ARTIST: Kanye West.

ALBUM: 808s & Heartbreak.

RELEASED: November 2008.

GENRES: Synthpop/Dance-pop, R&B.

LENGTH: 52:05 mins. 

LABEL: Roc-A-Fella, Island Def Jam. 

MY ALBUM RATING: ****

2007 and 2008 were troubled times for US rapper Kanye West, struggling with multiple events in his life which helped inspire his latest release, 808s & Heartbreak.

Losing his mother Donda to complications arising from a complexed cosmetic surgery procedure in November 2007, followed by the separation and divorce from his fiancee Alexis Phifer months afterwards, ensured West's life-long emotions would be severely honed on his newest record.

West, 31, born in Atlanta, Georgia, has had his fair share of heartbreak during his life. At just three years old, his father, Ray, a photojournalist and part of the Black Panthers "Black Power" movement, separated with Kanye's mother, leaving he and his mother to move to Chicago for a new life.

On 808s & Heartbreak, West - who is part of a middle class background and once attended Chicago State University - documents his troubles with ease and offers a drastic stylistic contrast from previous albums.

Initially, upon 808s & Heartbreak's release in November 2008, critics were skeptical as to whether West's new sound would succeed.

However, despite a handful of fans and music journalists alike unsure on the output, 808s & Heartbreak has generally become a success.

Success owes largely to the hit singles, Love Lockdown and Heartless - with the former West's best charting UK single since 2007's UK #1 hit, Stronger - which reached #8 and #10 in the UK charts respectively and both reaching #3 in the US.

But despite this early triumph, West witnessed his second worst album chart placing in the UK, with the record peaking at just #11, compared to 2007's Graduation topping the charts.

Perhaps it is the emotionally-tinged catalogue and stylistic song change which has lead to such stark displeasure by UK audiences.

In the US, 808s & Heartbreak reached #1 to the contentment of many of West's home following. Recorded on a new Auto Tune package with extensive use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine - hence partly the title of the album - West recruited fellow rapper T-Pain to help construct the tracks in Hawaii in less than two weeks.

What is most noticeable of this latest release is the choral layers underpinned by tribal drum sounds available from the 808 drum machine.

West anticipated 808s & Heartbreak to result in a pop sound and this is purely evident on the opening single, Say You Will, a Kraftwerk-like track with a littering of bleeps and squeaks, whilst a choral synth voice passage underneath the gentle drum machine pattern could almost accuse West of sounding like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.

Indeed Say You Will presents enough indications of the intertwined sound change and thought-provoking lyricism setting a precedent for the album.

Use of the vocoder and piano are also key elements on the album and in the opener, helping to create a sense of longing for West to recapture his lost love. The lyrics, "Can't waste no time, she might leave soon" and "Please say you will for real, I pray you will", show a sombre desperation omnipresent throughout.

The exciting new sound and verbal poetry continues on the next track, Welcome To Heartbreak - featuring current chart high-flyer, Kid Cudi - but with West's stereotypical dramatic rapping vocal style rapidly returning.

However, the bass-driven strings and emphatic use of the vocoder help create a different surrealistic imagery with self-assessment by West, "Chased the good life my whole life long, where did I go wrong?", developing an increasingly endearing analytical approach.

Welcome To Heartbreak itself sounds a mash-up between doom-mongering Depeche Mode and soul-wrenching Eminem, with swirling synth pads and piano adding to an intense atmosphere.

But whilst the opening two tracks are a far cry from Gold Digger, Touch The Sky and Stronger, West returns to his Hip-Hop forte on Heartless, which is one of the most upbeat efforts on the album. The track glides along synthetic pipe sounds, vocoder and a succession of strings and bass beats, whilst lyrically West remains bitter about his past love and how she has damaged his life, "How could you be so Dr. Evil", a hugely damning statement.

Amazing featuring Young Jeezy - who has become a popular rap figure in the past 12 months through success with Akon and Usher on recent singles - sees West again hone the traditional repititve rapping choruses and vocal style, but with tropical synthetic sounds adding to what is a peculiar track.

