Click here to read more about the Roland TR-808, the drum machine in the title of Kanye West's new album.
What is it about Kanye West's self-love that annoys people so deeply? No other rapper is taken to task as frequently and as fervently for crimes of the ego. Even West's fans, on message boards and in comments sections, often separate his work, which they adore, from his self-regard, which they tolerate with varying degrees of amusement and irritation. This is hard to figure. Complaining about a rapper's outsized ego is a bit like complaining about a professional bicyclist's outsized calves or a clown's outsized pants: They're part of the job description.
Part of the answer lies, it seems, in one of West's most human-scale traits: the way he'll undercut his arrogance with evidence of the self-doubts gnawing beneath. When Lil' Wayne calls himself the best rapper alive or T.I. anoints himself, simply, king, they are imperious about it. When West argues for his greatness, he often does so with a needy whine: ranting onstage and off at awards shows about perceived snubs; using his blog to attack an Entertainment Weekly reviewer who gave West's recent tour a mere B+ rating. Other times, in his songs, he'll spike brags about his wealth with lyrics that reveal the feelings of inadequacy driving his materialism, or toast his commercial success while acknowledging the pangs of artistic guilt that have accompanied it. These gestures make West's art more complex but expose something unattractive about him, too, so that, in his bigheaded moments, we can't help but see the little man trembling behind the curtain.
West wrote his new album, 808s and Heartbreak, in the wake of two severe emotional upheavals—the November 2007 death of his mother, Donda, and the bitter flameout of his six-year relationship with onetime fiancee Alexis Phifer. Unsurprisingly, the album is bleak. Throughout, West jettisons rapping and, with it, goofy wisecracks for drastically Auto-Tuned singing; whereas R&B star T-Pain has used the same software to create a sense of rippling, otherworldly pleasure in his vocals, West moans like the dying host of some digital parasite. The chill extends to the music itself. The album's backbone is the cold thud-and-snap of the TR-808 drum machine; gone are the jubilant soul samples and bubbly conga beats that West has made his production signature.
On the surface, this stripped-down, haunted album promises a paean to vulnerability—in other words, all self-doubt, no arrogance. Ironically, though, 808s and Heartbreak is the least vulnerable thing West has released. It's a spiteful breakup album in which he plays the mostly blameless victim, a nasty feast of wound-licking and backbiting, and a claustrophobic pity party that brooks hardly any self-reflection.
In interviews leading up to the album's release, West said that "heartbreak" was his nickname for the Auto-Tuned burbles, cracks, and splinters in his voice—808s and Heartbreak refers, respectively, to the beats and the bleats. Indeed, it often seems as if West thought making a moving album would be as simple as flipping a "sad" switch. On past songs such as "Drive Slow," "Gone," and "Roses," West proved he was capable of wringing emotional truths from concise vignettes, telling details, and knotty wordplay. Here, as a narrator of pain and spite, he's frequently imprecise, banal, and unevocative: "Life's just not fair"; "I don't love you no more"; "Will I ever love again?" The lyrics can suggest an emo kid scribbling grievances in third-period English class.
The cumulative effect of West's warbled gripes is deadening. Perhaps the biggest problem is that he doesn't make for a very sympathetic protagonist here nor a compellingly unsympathetic one. He's consumed by revenge—it turns out his ex-girlfriend, not his mother, is the album's real muse—and he comes off throughout the LP like a self-dramatizing brat. "The coldest story ever told … He lost his soul to a woman so heartless," he sings on "Heartless." In his earlier work, West played a conflicted womanizer—now, he's a wild-eyed demonizer. On "Robocop" and "Paranoid," he describes his ex as a mentally unstable control freak with the nerve to ask where West goes at night and—when that doesn't work—to check his cell phone for clues. "Why are you so paranoid?" he needles with a mean little chuckle, as though he isn't the one complaining about being watched.
This is a nasty streak that West first revealed in two of three videos he shot for "Flashing Lights," a single from his last album—and, not coincidentally, a song about getting caught cheating. The first video is a slow striptease with a gruesome climax: A voluptuous femme fatale undresses to her lingerie, struts over to a red sports car, opens the trunk to reveal a bound and gagged West, and plunges a shovel into him six times. In the second video, the violence flips around. We follow a day in the life of a pampered, beautiful party girl who worships at the altar of "shoes and cars." She wakes up at 2:30 p.m. in a fancy loft, enjoys a mimosa, gets to the hard work of choosing an outfit, heads out, gets embarrassingly drunk, and—it's strongly suggested—is sexually assaulted in a dark alley. There's a sense that the attack is the penalty for the girl's flighty, sheltered narcissism—the Stanley-Blanche rape scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, reimagined by a fuming frat boy. Much of 808s and Heartbreak seems to operate according to similarly queasy ethics.
There are moments when we see the triumph this album could have been. Whenever West's singing revs up to near-rap speeds, the album gains a much-needed dynamism, and his production is frequently marvelous—it's impressive how well he pulls off his chilly electro makeover. On "Amazing," a click-clacking beat interlocks tensely with a lurching piano figure; on the hushed "Street Lights," the central motif is a distorted synthesizer that suggests a weeping robot mosquito. There are occasional flashes of West's old self-examination: "My friend showed me pictures of his kids," he announces on "Welcome to Heartbreak," "and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs." The slang word for home—crib—rubs poignantly against West's lamented childlessness. It's a classic Kanye-ism, a brag that twists elegantly into its opposite. And there are flashes of his old charms, too: "How could you be so Dr. Evil?" he asks his lover after some unnamed betrayal. It's one of the few moments when he lets a breeze blow. Then it's back to the torture chamber.