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Kanye's Latest A Deeply Personal Departure

Kanye West's new album, 808s and Heartbreak, is a departure for the Chicago rapper. Not only does he sing on the entire album instead of rapping, but he's filtered his vocals through the voice processing system known as Auto-Tune, an increasingly popular trend among pop artists. The result is a melancholy, intimate and decidedly quirky effort.

As a friend recently joked, "Who knew 10 years ago that Cher would predict the future sound of hip-hop?" Her "Believe" was the first major hit featuring Auto-Tune, which corrects off-pitch notes, but when pushed to the extremes, leaves behind a telltale electronic signature.

What began as a little-known production tool has exploded into pop music with artists such as T-Pain and Demarco recording entire albums with the program's strange, quasi-robotic sound. Rappers including Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg have played with Auto-Tune, too, but no rapper has taken things as far as Kanye West on 808s and Heartbreak.

Skeptics predicted Kanye's indulgence in a gimmick like Auto-Tune would result in an artistic train wreck — perhaps, one day, we'll look back on this as Kanye's equivalent to The Ethel Merman Disco Album. But for now, Kanye's Auto-Tune vocals are schtick with a strategy as his ghostly, mechanical vocals enhance the album's already despondent atmosphere.

The unspoken presence haunting the album is the unexpected death of Kanye's mother a year ago. He devoted several songs explicitly to her when she was alive, but here, he conspicuously avoids mentioning his mother at all. It's impossible not to read his constant verses about lost love and romantic distress as a thinly veiled transference of filial grief. But the Auto-Tune creates a strange dissonance here. By sounding inhuman, his pain sounds detached, distant. This isn't Otis crying out a lover's prayer or Marvin wailing the inner-city blues. Kanye sings of heartache, but it's a frigid, passionless despair.

Kanye began his career with the warm, analog sound of lush soul samples, but this album is filled with wheezing synthesizers, hyper-processed string arrangements, and stripped-down club beats made from clicks and claps. The Auto-Tune vocals are a perfect fit here, especially with an album whose sonic stamp is already so steely and mechanized.

Not all of Kanye's fans will likely warm to the chilly 808s and Heartbreak, but even if it's destined to be an acquired taste, it's worth sampling. It's a deeply personal album — not just because of Kanye's family tragedy — but for its willingness to take a leap of creative — and indulgent — faith. Kanye has always tried to push hip-hop's musical conventions forward. Even if his new album is his most off-kilter, it doesn't mean he's missed the mark.

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Oliver Wang
Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.