Margaret Hair: Kanye gets personal
November 28, 2008
Steamboat Springs — It’s not that hard to review a CD in 150 to 200 words. And in most cases – if not all of them – that’s all you need to say why something is good, or why it isn’t.
So, I can’t say that I have any defensible reason to have written a 700-word review of Kanye West’s new CD, “808s & Heartbreak.” But that’s what happened, and this is why: Kanye West is an obnoxious, polarizing figure. He’s also the best pop producer of the past five years.
His first record, “The College Dropout,” was the best thing to come out in 2004, and his 2005 follow-up “Late Registration” sampled Curtis Mayfield (which was enough for me). The 2007 conclusion to his “college” trilogy, “Graduation,” wasn’t that great, but it was boastful and funny and inventively produced, and after “Gold Digger,” that’s all anyone expected.
By that count, West only has one album that I think is really, legitimately good. And I only like about half of it and could have done without the purposely annoying interludes and skits. So why do I keep expecting him to put out a record on the same level as “Thriller?” At first, that expectation came from a lack of competition. Back when West was rapping – a heyday that seems so distant and warm when you listen to “808s” – careful production and semi-decent songwriting wasn’t exactly the party line in commercial hip-hop.
Lil’ Jon’s “Get Low” was (still, two years after its release) playing every third song on the radio. And then West appeared, with a weirdly vulnerable, highly inflated view of himself. While everyone else was overusing Timbaland’s beats, West was sampling gospel tunes and added sped-up violin lines to his tracks. He was always clever and often hilarious. Somehow, even as he became a caricature of himself, he seemed earnest.
So I keep expecting him to become a spectacular, timeless musician. It hasn’t happened yet. And “808s & Heartbreak” hasn’t convinced me otherwise, despite this review (shortened from its original version):
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“808s & Heartbreak”
“808s and Heartbreak” is the first Kanye West album that requires repeated listens. It is also the first Kanye West album that loyal fans might not want to hear twice.
Leaning on a Roland TR-808 drum machine for its vacant beats and the Auto-Tune voice processor to equalize West’s singing voice (he doesn’t rap on this one), “808s” is bitter, selfish, fascinating and infuriating.
West doubts everything on the album’s 11 songs, from relationships to life choices to the emptiness of his existence – he doubts everything except how good he is at what he does. He also denies even the smallest amount of blame for the break-up that inspired this uncharacteristically rushed effort.
On “808s,” West makes his musical choices to match a one-note emo cry; that fails in some places, and works in others. The production on “Paranoid” is inexplicable, like the soundtrack to a 1980s workout video – which would be OK, except that no one wants to do step aerobics to a breakup song. One track later, “RoboCop” relies on a string instrumental pulled from a film score. It’s too much, but it’s brilliant in that excess. “Coldest Winter” takes advantage of Auto-Tune’s soulless nature, but West wrecks the tribute to his deceased mother by turning around and closing the album with a painstaking, ultra-personal, unedited rant.
“808” is tighter than anything in the “college” trilogy, shedding all the silly skits and second-tier singles. It shows West is capable of making a record (not a smattering of tracks). It also shows he’s not capable – at least not yet – of making a record that is as great as he sees himself.
One day, Kanye West is going to grow up. He’s going to come to terms with his egomania and the immense talent that feeds it. He’s going to think about something other than himself and his awe-inspiring, omnivorous appetite for good music. Hopefully, he won’t try to sing.
When that happens, he is going to make one of the best pop records that’s ever been made. And that record will be the only thing – out of all of this – that matters.