Kanye West’s Headphone Masterpiece

This was not set up to be a good move. Kanye West had made three of the finest hip-hop records of the past half-decade. Despite limited lyrical skills, he used relatability, a way with a punchline and strong production values to make three classic or near-classic albums.

I think it was Neil Young who coined (or at least inspired) the term “going straight from the middle of the road into the ditch” — used when an artist with commercial success makes a serious left turn away from the sound that brought them accolades. Think Young going from folk-rock to experimental electro and rockabilly or Prince going from Purple Rain to Around the World in a Day.

For his fourth album, Kanye promised to shake things up. Kanye singing? Using Auto-Tune throughout the entire album? Either West was seriously on some other shit or he was hell-bent on completely obliterating his audience.

So imagine my surprise at learning that 808s and Heartbreak is more than good;  it’s excellent.  The entire album is a complete 180 from anything Kanye has ever been associated with.  And, as expected, this will completely decimate his hip-hop audience. 808s is essentially a black indie-rock album. It has much more in common with Thom Yorke’s The Eraser than Jay-Z’s American Gangster.

My buddy Jeff says that 808s sounds like T-Pain crossed with early Depeche Mode, and I can definitely hear that comparison. The album’s soundscape is almost completely electronic, with atmospheric synths only occasionally joined by African drums (Love Lockdown) and live strings (the skittering, cinematic RoboCop). The overall vibe is downbeat  — you definitely won’t be driving down the street blasting this in your speakers. 808’s definitely works best listened to alone with a good pair of headphones when you’re in one of those moods.

The album’s lyrics are equally downcast. After suffering the unexpected loss of his mother and a broken engagement within a year of each other, Kanye obviously wasn’t in the mood to rap about The Good Life.  Songs like The Coldest Winter and Say You Will are as desperate and morose from a lyrical standpoint as the icy synthesized music would imply, with the only respites being the ego-driven Amazing and the dancefloor-ready (in a Prince/modern-day Timbaland sort of way) Paranoid, one of the few songs that actually features Kanye rapping.

The constant use of the Auto-Tune effect is a bit grating and a little unnecessary, especially since Kanye can actually carry a tune. While he won’t be challenging protege John Legend’s vocal agility, Kanye makes up in feeling what he lacks in technical skill,  a trait similar to his rapping.

I’m as impressed with Kanye’s artistic daring as I am with the music on 808s. Say whatever you want about him, but this album proves that West has balls the size of cantaloupes. Not many million-selling artists — especially a hip-hop artist –would even think of making an album like this. The fact that 808s is even being released is a testament to Kanye’s pulling power, especially in these tough times for the music industry and the economy in general. No record label in 2008 would let one of their biggest cash cows make a record this left field.

If your ears are attuned to strictly hip-hop, or even strictly “urban” music, 808s and Heartbreak will not only come as a complete shock, and you probably won’t enjoy it. When I think of stylistic comparisons, 808s has more in common with classic breakup albums like David Gray’s White Ladder, Damien Rice’s O or even Kind of Blue.  This is an engaging listen that rewards listeners for paying attention through multiple plays.  You might want to skip the bonus live cut at the end, though, which adds nothing to the album.

Accepting his award for Favorite Hip-Hop album at the American Music Awards this year, Kanye said he want(ed) to be the next Elvis.  Kanye may never reach the popularity of Mr. Presley, but his artistic daring, ability to create and sustain a musical mood, fantastic production skills (all of which make up for his lyrical and vocal shortcomings) make him one of the generation’s most interesting figures. Whether you love or hate the man, open your ears and give 808s and Heartbreak a chance.

While I’m not ready to proclaim this my favorite album of 2008, I am sure it will be near the top of my list.

–M. Heyliger