Chased the good life my whole life long/Look back on my life and my life gone/Where did I go wrong?
It was bound to happen. Kanye West couldn’t rap and sample Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding forever. He had to become a New Wave singer.
The shift actually began on “Graduation,” when the Chi-town rapper/producer moved beyond a soul-infused sound toward electronica, pop-punk and some quirky, minimal beats (“Homecoming”) unlike what he’d done before.
But if “Graduation” was Kanye’s coming out party — a feel-good album that was part sonic experimentation and part celebration of the good life — “808s & Heartbreak” is the fallout, the morning after when your house is trashed and your head is pounding.
Here, the school theme that guided Kanye’s album titles has gone the way of the soul samples and the standard rapping. Kanye West is now, in large part, an Auto-tuned singer, and he’s miserable: He’s broken up with his ex-fiance, he’s alone, and he’s realized that the “good life” is no life at all. His mother’s death, however, is not among the tragedies he mentions on the album; perhaps that’s a pain he’s not ready to share with the world.
Opening track “Say You Will” is an eerie, atmospheric blueprint that the rest of the album tends to follow: spacey bleeps and blips, odd percussion, shimmering synths, intermittent piano and constant, Auto-tuned misery.
“Welcome to Heartbreak” — influenced more by Depeche Mode than any ’70s soul great — is an ominous, poignant look at the double-edged sword that is the life Kanye has chosen:
My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs/He said his daughter got a brand new report card/And all I got was a brand new sports car/ And my head keeps spinning/ I can’t stop having these visions/I gotta keep winning.
“Heartless,” the head-nodding second single punctuated by flirty bursts of pan flute, is as close as “808s & Heartbreak” comes to approximating the Kanye we know. In fact, it’s where the typical rap fare begins and ends.
Young Jeezy may growl his way through a verse on “Amazing,” but the track is more bizarre piano-driven ditty than banger.
“Bad News” is like a shuffling, retooled “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in which Kanye is the last to know his boo is hooking up with someone else.
“Pinnocchio Story,” a freestyle from a show in Singapore, is a heart-wrenching close-out to a mostly heart-wrenching album. While crowd members squeal and scream, Kanye wonders if he sacrificed real life for fame and flashing lights:
There is no Gucci I could buy/There is no Louis Vuitton to put on/There is no YSL that they could sell/To get my heart out of this hell and my mind out of this jail…
I just want to be a real boy. They always say ‘Kanye, he keeps it real boy.’ Pinocchio story is I just want to be a real boy.
There are some bright spots when Kanye seems to temporarily check out of the heartbreak hotel and splash his intensity with some humor. “Paranoid” is borderline fun clubtronica that might have been at home on “Graduation.” “RoboCop” is about a “spoiled little L.A. girl” who won’t let Kanye breathe:
Bout the baddest girl I’ve ever seen/ Straight up out a movie scene/Who knew she was a drama queen that’d turn my life to Stephen King’s?/Up late night like she on patrol/Checking everything like I’m on parole/ I told her there’s some things she don’t need to know/She never let it go…
But the majority of the album is far less amusing. Throughout “808s & Heartbreak,” Kanye sounds like a man on the verge who wishes he’d been more careful what he wished for. When he groans that “life’s just not fair” at the end of “Street Lights” it sounds less like random whining than someone who’s genuinely crushed.
The overall effect is inventive, strange and depressing; ultimately, the heartbreak mostly eclipses the 808s.