Kanye West’s new fondness for vocal effects has mostly been characterized as an arrogant attempt at co-opting a trend, but in the context of his latest exhibit, there seems to be more behind the choice than many have acknowledged. West is notorious for his honesty, but the bulk of his emotional expression up to this point has revolved around fairly one-dimensional constructs: happiness, anger and frustration. After a famously rocky year, things aren’t nearly that simple for him any longer.
West correctly recognized that this complexity could lead to some of the greatest art of his career, but discussing your own depression is never easy, especially not for someone with so much pride. The robotic combination of Auto-Tuner and fuzz filters became a security blanket for his markedly honest verse on Young Jeezy’s “Put On.” And that naturally carried over to the entirety of 808s & Heartbreak, particularly on “Love Lockdown” and, even more so, on the elegantly desolate “Streetlights.” After losing the most important people in his life while at the same time becoming even more isolated due to his fame, West has simply run out of ideas for what to do with himself. He’s been forced to live entirely in his own head, and he’s apparently had trouble reconciling what he finds there.
The success of 808s & Heartbreak is that West accurately tells his own story while still speaking about universal themes. The project is structured much like a high-end runway show, so although most songs work on their own, they’re far more revelatory as a group. Because each track is largely built with the same set of tools, even those that don’t seem that interesting at face value (“Heartless”) or that initially come off as thematic outliers (“Paranoid”) benefit heavily from being takes on a broader motif.
West famously decided to put aside rapping for this album, a conceit many will be hesistant to give themselves over to. But it’s only a problem from the outside looking in. He probably would have been able to communicate the same ideas with rap, but the “less is more” approach to his delivery is a stronger statement. Meanwhile, Young Jeezy’s sole rap on “Amazing” carries more weight than usual because it stands alone, making it a surprisingly appropriate cameo.
On the other hand, “See You in My Nightmares” suffers from Lil Wayne’s attempt to straddle the line. He’s unable or unwilling to fully commit to the assignment and drags West down with him into a rambling, insincere temper tantrum. Affected anger is in fact a common reaction after a break-up, but it may be giving them too much credit to assume that they’re being deliberately ironic.
808s & Heartbreak may initially seem uncharacteristic, but without the limitations of genre, West is fully embracing the grand, theatric backdrops that he’s always loved. The industrially orchestral sound of “Robocop” or the lengthy instrumental break on “Say You Will” are things he’s been circling around all along but didn’t have the leeway to pursue completely. His larger goal has always been to make music that transcends time and society, so now that he’s climbed high enough to jump off of these tall cliffs, he’s going to take full advantage.
West certainly sacrificed some support from his supposed core audience with this turn. In the long run, though, history tends to reward art that was jarring at first but eventually helped to change convention. If you feel deceived, remember that West took flack for the pink Polos and chipmunk samples too. Through it all, he stayed dedicated to his vision. Eventually, he’ll release another groundbreaking hour of music for you to protest and 808s & Heartbreak will be part of the "old sound" you were looking for.