Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak: Bad Times, Hot Jams

By Evan Rytlewski
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Kanye West's rush-released 808s & Heartbreak arrives the same week as another event album, Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, and though the two discs have little in common, their appeal is largely the same—both have curious fans wondering, "how could this possibly be any good?" This week's charts will be driven by schadenfreude.

West has handicapped himself considerably on Heartbreak. Despite his limited voice, the rapper almost exclusively sings here, almost entirely with the mechanical assistance of Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction device he is intent to ruin for everyone else. Auto-Tune was developed to gloss over vocal flaws, but West masochistically uses it to highlight his. The machine floods the mix, spins West's voice out of control, and turns merely lackluster notes into ones so flat NASA could launch a space shuttle from them. Meanwhile, West mostly limits the drums to the processed, tribal thump of antiquated 808 drum machines—and, oh yeah, crushed by his failed engagement and the death of his mother, he reportedly recorded the whole album in two weeks (suggesting he could have made 750 808s & Heartbreaks in the time it took Axl to make one Chinese Democracy).

So, how could this possibly be any good? Well, as any magician can attest, the more layers of straight jacket, the bigger the flames, the sharper the blades, the more alligators in the tank, the more thrilling the payoff, and West's grand escape is nothing short of sensational.

Though the record is bookended by dejection—"Welcome to Heartbreak" rumbles like a sad Tears for Fears song; "Coldest Winter" actually samples one—808s and Heartbreak isn't nearly the buzz kill it sounds on paper. West's accents his robotic drum machine/vocoder template with his typical, vibrant flourishes—pop-up choruses, leaden pianos, eager cellos, retro synths, a tasteful ensemble of guest voices—building momentum until the album can no longer contain its giddiness. "Paranoid" gives way to a jaunty disco beat and a cathartic sing-along chorus, while the gleefully irreverent "RobotCop" pushes West to the brink of laughter. Even in his darkest moments, West still compulsively kicks out feel-good jams. At this point, you could drain the guy's bank account, run over his puppy, then lock him in a basement for a couple weeks with a flute, a timpani drum and a microcasette recorder, and smart money would be on him emerging with yet another masterpiece.

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