Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak

Kanye West’s fourth album is first and foremost a break-up album. As such, West felt the need to do something drastic to match his serious intentions and broken heart. It’s a strikingly different record to what we expect from the hip hop superstar. Gone is the sense of fun and sampling, while the collaborations are kept to a bare minimum.

In their place is an all-singing Kanye – with the constant digital aid of Autotune and, as indicated by the album title, the TR-808 drum machine. This is an interesting concept in theory. However, when you’re one of the world’s leading producer/rappers with a wealth of studio experience under your belt, the words –  “commercial suicide’ come to mind. The strength of West’s previous albums was their variety and accessibility. Here he rests on this restrictive palette like a crutch, one that is honestly holding him back. There is little variety or accessibility to this frosty set of songs about mistrust, insecurity and sorrow.

Where West wants to be seen as innovative, his results are instead derivative. Perhaps it’s a sign of his well known confidence, which over the years has begun more and more to look like foolhardy arrogance. The seeds were planted with last year’s Graduation, which excised much of his hip hop skits that were so important in balancing out his showboating. And now, along comes 808s and Heartbreak, where humour is utterly extinct. Despite the –  “80s (and cheesy Phil Collins ) influence, it couldn’t take itself more seriously.

Say You Will starts out interestingly enough, but just doesn’t go anywhere. The stripped-back instrumentation makes up more than half the track once Kanye’s finished pining. The minimal beats and choral synths are pitched against a series of blips meant to represent a heart monitor, though it sounds more like a game of Pong and certainly doesn’t justify the extended outro. Welcome To Heartbreak is equally uneventful, while Amazing is monotonous.

Heartless is attempting to be a tortured rumination on lost love, but its static melodies and muted backing end up sounding as soulless and lifeless as the woman West is pouring all his bile into. From here on out it becomes clear that each track uses up all its tricks in the first minute or so. There is little progression, texture and particularly pacing on offer here.

Exceptions to the rule include lead single Love Lockdown, whose brooding and relentless drums are more hypnotic than repetitive. So too Street Lights, the shortest cut on the album and all the better for it. Meanwhile, Paranoid manages to kick some life into the album with a slightly faster tempo and a swaggering backing that sounds more like NERD’s brand of groove.

Unfortunately these moments cannot overcome the album’s dull interchangeable tracks and grievous missteps such as See You In My Knightmares and Robocop, which is just plain ridiculous. It’s impossible to sympathise with West’s heartache when his new direction alternates between self-pity and monotony. He better have a good back-up plan. If this is all he has to go off for the two or so years till his next record, it’ll take more than his titanic ego to keep him afloat.

808s and Heartbreak is out now through Universal.