The world’s most ambitious rapper goes for broke
Kanye West long ago established himself as hip-hop’s most soulful producer, and then as one of its cleverest wordsmiths, and then as one of its savviest marketers. Along the way he almost single-handedly killed gangsta rap and replaced it with something resembling emo. With that as the backdrop, West—now an introspective 31 years old—has created 808s & Heartbreak, a hot mess of an album that’s simultaneously the most indulgent and most disciplined record he’s ever made.
808s sounds nothing like West’s three previous LPs. It’s minimal and percussive in places (“Bad News” and “Love Lockdown,” for instance), a sharp contrast to West’s previous signature sound—a giddy, maxed-out bounce. This new record may be closer to R&B than it is to rap, though opening track “Say You Will” seems to owe its biggest sonic debt to Enya. Source material gets even stranger from there. The album’s best song, “RoboCop,” unapologetically borrows its string-section melody from a film adaptation of Great Expectations, a move that’s about 20 times braver than sampling Daft Punk. It’s also courageous for West to nearly abandon rapping on this album in favor of distorted crooning. The guy doesn’t have a bad voice, and it’s exciting to hear him pushing himself, but you do miss the playfulness that once permeated his rhyme.
Then again, the sense of melancholy that hangs over this record might have existed regardless of whether he decided to rap. 808s, as much as anything, is a meditation on anxiety. Armchair pop psychiatrists will surely attribute the somber vibe to the death of West’s mother, Donda, who is pictured in a six-panel photograph inside 808’s liner notes. Lyric nerds might also note that this album continues the trend of West railing against materialism. First came the conflicted “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” then came his guest verse on Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” and now we get “Welcome To Heartbreak,” which begins like so: “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 / And all I got was a brand new sports car.”
For whatever reason—grief, boredom, curiosity—West has apparently entered his dark experimental period. And he’s brought his pals along for the ride. “Amazing” grinds to a halt with a scream, and then Jeezy starts rapping about his sodium intake and cardiovascular health. Lil Wayne delivers a growly verse on “See You In My Nightmare” that suggests genuine hurt over a breakup: “Baby girl I’m finished / I thought we were committed / I thought we were cemented / I really thought we meant it.” It is strange indeed, even in the context of a record with “heartbreak” in the title, to hear so many swaggering rappers sound so wounded.