Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hack/Genius/Both: Kanye's Breakthrough

Kanye's album 808's and Heartbreak is out this week, and I for one never thought I'd be writing this post. The album does not suck. Kanye West's career trajectory has been anything but promising. After producing almost all the tracks on Jay Z's The Blueprint, one of the greatest hip hop records of all time, and one of the most timeless, his 2004 debut College Dropout was a fun if all-over-the-place collection, lacking focus but bursting at the seams with five-star jamz. Following that up was 2005's Late Registration, co-produced by studio genius Jon Brion. This record, while more cohesive, was nowhere near as strong. That being said, the songs were more fleshed out and at the time I thought they pointed to a more cohesive direction for Kanye. Boy, was I wrong: Graduation dropped in 2007 and had a few excellent tracks (I think "Good Morning" could go on a list for my favorite of all time), but the album as a whole sounded tired and phoned in.

So when it came to light that Kanye's next album, 808's and Heartbreak, would be an Autotune -heavy breakup album, my hopes were not high. Sure, it sounded interesting, but I thought Kanye was gonna blow it. Hard. I held out a miniscule amount of hope that Kanye's take on Autotune would take the tool beyond gimmick to valid studio tool. Someone's got to take this fad and make it worthwhile, right? Well there is good news and bad news about 808's and Heartbreak. Bad news: Kanye's use of Autotune doesn't look like it's broken any ground. Good news: it stands up as a cohesive concept album and a break with the style that seemed so damned tired on Graduation.

The sad state of hip hop is something I've posted about before. Good things happening in the genre seem to get buried in the underground, while sub par performers are hailed as saviors of the form. I think it's great that Lil' Wayne appeared on something like 1,674 songs over the last two years, but if those songs range from boring to grating are they really worth the words that so many critics write about them?

It is the responsibility of artists already in the canon to branch out and try new things. Not all of these experiments are going to work. Some of them are going to be outright failures. But anything is better than more albums that don't stand up to the hype. Kanye's album is not one of my favorites, but here's hoping other producers and emcees of his caliber take his cue and start pushing more boundaries.

808's and Heartbreak stream [kanyeuniversecity.com; you have to dig around but it's there]

Photo courtesy The New York Times


Bana said...

I was about to freak out because I taught Isabelle wrote this and we were just talking about how against this album we were.

I love Kanye wayyy more than either of you (no homo) but I've been avoiding this album at all costs. Kanye is an amazing producer but as an artist, he's eh. I'm afraid an auto-tuned concept album will only make this all the more painfully obvious.

Isabelle said...

But don't you think that in order to achieve a successful New Order style heartbreak album, you have to NOT include Lil' Wayne and Young Jeezy?

They pulled me out of the groove on some "oh, Kanye, let's listen to the Cure and cry together-WAIT WHO INVITED WEEZY" shit.

ali said...

even though kanye's being makes me want to vomit on my own face, i'll probably still illegally download his new album and like it. what a bastard.

Kyle said...

I was just talking with Lenora about this record--not having heard any of it-- and thinking "I really wish Ben and Isabelle were around to enlighten me/offer their unsolicited opinions about this album...I'm sure they'd have a thing or two to say about it." And now that neither of you live within shouting distance, I'm glad I have TDOS to consult on such matters.

So, Ben has spoken. I realize it might be a little uncouth to post a second review of the same album on a single blog, but I'd be interested to hear Isabelle's take as well. (And though overall, Ben, I thought it was a great review, I don't know how much I agree with the idea that It is the responsibility of artists already in the canon to branch out and try new things-- it seems that it's usually upstarts and younger artists who are breaking new ground-- I see what you're getting at, and agree that Kanye should be commended for his efforts in this arena...) Keep up the good work.