Love Lockdown is a mixture of subtle piano textures, booming hooked bass and marching tribal drums, with gentle vocals by West showcasing his best qualities and is one of the best tracks on 808s & Heartbreak.

Fellow tracks, Paranoid featuring Mr Hudson and Robocop contain a greater more up-tempo orchestral and bubbling synth hook grandeur with carefully constructed melodic overtones, whilst lyrically remaining more simplistic but still effective.

Another notable hit on 808s & Heartbreak is See You In My Nightmares featuring Lil' Wayne, which pounds on euphoric synth and bass drum and has a dark lyrical texture, "I don't love you no more" and the repetitive curdling of "That ya' know" helps the angst-driven recurrence.

The penultimate track, Coldest Winter is an emphatic re-working of Tears For Fears' (TFF) Memories Fade and is a statement on West's childhood being filled with synthpop influences and most surprisingly his interpolation works tremendously on what is one of the best tracks on the album.

Keeping the synth hook and verse structure, West's new lyrics, "Memories made in the coldest winter" and "It's 4am and I can't sleep, her love is all that I can see", develop Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith's efforts on TFF's 1983 album, The Hurting and despite stripping the original's guitar and horn effects, it remains a superbly effective track with 808s & Heartbreak's trademark clattering drum sound simply overwhelming.

In essence, 808s & Heartbreak is a supreme anomaly when compared with West's previous albums, The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation, with the gangster-angst and traditional hip-hop rhythms severely toned down. On many tracks, the new approach works with ease, despite the odd song on 808s & Heartbreak sounding alien to some of West's hardcore fanbase.

But despite the new direction for West gaining critical acclaim and disdain from some media quarters, it is a refreshing change from a rapper often experimental and thoughtful in his output.

808s & Heartbreak essentially pays homage to the subtle orchestration and electronic tones of pop music and West's recent dramatic life experiences collaborating wonderfully on his best album yet.

An upbeat and downtempo amalgamation, there is a track for everyone on 808s & Heartbreak.

DOWNLOAD: Say You Will, Welcome To Heartbreak, Heartless, Love Lockdown, Paranoid, Coldest Winter/The Tears For Fears original - Memories Fade.

Comments

I bought Late Registration when it come out and I enjoyed it. I heard Stronger from Graduation and just thought 'same old' so I didn't bother. I do like Kanye West a lot but he seemed a bit one dimensional, like a lot of acts around these days. But your review has sparked a bit of curiosity and I shall investigate! haha.

Would you say this sound is slightly more, shall we say, mature? 

I agree with you that Stronger sounded a lot like the stuff which preceded it and although I do like Kanye West too, like you I was looking for something different. Graduation is probably his second best album after this one, as to be honest I thought the sound was a lot more polished and more uptempo.

I'm glad the review has helped haha :D. It's basically in my opinion a sound which has developed and there are a lot more electronic experimental sounds compared with previous albums and I would say with a softer pace. I think the most dramatic change is the instrumentation, with it being a lot more electronic/synthetic and to be honest there are a lot more musical hooks.

But lyrically it is more mature definitely and less-typically gangster chanting type music than before. I do think you'd like it to be honest. The slower songs are good, often with piano for a ballad type format and the faster songs contain a lot of strings with vocoder. Overall, it's extremely effects based.

Sign me up. 

And neither is it Pink Floyd, but it's definitely the most experimental as far as Kanye's concerned. I'd say "polished" electronics rather than peculiar i.e. Radiohead.

I also suggest if you want a mixture between experimental rock and accomplished pop, try Tears For Fears' album, The Hurting, which Kanye obviously got some good inspiration from.

I have now since included links to my recommended tracks at the bottom of the article.

Life West has become the main concept of his records. His passionate expression of thoughts, emotions and tensions associated with attempts to describe the lives of the working class, in which he grew up, worked on by the evils for which rejoiced. In 808's & Heartbreak - Kanye West affect the college theme, fraternity life, sex and his own materialism, which is based on insecurity.

Essential albums: Kanye West