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November 25, 2008

Shortcuts: Kanye West—808s and Heartbreak

Maybe Kanye West’s latest album is best understood in the context of his onstage ramblings at Lollapalooza. This past summer, West’s comparison of himself to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and John Lennon was met with mixed reactions from the crowd.

As offended as some were, nobody—West included, I hope—is saying that he’s there yet, or even that he will get there soon. Instead, the true meaning behind his Lollapalooza address is that he isn’t scared to take big steps, even if they are missteps.

The album 808s & Heartbreak is both innovative and flawed; it gives us a sense of the influences West is working to incorporate into his songs. The album proves that he doesn’t need a ton of collaborations or obscure samples for his hooks. His vocal melodies are less predictable than his flow as an emcee, and fortunately, he does not lay the auto-tune on as thick as T-Pain or Lil Wayne.

Nor does he care that countless others have jumped on this particular brand of vocal manipulation—he likes the sound and believes he can do it better. Consequently, he lets his voice carve out a nice middle ground with the electronics. The finished product is a polished, synthetic West.

Unfortunately, the manipulation cannot hide the fact that West’s vocal and emcee skills are still inferior to his creativity as a producer and songwriter. His melodies wither compared to T-Pain’s sometimes misunderstood genius, and for the most part, West’s lyrics are painfully simple.

“Heartless,” “Love Lockdown,” and “Streetlights” demonstrate the effectiveness of wearing your heart on your sleeve, but the crisp synths and strings coupled with TR-808 drums dare anyone to classify this music under a familiar genre. Sure, it resembles R&B or hip-hop, but there is plenty of pop and rock thrown in for good measure.

The beats are tight, clean, and void of any Alvin and the Chipmunks samples from his College Dropout days. West is definitely in unknown territory, and it’s clear that he was playing around a little for half the album.

But with this album he has also effectively carved out his future and potentially a new breed of musicians. Perhaps the days of real singing emcees (not quite you, Mos Def) are close at hand. If West wants to be the one, he’s going to need more voice lessons and some new inspirations. But 808s & Heartbreak will do for now.

—Yusuf Siddiquee