For better or worse, 2008 is going to be remembered as the Year of the Auto-Tune. Whether you like it or not, if you pay attention to hip hop at all, you more than likely have a strong opinion on the matter. If you pride yourself on your advanced intellect and being “true” to “real” hip hop, you probably consider Auto-Tune a joke of a fad fit only for pop radio rap and the kids who will listen to whatever MTV tells them to. If rap is just something you listen to in your car or at the club you probably don’t see what all the fuss is about. 85 percent of the public falls into one of these two categories.
Then there are people like me who have no freaking idea what to make of Auto-Tune. We are the ones who invest far more time and money in rap than sanity would dictate, yet are forward-thinking enough to be continuously irked by whiny old-school hip hop purists (and that may have sounded a bit conceited, but if this review has been up for more than a few hours I’m sure scrolling to the bottom of the review will reveal several comments demonstrating who I’m talking about.) Since we don’t subscribe to either side of the “real hip hop” argument we have to make up our own minds when it comes to trends like Auto-Tune.
So I have decided that Auto-Tune is an interesting trend that is occasionally very enjoyable, though it probably goes without saying that we’ve seen some overkill in 2008. But even as it is overused there is a lot to enjoy about this trend. With all the controversy that surrounds the entire rap scene it is often easy to forget that most rappers are kids. And since rap by its very nature is meant to be funny, the majority of these kids are goofballs. Guys like Lil Wayne gargling their lyrics through Auto-Tune is kind of the equivalent of your kid making Darth Vader voices into a fan; it can get obnoxious, but it’s also endearing to see them playing around and having fun. Plus, they’ll probably forget all about it in a couple months when they discover what helium will do to their voice.
And Kanye West is the poster-child for big goofy kids screwing around with Auto-Tune. A couple months ago West famously labeled Auto-Tune “the funnest thing to use.” And since he is at the point of his career where he can do whatever the hell he damn well wants, 808s and Hearbreak, fifty minutes of Auto-Tune, drum machines, and synthesizers hits shelves today.
But as happy as Auto-Tune makes Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak is anything but light-hearted. The stress has piled up on West over the past couple years. The loss of his mother and a break-up with his fiancée were compounded with West’s increasing anxieties over the trappings of fame. This is where the comments about “poor-baby-Kanye-with-all-his-millis” generally appear, but these complaints are almost always bogus because all the money and fame in the world does not make a person less of a human being. And Kanye West wears his humanity on his sleeve on 808s.
While it’s West’s dramatic shift in musical styles that is grabbing the headlines, it is the overwhelmingly emotional nature of the lyrical themes that should be the real story here. Love it or hate it, 808s will not be swept under the rug as a footnote in his discography, if only for the fact that it is almost certainly the most openly personal album ever released by a mainstream rap artist. On “Welcome to Heartbreak” he sings, “My friend showed me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs / Said his daughter got a brand new report card / And all I got was a brand new sports car.” This is a sweeping departure from the typical Patron-soaked / rain-on-a-bitch gibberish that permeates Top-40 hip hop. In a culture that is constantly under fire for degrading women and flaunting wealth, the biggest name in the game is expressing the desire to trade it all in for a wife and some kids.
Kanye sets the stage for his emotional masterpiece with “Say You Will”, an epic 6-minute, synth-heavy intro that acts more like The Cure’s “Plainsong” than any hip hop album intro that comes to mind. The track ends with three minutes of instrumentals, shattering any lingering ideas that Kanye was just going to go into the studio with his Auto-Tune and spit out a glorified T-Pain album. Make no mistake…nobody has made an album quite like this before.
But as groundbreaking as 808s is, it is far from a perfect album. Kanye has always been susceptible to the occasional cringe-worthy lyric. He’s able to get away with it when he is rapping because the music is goofy and light-hearted. On an album as dark and murky as this one, it’s a little more difficult to write bad lyrics off as being all in good fun. But as usual, Kanye’s individual lyrics are not nearly as important as the overall theme of his lyrical content, and as pointed out, 808s breaks new ground in this regard.
It’s hard to tell whether this is a top-heavy album or one that simply gets old after the novelty wears off. I’m going with a little bit of both, though the songs become much less memorable after “RoboCop”, a song that is certain to be written off as a complete joke by just about every critic who isn’t me. But there is such a thing as ridiculous to the point of awesome and I don’t apologize for knowing where that line is.
As promised, 808s is rap free, aside from a quick verse from Young Jeezy on the perky “Amazing”. Lil Wayne shows up on “See You in My Nightmares”, attempting to out Auto-Tune Kanye and lightening the mood with his typical scatological one-liner: “You think your shit don’t stink but you are Mrs. P.U.” Unfortunately, by this time the concept of the concept album is wearing a little thin and the opening of “Coldest Winter”, Kanye’s mommy-tribute (that easily could have been mistaken for another breakup song if he hadn’t specified), is a very welcome sound.
808s ends with “Pinocchio Story”, a fairly unnecessary addendum (apparently Beyonce requested that it be included) from a live recording in Singapore. While I can’t think of many reasons I will ever again leave the album playing past the end of “Coldest Winter”, it’s certainly worth one listen as it accurately sums up many of Kanye’s recent moodier themes as he longs to become a “real boy.”
More than anything, 808s feels like we stumbled across something we weren’t supposed to hear. Kanye is like the guy who complicates things by writing his estranged lover a guilt-inducing letter when he should have just walked away…except that guilt-inducing letter is about to be read to millions of people around the world. 808s has more than its share of awkward moments – both musically and lyrically – but the great artists are the ones who are not afraid of taking chances, and Kanye West is the greatest artist today’s pop scene has.