Imagine, if you will, reading this blog upside down, perhaps with the text colored bright red over a harsh yellow background. It’d be annoying, right? And it’d be a completely unnecessary distortion of your regular reading experience. Now, transfer that annoyance to your ears, and you’ll understand the frustration I realized upon listening to Kanye West’s new album 808s and Heartbreak.
It’s called the vocoder, and it’s partly responsible for my general apathy towards contemporary hip-hop. It digitally alters artists’ lyrics with an ear-piercing “robot voice.” Kanye West is a perfectly acceptable rapper and producer. He’s proven that with hit songs like “Jesus Walks,” “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” and “Stronger.” But, instead of rapping, he’s opted to sing with a vocoder on every single track of 808s, driving an already monotonous gimmick deep into the ground.
Maybe I’m just a product of 90s hip-hop. I read the Wu-Tang Manual cover-to-cover three times. I learned important life lessons from the likes of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (notably: how to drop it like it’s hot, and the idea that it ain’t no fun [if the homies can’t have none]). Jay-Z’s The Black Album is one of my Top 10 Desert Island albums. Even Kanye’s previous album Late Registration got many, many spins in my car when it was released. But 808s and Heartbreak is not the same animal whatsoever.
In addition to the vocoder nonsense, the first half of the album is backed by some of the most tedious drumbeats I’ve ever heard on a hip-hop album. Listen, for example (actually, I don’t recommend it), to the album’s opener, “Say You Will.” Why, yes, the final two and a half minutes of the song do contain nothing but the most monotonous beat ever. I can’t see anyone busting a move in a dance club (wearing Kanye’s signature shutter shades) to any of these songs. I imagine it playing in a trendy hookah bar, or maybe a massage parlor.
But according to Kanye West, this was all part of the plan. In an interview with telegraph.co.uk, he said the following of 808s and Heartbreak:
“Hip-hop is over for me. I sing, not rap, on this album. I now want to be grouped among those musicians you see in those old black and white photos - the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles. And I'm not going to get there by doing just another rap album full of samples. I've had to create a whole new musical genre to describe what I'm doing now and I'm calling it 'pop-art' - which is not to be confused with the visual art movement. I realise that my place and position in history is that I will go down as the voice of a generation."
Firstly, if Kanye’s is the voice of a generation, then I will quit said generation. Secondly, it’s nice to see someone so humble in the face of massive commercial success. Thirdly, I wouldn’t call it a new musical genre. Maybe R&B over weird, generic beats.
Still, the lyrics are some of West’s most mature in that they deal not with his Superhero Icon status but with his recent break-up and the recent death of his mother. In the album’s closer, “Coldest Winter,” he reminisces over the memories of his mother: “Goodbye my friend / will I ever love again?”
Then again, on “Heartless,” he elicited an eye-roll from me as he asked, “How can you be so Doctor Evil? / You’re bringing out a side of me that I don’t know.” But I’ll take what I can get.
So it’s not what I was expecting. I wanted to become a Born-Again Kanye fan through this album, to see what I was allegedly missing. Will this “pop art” (I’m so sorry, Mr. Warhol), start a new trend? It wouldn’t surprise me, but if anything, it’ll probably just solidify my membership in the Anti-Vocoder Club (you can join, too!).
You can use this new “singing” style all you want, Mr. West, and honestly, it’s a nice change of pace from your rapping. But throw away the vocoder and start singing over the bombastic, catchy beats you’re known for.
Of course, this review will be rendered irrelevant when 808s and Heartbreak sells several dozen million copies. You’re breakin’ my heart, pop art.