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DISCLAIMER: No, this album is certainly not related to Asian American anything, really. Rather, it (probably) comes from us Blaaagers' constant and unwavering desire to weave pop culture references and bizarre miscellany into our daily lives, and Kanye West fits into both of those categories. So, here goes...


It was the spring of 2004 when I popped Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, into a CD player not knowing what to expect or who, exactly, he was. I ended up keeping it in steady rotation for over a year—the album had brought to mainstream hip-hop a sort of human depth unheard of in a medium owned by corporate bigwigs and policed by monotony’s foot soldiers, urban radio stations. It managed to be simultaneously pensive, humorous, soulful, passionate, angry, and head-noddable. And he was still cocky back then, but he funneled it into an oh-no-he-didn’t sort of attitude that you had to respect—his first single, “All Falls Down,” was censored not due to excessive profanity but because of Kanye’s assertion that the urban drug trade was fueled when “a white man get paid off of all of that.” In the wake of Katrina, who can forget him standing next to an uncomfortable-looking Mike Myers as he ranted about George Bush not caring about black people? He was boldly defiant, a solid producer, a not-too-bad rapper, and for all of that we followed his ascent.

You could see his true quality way back then, in a man who could merge Nina Simone with Talib Kweli in the uplifting underdog anthem “Get By” while also bringing Luther Vandross back into the freak alongside Twista and Jamie Foxx, and mumbling through Chaka Khan and a jaw brace about his almost-untimely car accident. Kanye had that range, the eclectic brand of critique, celebration, and introspect which he could flip in unison to make him (rightly) famous. Angry awardless rantings aside, it was clear that Kanye wasn’t so much controlled by his ego that the two were partners in crime, part of a larger persona that kept him in the limelight. And Kanye was less hip-hop’s golden innovator (The dude from Maroon 5! The dude from Coldplay!) than a masterful navigator of pop music, always able to say to the right audience the right thing at the right time.

808’s and Heartbreak comes at a particularly difficult time in his life, but it certainly doesn’t lose sight of that business model. Kanye’s seen two major pitfalls since 2007’s Graduation—the sudden death of his mother Donda last November, and his breakup with then-fiance Alexis Phifer in April—the two topics of this album, and the latter of which fuels almost every single song. Gone are the angry Broke Phi Broke rants of Bernie Mac (also, rest in peace), a slew of well-placed guest rappers, and the high-speed soul samples that are the staple of Kanye West albums. In its place are the unilateral use of 808 drum machines, ethereal synth-heavy instrumentals, and the infamous, digitizing Auto-Tune. The last of those is perhaps the most pervasive, because Kanye is not T-Pain, nor does he utilize the device in a consciously self-mocking way a la Snoop Dogg talking about ejaculation. No, Kanye makes sure he’ll get the notes right (or rather, something will get the notes right for him) as he belts out his heartbreak, grief, angst, and loss.

Unfortunately, he does it again. And again. And the songs start to bleed together, and you start to hear bizarre lines like “when I grab your neck, I touch your soul” or Lil Wayne calling someone “Mrs. Pee-Yew.” Even sonic aberrations—the 80’s dance-pop of “Paranoid,” the soft-spoken rock ballad of “Street Lights”—will always remind the listener that he’s so singularly focused on his ex until he has to stretch a little bit and call her a RoboCop. No doubt the singing, thematic lyrics, and melodic sameness are all part of Kanye’s ever-calculating artistic maneuvers to explode into artsy, left-field pop music, or perhaps be crowned New King of the Hipsters. And yeah, the opposite sex is the impetus for 95% of pop music. Yet I can’t help feeling disappointed with this album, and that’s not just because my knowledge of non-rapped music doesn’t extend that much further beyond Motown, John Legend, and the occasional Corinne Bailey Rae (the not-so-secret guilty pleasure, I suppose).

To be fair, the album is far from disastrous, and Kanye’s artistic integrity is never really lost; I thought “Heartless,” “Amazing,” and “Coldest Winter” were all likable songs, and the album as a whole is still worthy of repeated listens. But Kanye’s magic—the musically and thematically eclectic showcase that he’s been increasingly eschewing with each album—is harder to find here. Of course, artists are human beings who grow, and who appreciatively turn their personal scars into creativity. Kanye’s musical transgressions and expositions are always welcome, but without the wit, wisdom, and width of past projects, it’s getting harder to listen to.


As Nhu-Y puts it: "weeeeird...but I feel like I'll be looping it on repeat soon, during finals delusion." Let's just say it's right for that.


  1. David said...

    "808s and Heartbreaks" was sooo deep. See lyrics for Welcome to Heartbreak...

    My friend showed me pictures of his kids,
    And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs.
    He said his daughter got a brand-new report card,
    And all I got was a brand-new sportscar.  


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