808s and Heartbreak: A first listen
Lost in all this MLS Cup hubbub has been the fact that this blog's No. 1 star, Kanye West, released a new album yesterday. It's called 808s and Heartbreak, and it's vastly different from anything he's done before. Having risen to the top, Kanye seems to have realized that superstardom doesn't bring fulfillment, and he's grappling hard with a broken engagement and his mother's death. "Love Lockdown," "Heartless" and a few more leaked cuts provided a glimpse of what was going on here: lots of autotuned singing by 'Ye, lots of somber ruminations on love lost. Basically, it's a breakup album in the grand tradition of Blood on the Tracks. Based on those early leaks, I thought I might hate this record. Now, I'm not so sure. Here's what I was thinking as my first listen unspooled.
"Say You Will" is a long, slow introduction to the album. Amid mournful choir sounds, piano, a stuttering minimal trashcan beat and electronic blips that remind me of "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space," Kanye reintroduces himself as a cybertronic soul singer with a broken heart. He's hitting his notes a lot better than before. Sure, it's autotune, but even autotune couldn't save the early version of "Love Lockdown." Anyway, no rapping yet, just singing. He's being as direct a rapper with his lyrics, though: "I wish this song would really come true/ I admit I still fantasize about you." About halfway through the six-minute run time, soul man 'Ye fades away to brood silently over the instrumental. Three minutes of wordless despair? This is a pretty ballsy first track.
The title "Welcome to Heartbreak" leads me to believe this will be the album's proper introduction and the first track is more of a prologue. Foreboding synth strings shepherd in a 'Ye that's yearning for family life. He rap-sings bummed-out couplets like, "My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs." An uncredited guest vocalist comes in for a hook that's interspersed with 'Ye's high-pitched "woo." So far, comparisons to Kid A are ringing true. Just as there wasn't a guitar on that album until track four, there hasn't been a conventional rap verse on this record yet.
"Heartless" is next. The message couldn't be any more loud and clear. This girl he's pining for has done him wrong. As a single, this seemed like a great hook without much meat on its bones. It makes more sense in the context of Kanye's sadfest.
Lo-fi vocals, piano and some stomp/clap-style percussion kick off "Amazing." Eventually, sampled Young Jeezy adlibs punctuate the beat, and more ominous choir sounds fill out the mix. Kanye's melodies are pretty impressive on this record so far. Oh, there's Jeezy in earnest, delivering an honest-to-God rap verse with his usual . It's a slight break from the mood Kanye has been working so hard to cultivate, but by the time the artiste comes back to sing the hook one more time, the gutwrenching sadness is back.
Now for "Love Lockdown." Again, this works better as part of the immersive experience that is 808s and Heartbreak. The occasional distorted vocal effect is a nice little accent. Wow, never noticed how overpowering that drum corps stuff in the chorus is. The club music fascination that showed up on "Stronger" and elsewhere on Graduation is definitely working beneath the surface here. And here comes that percussive stomp again. This still is by no means a single — I'm not sure this album has any true singles — but I see where it fits in here.
A wonky synth sound introduces "Paranoid." Over studio laughter, Kanye asks, "Why you so paranoid?" The synth persists, building into an enjoyable harmonic background. Just when it seems the hip-hop beat is gonna kick in, a full-on dance beat breaks out, and the synth sounds blossom into something marvelous. This is my favorite track so far. The sassy little synth accents and gang vocals are bowling me over. Might have to take back the bit about this album having no singles. I honestly thought I was going to hate this album. Thought Kanye had gone off the deep end. So far, so good.
For "RoboCop," a real nasty static beat gives way to elegant strings and more autotune croon, but Kanye's not going overboard with the robotic vocal flair. I feel like the earlier songs were all about setting the mood, and here in the heart of the album the real songs are coming out. These last two tracks have been highly danceable, highly singable pop songs. I'm really impressed with the way they lift the mood while still maintaining Kanye's underlying melancholy. It's like a fun night out on the town when you know by the time you're back home you're going to be dwelling on that gnawing sadness again.
And here's the comedown. "Street Lights" is slow and shimmering, with this-is-serious piano bursting into the beat like bolts of black lightning. The electrical storm Kanye's got brewing in the background is drawing my attention from whatever he's singing (through that noisy filter again). By the end, the sound drifts away, and Kanye, left all by his lonesome, concludes, "Life's just not fair."
"Bad News" seems like "Love Lockdown" redux. This is sounding like it should have been a B-side. If most of this album reminds me of Kid A, "Bad News" is more like the warmed-over Hail to the Thief stuff. It's definitely maintaining the mood of downcast disappointment, though.
My oh my, it's Weezy F. Baby! Lil Wayne has become unhealthily obsessed with autotune crooning too, and that's how he opens "See You In My Nightmares." This is so far removed from "Barry Bonds," the so-so collabo these guys unleashed last year. It's crazy how much influence T-Pain has had in the past year. Almost three minutes in, Wayne starts into something resembling a rap, and it's an invigorating experience. If anything, "Nightmares" reiterates that Kanye is a pretty versatile dude who can deliver quality in lots of ways, while Wayne is just really good at rapping, and he should stick to that.
At 2:44, "Coldest Winter" is the shortest track here, and it feels like a bridge to our closing number. Only, it actually is the closing number. The track waxes and wanes a little bit then dissolves into more of that trashcan percussion. And poof! That's it. The song hits on all the albums musical and lyrical themes, but it never really takes off like you might expect from the last song on an album this epic. To return to the Radiohead parallel one more time, this is sort of like "Videotape," ending the record with a compact whimper rather than a theatrical bang. That doesn't quite get across what I mean here because I like "Videotape," and I think I like "Coldest Winter" too. But it's just one more curveball on an album full of curveballs, one that I'll be exploring and appreciating — perhaps even loving, God forbid — for a while.