Kanye’s 2008 has been a shitter. His ma, Donda, with whom he vocally shared an inseparable bond, passed away late last year. Then a split from fiancée Alexis sent him into something of an early-30s meltdown. Poor chap. It’d be odd then, for him to follow this with, say, a reggae-themed party album. Although one might argue it’s just as perplexing for him to take epiphany-type inspiration from a track by British cod-hop also-rans Mr Hudson And The Library (the forthcoming ‘There Will Be Tears’), decide to quit rapping, and record an 11-track album entirely sung through vocoder-esque auto-tune. The latter however, is what he’s gone and done (yup, every track).
As the title foretells, there are two themes powering the college drop-out’s fourth full-length studio album: ’80s tech-nostalgia (the Roland TR-808 is the iconic, tinny drum machine that drove proto-hip hop), and erm, being well sad. Lead single ‘Love Lockdown’ was a scare for many Kanye-watchers. A brooding, dulcet elegy of quivering emotion without a single spoken couplet, it painstakingly arches from sub-bass ‘pooms’ to tribal fills over five minutes of melancholic digital-warped crooning. Those that didn’t buy into this fanfared rebirth will be trampling their shutter-shades at this absurd album concept.
But from the tortured opening cello groans of ‘Welcome To Heartbreak’, it’s clear the man is still in possession of his marbles. “My friend shows me pictures of his kids/All I can show him is pictures of my cribs”. Hmm. Still, though, there’s a cold, metallic bleakness at play from the get-go, invoking cinematic flashes à la Arnie’s The Running Man, that empowers the woe-is-me slush. The planet’s under attack from scowling hip-hop androids and Kanye’s leading the assault. New single ‘Heartless’ fulfils the promise of its predecessor. Aside from being the only track on which he actually raps, its cathedral organs and lava-lamp rhythmic thuds underscore a dancehall-style tormented chorus that impacts with flooring intensity.
Elsewhere, ‘Street Lights’ is an endearingly broken-sounding ‘where am I in life?’ cold-soul heel-scuffer, and Young Jeezy cranks out some much-needed gruff machismo on sizzurp-addled juggernaut closer, ‘Amazing’. It’s not all killer. The Mr Hudson collabs ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Say You Will’ fail to distract from their flaky hooks and backpack-rap-style beats with Frenchie-coffee-table-lektro blips and Enya-brand flute toots, respectively. The resounding verdict is that it’s a surprising, but bold and brave progression from last year’s confused ‘Graduation’. As for the lack of raps, in truth, the less we have to put up with all that small-man prep-school-canteen bragging, the better.