Debates & Heartbreak
Kanye's gone emo synth-pop, for better or worse. Or both.
808s & Heartbreak is pure watercooler fodder. As anyone who’s watched television, read a paper or stood within earshot of the Chicago MC knows, Kanye West has ditched hip-hop on his fourth record. Sporting a hi-top fade and Pee-wee Herman suit, the überconfident rapper channels a year of personal turmoil—his mother’s death from plastic-surgery complications and the split with his fiancée—into frigid new-wave synths, Japanese percussion and digitally distorted vocals.
But is it any good? The TOC Music staff cranked 808s in the conference room and rolled the tape.
BD: This is what Phil Collins would sound like, had he been born in Düsseldorf.
AS: It sounds like T-Pain over Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” It’s ballsy to start an album with a track that’s largely instrumental, with sparse bleeps. But it’s also kinda snoozy.
JD: If I told you this was the new Booka Shade, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t. There are no obvious hip-hop elements.
BD: It’s a mission statement, an immediate, needed hurdle. He’s daring us to get through his suffering.
AS: It’s ego driven, saying, “I’m huge enough to put six minutes of minimal drum beats at the beginning.” It’s a crossover record.
JD: Crossing over into what? French indie-electro? He always has brought in listeners who don’t like hip-hop. Besides, hip-hop has been the biggest genre of the last decade. Kanye believes he’s powerful enough to change the whole game. If this record has a statement, it’s that Kanye thinks hip-hop is stuck in quicksand.
AS: But this doesn’t have any good hooks. “Good Life,” on the last album, was a great song. He’s singing now, but they’re not challenging melodies. It’s so flat.
JD: Unlike most hip-hop, it lacks swagger, and there’s not a lot of bass. But I think this is pretty catchy. The middle—“Paranoid,” “RoboCop,” etc.—is poppy.
BD: Can anyone explain the metaphor in “RoboCop”? How is a spoiled woman like an android from future Detroit? All I remember from that movie is that RoboCop ate a brown nourishing paste and drove a Taurus. I’m guessing the latter would irk Kanye.
JD: If you’ve never dated a robotic police officer, I don’t know how to explain it. The cultural references are hilariously played out—RoboCop, Stephen King? If a girl sang this, though, it’d be a huge hit. It fits more in the tradition of sassy kiss-offs like Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.”
BD:That’s true, only because hip-hop rarely presents a man as emotionally ruined over a breakup. Women are typically accessories. At the very least, this album shows a rapper openly and deeply affected by a real relationship.
AS: I love how RoboCop’s a woman. I mean, probably. This song is just bizarre. The singing in the coda is terrible. This album is a bum-out.
BD: That’s the point! It’s not meant to be a feel-good record. Complaining about that is like bitching because Joy Division needs more hand claps and tambourines.
JD: What, do you want Fountains of Wayne on the next album?
AS: Well, he sounds depressed in the beginning, but suddenly he’s just, “Whatever.” By the sixth track, “Paranoid,” he’s superupbeat. Catchy synths and beats recall early Prince. Actually, the brooders would be stronger if they were more in the minority.
BD: Some have noted Kanye uses more Auto-Tune and vocal distortion on songs like “Love Lockdown” and “Bad News” to reflect his increasing despair and frustration.
AS: I’m more frustrated the more he uses it.
JD: It’s become a crutch for singers to dial into notes they can’t hit.
BD: But Kanye’s not doing that. In parts, the software effects only exacerbate his weak notes.
AS: The concept of the record is interesting, but it all sounds the same, from the subject matter to the music—spare beats with strings and piano on every song. Lyrically, rappers are usually talking about so much different shit, making tons of creative references. Listening to this is like reading one of Kanye’s endless blogs in all caps.
BD: Too often rappers think metaphors and similes are the most brilliant, poetic things in the world. The live bonus track here, “Pinocchio Story,” is awful for that reason. We get it: You want to be a real boy, Kanye. The way the rest of the album breaks from such obvious, clichéd hip-hop tricks is refreshing. His heartbreak is more believable when literal, not couched in “clever” literary analogies.
JD: For someone who’s so attached to winning awards, making a record like this is surprising. Is he going to freak out if he loses?
AS: He can’t control his emotions.
BD: That’s what I enjoy from him as an entertainer. He stormed the stage when he lost “Best Video” at the 2006 MTV Europe awards.
JD: Right, he lost to Justice.
BD: Interesting. Because 808s sounds a lot like that Justice album—it’s very French electro.
JD: A lot of Justice’s album was moody club tracks, much like this.
AS: And Kanye had Justice’s Parisian colleagues Daft Punk on his 2007 hit, “Stronger.”
BD: I think we’re on to something here. Kanye lost out to European dance music, studied it in a curious rage and then savvily appropriated it into his sound. So maybe if we say Taylor Swift made a better album, we can prod him into crafting killer teen country.