"808s & Heartbreak" by Kanye West

By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 24, 2008

Massive ego, teeny-tiny risks. This has been the central conflict during Kanye West's four years under our national microscope. The 31-year-old rapper has always made pleasurable pop hits, but never the dicey, visionary, game-changing mega-jams needed to justify that Prince-size sense of self.

All of that goes flying out the window today with the release of "808s & Heartbreak," an album so exquisite, so assured, it threatens to invent an entirely new strand of urban pop music. And not "urban" as in "music industry code for 'black,' " but urban in the sense that West is exploring the isolation, paranoia and longing of 21st-century city life. The result is the best album released this year, an information-age masterpiece about falling into the depths of loneliness while a nation of millions checks your blog for updates.

First things first: He's not rapping anymore. Unlike the rhymes that populated his Grammy-winning trifecta "The College Dropout," "Late Registration" and "Graduation," all of West's ruminations here are sung (with surprising verve) and filtered through digital Auto-Tune software. Thankfully, there's no need to flinch -- it's all done with an artfulness that makes West sound more like a brokenhearted android than some anonymous pop-throb struggling to stay on pitch.

Still, the ubiquity of Auto-Tune has already had a polarizing effect on hip-hop fans, so West uses the album's title to try to steer the tech-talk toward Roland's TR-808, the bass-quaking drum machine that has dominated rap music ever since Afrika Bambaataa landed on "Planet Rock." Somehow West manages to coax a few new miracles from this little black box, bathing the entire album in sonorous rumble.

The rhythm feels particularly vivid on "Love Lockdown," in which a scorned West tries to decide whether to stay or go before a stampede of percussion attempts to trample him on the chorus. It's as thrilling as it is melancholy, a dynamic that permeates almost every corner of "808s & Heartbreak."

The album's only dud comes with the heavily orchestrated hyper-schmaltz of "RoboCop," in which West takes his Mannheim Steamroller for an inexplicable lap around the block. Much better is the wistful "Street Lights": Our beleaguered protagonist tries to escape into the back seat of a cab only to arrive at another emotional dead end. "Life's just not fair," West sings, as a second, distorted vocal track retraces his syllables like a digital shadow.

Album opener "Say You Will" is full of equally rich sonic detail -- the track sounds like Kraftwerk and a choir of Gregorian monkbots slowly riffing on "Eleanor Rigby." Once West is done delivering his auto-crooned soliloquy, he allows the beat to plink and plonk off into infinity. Those three gorgeous, wordless minutes make it clear that West is no longer clamoring for our undivided attention. He's giving us enough space to step back and watch him take a brilliant left turn.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Love Lockdown," "Welcome to Heartbreak," "Amazing," "Street Lights," "Say You Will"

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