Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Kanye West's new album

A lot of people are going to hate the new Kanye West album. I mean, really, really loathe and despise it.

Why? Because it doesn't have any rapping. Because Kanye "sings" the entire record through a computer. Because it is remorselessly downbeat. Because it is so far removed from hip-hop that it might as well be a Daniel O'Donnell record.

But the haters are wrong. 808s and Heartbreaks is astonishingly good. A rule-breaking, paradigm-shifting masterpiece.

You may already know the back story: Mr West's life was turned upside down when his mother died last November. Then, in March, he split up with his fiancee Alexis Phifer. He has, to put it mildly, taken this quite badly.

"So you walk around like you don't know me," he sings on Heartless. "You got a new friend, well I got homies. But in the end it's still so lonely." Later, on Streetlights, the star finds himself unable to sleep, alone, walking the streets, sighing "life's just not fair".

Throughout, West's voice is fed through autotune - a computer programme that corrects the pitch of your voice - helping him to sing when his vocal cords fail him. He uses it more sparingly than, say, T-Pain - who tweaks the controls to make it sound like he's Metal Mickey - so the effect isn't completely soulless. It may not be to everyone's taste but it really works: by stripping away the human qualities of his voice, Kanye shows how isolated and withdrawn he's feeling.

The sparse, desolate songwriting only emphasises his desperation. Minor key piano figures and spooky hallowe'en choirs feature big, while West laments his losses - "I’m exhausted, barely breathing," he exhales on Amazing, which recalls nothing less than Stevie Wonder's Pastime Paradise.

All of this is off-set with the 808 of the title, one of the earliest programmable drum machines, which West proves to be a master of. The drum patterns here are the equal of anything Prince has ever done - intricate, funky and a great counterpoint to the lovelorn melodies.

Of course, it wouldn't be a true Kanye West joint if it wasn't derailed somewhere by his monstrous ego - an entity so big it would move Stalin to say: "Blimey, this guy's a bit confident". Across the record, he chastises Phifer for being cold and heartless, while alluding to the fact that he was doing things "she don't need to know about" behind her back. The resulting (and understandable) paranoia apparently turned his fiancee into a variety of film bad guys, including "Dr Evil" and "the girl from Misery". I wonder why she left?

But it's this same self-belief that makes 808s and Heartbreaks such an audacious success. Who else would have had the confidence to ditch an award-winning formula and risk their huge fanbase to make a soul album starring a rapper who can't sing?

No-one but Kanye West.

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