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Music Review

Kanye West: '808s & Heartbreak'

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Kanye West: '808s & Heartbreak'
Released on Monday, Nov 24 2008

Kanye West has described 808s & Heartbreak as "a little bit of Auto-Tune and a whole lot of f**ked up life", a summary that's slightly inaccurate - there's a whole lot of Auto-Tune here too. Since the release of last year's Graduation album, West has split from his fiancée and lost his mother, devastating events that have clearly heightened his feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction. Sample lyric: "Do you think I sacrifice a real life for all the fame and flashing lights?"

He's channelled these emotions into the stark, startling music on 808s, which largely consists of minor key piano chords, sinister sound effects and rudimentary beats provided by the Roland TR-808 drum machine referenced in the title. This sonic palette, which West describes as "minimal and functional", is brave in itself, but the album's real leap of faith comes with its vocals. West barely raps at all here, instead opting to sing - yes, sing - using the pitch-correcting Auto-Tune effect popularised on several recent rap hits.

This tactic seemed gimmicky and pointless on trailer single 'Love Lockdown', prompting many to question why one of the world's best rappers wanted to turn himself into a barely adequate singer. However, it's brilliantly effective across the album as a whole, amplifying the alienation and heartbreak in his lyrics. Recurring themes here include loneliness, the bitterness of breaking up and, perhaps most surprisingly, something close to self-doubt. "I'm a problem that can't be solved," West admits on the misleadingly-titled 'Amazing'. "I'm the only thing I'm afraid of."

All of this makes 808s sound like a difficult listen, but actually it's consistently gripping and far from inaccessible. The minor key eighties disco of 'Paranoid' is as instant as anything West has put his name to, while the synthetic strings of 'Robocop' would sound pretty if they weren't married to harsh industrial beats. Other standouts include 'Heartless', a memorably bleak break-up song, and 'See You In My Nightmares', which is suitably chilling.

As you've probably guessed by now, it's far from feelgood, but this bold, twisted pop opus could be the most rewarding Kanye album yet. West's relentless bragging had started to distract from his musical gifts on Graduation, but here he shows a darker, more vulnerable side. In doing so, ironically enough, his talents burn brighter than ever.

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