2008 / Music

Review: Kanye West’s ‘Heartbreak’ Skews Midas Touch To Suit Dark Mood

Rapper-Producer Releases Fourth Solo Disc

Listen to Kanye West’s new album and it’s obvious that the fabulous life of being a hip-hop superstar has apparently lost most of its bling-bling luster.

Photo: Roc-A-Fella Records/Def Jam Recordings

Photo: Roc-A-Fella Records/Def Jam Recordings

Track after track on his latest disc, “808s And Heartbreak,” provides fresh auditory evidence of how the fiercely imaginative producer has retained the crown as hip-hop’s leading light in recent years, but also demonstrates his new fixation on deconstructing and demystifying his public image as rap’s King Midas. It’s a startling shift and one executed to suit his brooding mood. The record is a remarkable and truly puzzling example of a rapper throwing his own pity party.

Once, West acted like any other diamond-encrusted rapper whose hunger for success and fame so infects his rhymes that every line was little more than a caricature of himself endlessly beating his chest. (In Kanye’s case, this happens maybe a little more so). Now, however, the Chicago native is consumed with his own sense of dissatisfaction and woe. This new vulnerability was apparently brought on by the sudden death of his mother last year and ongoing relationship tumult. Now fighting back the tears and impassioned about his troubles, West has turned his studio gifts to distort his customary pop gems to fit his newly shattered perspective as well as shine up these often chart-phobic, sullen sentiments. Each jam’s hollow-sounding programmed beats, synthesizer sizzle and ’80s keyboard effects support West’s litany of mea culpas and line after line of buyer’s remorse.

If West is really the voice of his generation as he recently claimed, his age group’s creeping up to and past age 30 is causing them to wallow in self-pity. Then again, given the public’s general teeth-grinding discontent because of the global economic meltdown, perhaps West’s digitized, hyper-syncopated version of the blues eerily echoes their own gloomy outlook.

In the end, shed no tears for poor Kanye. His fickle melancholia as expressed on “808s And Heartbreak” is most likely boredom. In a world full of glitz, West laments that he’s now blind and de-sensitized. Ultimately, his life is just too sensational and life in the media spotlight isn’t the dream that he thought it would be. His revelation that pop music, particularly hip-hop, is skewed so as to emphasize flaunting consumerism and wealth is ultimately a shallow pursuit isn’t a surprise to anyone but himself. (Quick, someone please tell 50 Cent.)

While West is feeling as vacant as a foreclosed home, millions of Americans are really struggling to make ends meet and wondering where the next dollar is going to come. The fact that Kanye bemoans that his Gucci shoes no longer shine as bright or that his Louis Vetton outfits don’t give him the same zest for life ultimately shows how out of touch he is. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/All I could show him were pictures of my cribs,” he rap-sings, as he does throughout the record utilizing the auto tune studio effect that Cher introduced to pop audiences a decade ago with her neo-disco smash, “Believe.” Worst of all, his “Black Kate Moss” appears to have thrown him to the curb and its tearing him up.

His vapidness, while distasteful, can’t always sink the album’s best cuts. The new record has instances that rival West’s trio of landmark albums — “College Dropout,” “Late Registration” and “Graduation” — but is compositionally more avant-garde and ultimately more daring. The album’s first release and likely best entrée, “Love Lockdown,” is more like a futuristic update of New Jack Swing than a hip-hop single. The thudding beats are dull and the repetitive piano figure is curiously naked. The melody reveals and conceals itself in the most extraordinary ways. At the center of his collage is West’s digitized voice, which is hypnotizing as repeats lines over and over like a mantra. The rapper wants not spiritual peace from the words, he wants to steel himself from further heartache.

West’s feelings explode outward on “See You In My Nightmare.” To a kneading refrain of synthesizers and simpering string sweeps, West and a computerized Lil’ Wayne are vocally thrashing and tearing apart his former love. West toys with the auto tune and vocal pitch shifting such that he sometimes sounds like H.R. from Bad Brains as he wickedly taunts his ex-beloved. Effects aside, the target of Kanye’s venom is to dissolve the bonds between them and so neutralize all painful thoughts. The track has the feeling of a knockoff but the song’s restlessness and focus are unexpectedly effective.

West continues the pained and sometimes painful analogies to his emotional state on “Coldest Winter,” in which he casts himself into a hip-hop Frank Sinatra. The cut’s vocal melody carefully retraces Frank’s middle-period smash, “It Was A Very Good Year.” West has no big band to give voice to his inner turmoil and instead crafts layers of rhythms parts. Synthesizers hum and skittering drum machine tears at the melody as huge bass drums pound, sounding like an orchestra is going to kick in at any moment, before morphing into the soundtrack from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The song isn’t a club jam although it does reveal West’s abilities to impress by fusing disparate musical samples.

Taking “808s And Heartbreak” as a complete album, it ultimately fails to yield hit singles, which is what mainstream hip-hop is still mostly all about. The disc’s appeal isn’t how danceable the tracks are or the killer hooks. Rather, it’s how West nakedly and explicitly exposes his demons and then attempts to circumvent the genre’s core mission.

Case in point is the record’s closer, “Pinocchio Story.” The track is a slow-to-unwind-itself freestyle rap recorded live in Singapore. West sounds a little far away from the mic as well as from himself. Backed only by a piano and a vocal echo, he outlines to fan screaming how fame and fortune have come up distasteful as compared to how he envisioned it in his bedroom. “I want to be a real boy,” he pleads. His honesty is rewarded by hollering as no one it seems is listening.

The feelings that Kanye West expresses through “808s And Heartbreak” are no doubt genuine and took courage to put out there, especially given the machismo still dominant in rap music. However, if he was tricked to follow a glamorous lifestyle and now finds it unsatisfying, he was the one who allowed himself to be deluded by his expectations. The immaturity West has shown in interviews and award shows extends to the steering of his own emotional life.

This record is uneven and thwarted by its contradictions. He doesn’t want to record instant dance-party hits anymore, but he hasn’t found an adequate purpose to replace his former plasticity. Listeners can still be wowed on occasion by how West stubbornly and cleverly disassembles the hit factory between his ears. His stubbornness and self-centeredness is the album’s undoing. If stardom, power and wealth don’t translate into instant happiness for West, he should try looking beyond his own mic for a change.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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