“I’m the only thing I’m afraid of,” Kanye West sings on the Young Jeezy-assisted track “Amazing,” off of his new album 808s & Heartbreak. There has been hand-wringing among Kanye’s fans that the CD contains virtually no rapping by him, and that most all of the tracks include the robotic Auto-Tune effect pioneered by T-Pain. (Pain, in fact, assisted Kanye in the album’s production.) But the only thing unpleasant about Heartbreak is Young Jeezy’s presence. Otherwise the work goes down easy, despite featuring almost entirely slow-to-mid-tempo, heavily programmed beats.
Eschewing typical hip-hop drums in favor of 808 drum machines—more often heard in electronic music—the album successfully incorporates computerized effects (like Auto-Tune) throughout. There’s nothing “clean” here; the tracks are purposefully murky and severe, made to evoke a dark mood. Yet they immediately worm into your brain. The relatively subtle choruses and understated melodies on tracks like “Love Lockdown” and “Bad News” are especially hard to shake.
The lyrics, meanwhile, have their own sad appeal. Reflecting obliquely on the recent death of his mother and his breakup with a girlfriend, Kanye goes deep into his own psyche, questioning his values and past decisions. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs,” he laments on “Welcome to Heartbreak.” Elsewhere, he’s petulant and bitter. From “See You in My Nightmares”: “Tell everybody that you know/That I don’t love you no more.”
Such introspection and cynicism is nothing new for him, of course, but on Heartbreak his pain seems more focused and more clearly articulated than ever before. While Kanye’s first three albums demonstrated that he had more to say than most emcees, he seemed to surround every bit of wisdom with overstated braggadocio and (often poorly executed) verbal gymnastics. There are no attempts to impress anyone with his flow here, and no glorification of fame, wealth or womanizing, either. It’s simply, as he notes on “Amazing,” Kanye versus himself. (Even on the excellent ostensible diss song “RoboCop” Kanye seems to be asking himself how he could have gotten involved with the overzealous title character.)
Such singular focus is almost unprecedented for a rap album, if you can even call Heartbreak that. In any event, regardless of how you care to classify it, this simultaneously accessible and challenging work is one for the ages.