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Kanye's '808s' Founders On Songwriting

The cover of <em>808s and Heartbreak</em>.
The cover of 808s and Heartbreak.

Kanye West's new album is built on two false premises: that from great pain comes great art, and that old-fashioned rapping is not an adequate vessel for such suffering. Chronicling the fallout of his failed engagement, 808s and Heartbreak is the rapper/producer's most adventurous record to date. And it's nothing short of a complete mess.

Inspired in equal part by fetishes for 80s pop sentimentality (complete with Factory Records-inspired artwork and a partial Tears For Fears remake) and, yes, the Roland TR-808 drum machine, 808s is built from some fantastic raw sounds — the taiko drum trance of "Love Lockdown", the sparse blip of "Say You Will", the haunting cross-section of tender pianos and guest rapper Young Jeezy's menace on "Amazing." But these ideas never gel. As a sheer aesthetic exercise, stripping the modern hip-hop sound bank to its starkest form is an interesting one, but it's not nearly enough to hinge an album on. Especially when the principal rapper instead hinges the album on his singing.

The problem is that, unlike rapping, singing is not a learned skill. Bulldog tenacity, even if Kanye had been taking singing lessons, can only get you so far if you lack a naturally great (or at least memorable) voice. Even with the corrective properties of the robotic Auto-Tune effect, Kanye's a particularly incompetent and charmless vocalist.

When like-minded futurist preppy Andre 3000 of Outkast made the "my feelings are bigger than hip-hop" leap with The Love Below, he compensated for his vocal inadequacies by actually writing great songs. But Kanye's lyrics are at best unmemorable — if not unbearable — simplistic cliches straight out of high school angsty poetry. Short on adjectives, everything is "cold" to Kanye: his ex, his story, the winter, the drinks. His compositions are wordy, meandering and completely devoid of structure. Choruses appear and disappear for no reason in particular. He's yet to realize that writing a great song entails more than merely setting a rap verse to melody.

Tellingly, the record's strongest cut is "Heartless" — the closest Kanye comes to traditional hip-hop. Half rapping, half singing, the classic Kanye balance of self-deprecation and self-confidence remains intact, giving life to cutesy couplets like "How you could you be so / Dr. E-vil?" The track — sounding something like if Wu-Tang's the RZA was rocking Casio pan flute presets instead of Thelonious Monk loops — is a reminder of what the album could've been had Kanye just reeled in his pretenses.

As it stands, 808s is a sketchbook. It is laziness disguised as minimalism and vulnerability. Emcees should know their limitations.

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Andrew Noz