Posted on November 25th, 2008 (1:38 pm) by Matt Midgley

The months following the release of 2007’s Graduation proved to be rather turbulent for Kanye West. While hurtling more and more towards superstardom and all that entails, he endured serious losses in his personal life. 808’s & Heartbreak, Mr. West’s fourth studio album, is very much a reaction to the losses experienced during the last year.

808’s is stylistically a clear change from earlier albums, trading rap almost entirely for a soulful pop using both the (deservedly/undeservedly) dreaded auto-tune and the titular Roland TR-808 throughout. Thematically, the 808’s is quite different than all of West’s previous work. Forgoing what we’ve come to know as the standard Kanye (a-la self-centered machismo), the album sticks to three main themes; the passing of his mother, his struggle to adapt to stardom, and most prominently, his breakup with fiancée Alexis Phifer.

The unexpected death of his mother due to a complication in a cosmetic surgery hit West hard, as is evidenced by one of the album’s strongest tracks, ‘Coldest Winter’. Using the imagery of the isolation and depression often associated with wintertime, lyrics such as “It’s 4 AM and I can’t sleep / Her love is all that I can see” show an introspective side of West not seen on previous work. “Goodbye my friend / Will I ever love again?” he repeats, before leaning towards the negative as the track closes.

West’s issues with his newfound stardom, while seemingly genuine, do come with a heavy dose of irony. Previous albums, and Graduation in particular, are filled with songs where West claims to be fully ready for stardom and all that entails. This go-around though, his lyrics depict the opposite emotions to the idea of always being in the limelight. This is most blatant in the bonus live track, ‘Pinocchio Story’, where West laments his inability to find meaning in consumerism (a possible existential crisis for the self-appointed Louis Vuitton Don), and his frustration with being the center of attention at all times. The problem comes in the fact that while desiring stardom is quite common, the harsh reality of celebrity life is not at all relatable, and serves only to suffocate the audience’s ability to sympathize with him.

The greater portion of 808’s is spent dwelling on the situation surrounding his breakup with designer Alexis Phifer. It seems West wrote a song for most of the kaleidoscope of emotions one goes through in such a situation, as songs related to the theme range from the bewildered (‘Bad News’) to the vindictively angry (‘See You in My Nightmares’). The former shows what we’re to believe is an initial reaction to the “bad news” that the girl in question has moved on, while the latter, a first-rate collaboration with Lil Wayne, shows us a seething Kanye determined to move on himself.

Continuing with this theme is the album’s first and second singles, ‘Love Lockdown’ and ‘Heartless’ respectively.
It is ‘Street Lights’, however, that truly shows the side of West we hadn’t seen before. “Let me know / Do I still got time to grow?” begins a reflective West, showing a vulnerability that solidifies the song as the standout of the album. Rather than blame his situation on his ex-fiancée, tout his personal superiority over the world or complain about the paparazzi, he simply assesses the place he is in life and realizes he is coming up short. While there is no specific mention of what it needs to be, the song shows a hopeful, almost longing West in regards to making the changes he’s obviously found necessary. This sort of openness once again sets Kanye West apart from the rest of the hip-hop crowd.

The album as a whole is definitely going to polarize Kanye West fans. Those who solely enjoy his early style (a la The College Dropout) will find almost nothing in the way of similar song styles or straightforward rap.
West has already begun work on his follow-up album, set for release later this year. We may find at that point that this album was a one-time deal, much like Beck’s fantastic Sea Change. Like that gem however, it should not be written off. It may well prove to be one of the greatest in his discography.

01 Say You Will
02 Welcome to Heartbreak
03 Heartless
04 Amazing [Featuring Young Jeezy]
05 Love Lockdown
06 Paranoid [Featuring Mr. Hudson]
07 RoboCop
08 Street Lights
09 Bad News
10 See You in My Nightmares
11 Coldest Winter
12 Pinocchio Story [Freestyle Live in Singapore]

Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

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