particularly in the realm of contemporary R&B and hip-hop. Without it, there would be no T-Pain. Yet here, West uses it to create a sense of despair, as he wails on and on about the loneliness and pain that consume him.
This is what makes 808s and Heartbreak such a departure from Kanye’s original style. More than any other rapper of this era (or any other, for that matter), Kanye’s public persona has been founded upon a naked ambition to rise to the top. So here he sits, at the top of his game, so to speak, and yet all he can do is lament what he doesn’t have, as he does in “Welcome to Heartbreak“:
My friend showed me pictures of his kids /And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs / He said his daughter got a brand-new report card / And all I got was a brand-new sports car
This album is a sign of hip-hop’s coming of age, despite the fact that Kanye sings on it more than he raps. Heartbreak is the siren song of the king of self-aggrandizement, a sad, ghostly realization that there is more to life than what American celebrity culture seems to offer. Kanye has always shown his introspective side now and again, but this time it’s on full display. Armchair psychiatrists might call it an attempt to grieve the untimely loss of his mother, but either way, such stark vulnerability is far from usual fare from West or any other titan of modern hip-hop.
From a musical composition standpoint, 808s and Heartbreak is a mixed bag. A few of the tunes are catchy, but many more are scattered and inconsistent. And while great hip-hop can sometimes mix the sober and macabre in with a sense of celebration, there’s very little fun or humor to be extracted from Kanye’s therapeutic output.
Nevertheless, there is cause for hope here. It’s possible that Kanye’s act of contrition may help de-stigmatize the idea of depression for African American men, who have long resisted the idea of showing such weakness and vulnerability, according to this Newsweek piece on Blacks and suicide.
But more importantly, 808s and Heartbreak may be the proof that Christian evangelists to the hip-hop generation have been looking for: direct evidence that this world and all it has to offer will not satisfy. Like a modern-day Solomon writing Ecclesiastes, Kanye West has seen, tasted, and experienced what we would call the high life… and it is utterly meaningless.
Despite all of his rampant ego-tripping and the strain of spiritual hypocrisy that has dogged him ever since “Jesus Walks,” Kanye has finally gotten it right for once.
We’ll see how long it lasts.