Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Auto-tune extravaganza

Despite his massive critical and commercial success, things have not gone well for Kanye West. Shortly after the release of last year’s celebratory “Graduation,” his mother died in much-publicized complications from plastic surgery. His engagement came to a sudden end, he was arrested on two separate occasions for attacking photographers and his “Glow in the Dark” tour ran into technical snags and mixed reviews, leading to a number of all-caps meltdowns on his frequently updated blog.
This album, then, is his bloodletting.

“808s and Heartbreak” has little to do with West’s last three albums, save for the fact that it is largely about him. It features few guests and almost no rapping. Instead, West’s vocals are exclusively sung through Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction process made famous through the chorus of Cher’s “Believe” and popularized recently through T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s hugely successful singles. Every track relies heavily on the Roland TR-808 drum machine, hence the title. His newfound austerity and shift in production style sees him yield moments both relentlessly catchy and bafflingly amateurish.

These songs are often overlong and repetitive, as West trades his often smart – or at least clever – lyricism for cringe-worthy crooning. Opener “Say You Will” carries its icy beat for six minutes; it’s hard not to sigh as he sings “when I grab your neck I touch your soul” over enormous strings. “Heartless” suffers from weak drum programming, as well as West’s accusations never getting beyond “why you got to be so Dr. Evil?” Worst of all is Lil Wayne’s guest spot on “See You In My Nightmares,” where, over a repetitive synth line he sings, “You think your shit don’t stink, but you’re Ms. P.U!” Given Wayne’s predisposition for stoned brilliance, I’m pretty sure he, let alone most third graders, could do better.

However, there are moments that work strikingly well. “Paranoid” is practically dance-pop by the album’s standards, a fantastic electro-tinged tell-off on which West at least sounds like he’s having fun. “Street Lights” is undeniably corny, as West laments that “life’s just not fair,” but basically works, melodramatic piano chords soundtracking a rare moment of near-optimism. “Coldest Winter” borrows substantially from Tears for Fears’ “Memories Fade,” but his goodbye to his mother, driven by aggressive toms on a big chorus, is surprisingly affecting.

Bonus track “Pinocchio Story” sees West’s freestyle turn into a rant which then turns into a six-minute soul-baring; to a cheering audience, he proceeds to blame himself for his mother’s death, lash out at photographers, and wish to “be a real boy.” He sounds destroyed, yet the audience is as enthusiastic as ever, heightening the album’s sense of total disconnect better than anything West could have written.

Only West, with his track record as producer and performer, could have gotten away with releasing this album as-is on a major label in 2008. It is utterly indulgent, made so overtly for himself and so unlikely to win him new fans that the only thing indicative of West’s desire for an audience at all is his repeated reworkings of its singles following their initial releases’ mixed responses.

For many reasons, some largely separate from its music, “808s and Heartbreak” is a fascinating, if uneven, listen, relentless in structure and difficult to take as a bitter whole.

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    Bradley WillisMar 5, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Easy Whamo, toofast is a Marine, remember? For as long as the meds hold anyway