Kanye struggles to sing through pain, heartache

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December 2, 2008

1:15 AM

For Kanye West, “The Good Life” has turned into a painful and frustrating letdown. With the sudden death of his mother, Donda West, and his cancelled engagement with fashion designer Alexis Phifer, Kanye has suffered immensely as other musicians sometimes do when faced with mass stardom. Jennifer Hudson, Britney Spears — their personal tragedies and unexpected catastrophes have been documented in magazines and other media outlets everywhere. But instead of quietly grieving or being tested for mental instability, Kanye finds another form of expression, putting forth a new album, “808’s and Heartbreak.”

His fourth album is a coping mechanism, a far cry from warm, graduating teddy bears and Daft Punk sampling. The whole album is filled with Kanye’s distorted singing, assisted by T-Pain’s synthesizer ally, Auto-Tune. These days, distortion has become a lush treatment for hip-hop and pop artists, especially useful for disguising their sub-par singing chops for hit records (ahem, Rihanna). Previously making self-righteous boasts, Kanye now hugs the pitch-corrector for its technological, healing abilities. Singing about unsavory, patrolling girlfriends and life without stardom, Kanye attempts to blow some air back into his deflated soul. Each track is a moody rendition of Kanye’s heartbreak, and the content is all but jovial. His egotistical fame is apparently unsatisfactory, and he sounds depressed. As evidence for this, look at the song titles: “Welcome to Heartbreak,” “Heartless,” “Bad News” and “The Coldest Winter.” Is Kanye a little angry or turning emo? If the red, crinkled, heart-shaped balloon on his album cover didn’t give it away, then you are missing the point.

Most compelling about this album is the way it straddles hip-hop, the highly avant-garde and experimental. It is a direction that questions how listeners categorize hip-hop or music in general. He creatively leans toward throwback music from the ’80s with the usage of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, pushing through with his looming, dark lyricism. “Life is not fair,” he laments on “Street Lights,” as if he just came to that disheartening conclusion.

Other tracks contain similar lyrical content of relationship woes, the death of his mother and other troubled, bitter experiences. In his first single, “Love Lockdown,” strong, pulsating drums fill every corner of the song, while Kanye’s voice quivers and echoes about doubtful love locked with the price of fame. It is a polyrhythmic manifesto, pulsed with hammering piano chords, but it doesn’t quite fit on radio stations.

“Welcome to Heartbreak,” another vulnerable track, begins with dismal, minor strings and bleeds into a simple drum beat, vocally showcasing the lonely repercussions of choosing fame over normalcy. “Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?” he asks.

“Robocop” is the only track that diverts from the depressing carnage on this album. Funny and sarcastic, Kanye’s robotic voice, humming over whirling machines, describes the horror-story of an ex-girlfriend who, “turned his life into Stephen King.” Kanye also features Young Jeezy and Lil’ Wayne on the album, both using their scruffy, guttural voices for moral support, assisting Kanye’s broken psyche on tracks, “Amazing” and “See You in My Nightmares.”

Kanye is doing a lot of self-loathing, and minimal gawking, over subjects that he used to rap about (Louis Vuitton, Chi-town). It is his emotionally stripped album, with a sense of lyrical and musical abandon: spastic and wrenching yet courageous, melancholy yet introspective. In some respect, the album is not for the fans but for his own mending process. Another smug assertion from Kanye? No, just a peek into his inner, conflicted self.

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