Folks are calling 808s & HeartbreakKanye West’s Kid A, but the comparison is off. Radiohead moved from guitar-based rock to computer blips in one fell swoop, while Kanye’s biggest stylistic changes on his fourth album—808 “tribal”-style drum machines and auto-tuned vocals—don’t sound especially shocking to the ears.
Thematically, the work plunges deeper into the neuroses he’s been telling us about for years: his insecurity and spiritual unease, the difficulties of celebrity. The death of his mother and a relationship fissure have brought these issues into sharper focus, and as a result, Heartbreak is an immediately gelling, singular creation. Its tracks avoid many specific details about Kanye’s losses, instead dealing in generalities. “People will talk/Like it’s old news/I played it off and act like I already knew,” he sings on “Bad News.” On “Coldest Winter,” he adds: “Goodbye my friend/Will I ever love again?” His move from slang-heavy rap particulars to clearly articulated pop universals completes a transition he started with his last album, Graduation; the idea is to enable crowds worldwide to sing along at his shows. (U2 are the world’s most popular band at least partly because their catalog is full of such easily understood lyrics as those in “With or Without You.”)
As to Kanye’s much-discussed singing and his T-Pain-assisted use of auto-tune on the album, they’re nonissues. The vocoder sound has been part of pop music’s landscape at least since Cher’s “Believe,” and Heartbreak singles such as “Robocop” and “Love Lockdown” are completely satisfying. Yeezy was never much of a rapper anyway, and in fact Young Jeezy sounds absolutely Paleolithic here when he does his usual thing on “Amazing.” Heartbreak’s strict commitment to its aesthetics helps West achieve what he’s set out to create—an enduring, relatable testament to indescribable suffering.