There must have been a moment when Kanye West was actually content with being the most potent and essential personality in hip-hop. Date it early (the out-of-nowhere ubiquity of The College Dropout) or late (Graduation's dominance of 50 Cent's Curtis during the first-week sales showdown of last fall); at some point West has to have rested on his Luis Vuitton-labeled laurels for at least a millisecond and savored the fact that his singular styles of production and emceeing, not to mention dressing, have left irreplaceable impressions on hip-hop as well as the culture at large.
If such an instant of self-congratulation has existed for West, though, we'll probably never know about it. From the very beginning he has shown an utter disdain for running victory laps or patting himself on the back. In West's world, each success is overshadowed by a disappointment imagined larger than it actually is, and every artistic breakthrough is only a stepping stone to something even more coherent, polished and universal. Applaud West for winning Grammy's Rap Album of the Year award three times, and he'll only point out that he's been unfairly shut out for the big prize, overall album of the year, on as many occasions.
And so this famously unsatisfied, irrepressible and often insufferable temperament, fresh off a trilogy of albums likely to be remembered as some of the most innovative and endearing in the history of hip-hop, has produced 2008's biggest musical conundrum, the hurried and ill-conceived Auto-Tune experiment 808s & Heartbreak. With his mother's death a year ago and the sundering of his engagement to longtime girlfriend Alexis Phifer earlier this year, West's post-Graduation life has been anything but halcyon; add to the personal adversities the stress of headlining the most ambitious hip-hop concert tour ever attempted, and you have a recipe for a major breakdown. But instead of a faux retirement or a retreat into the business side of things, which may have been reasonable responses for any number of pop stars but certainly not for West, we get another album. 808s, despite its myriad flaws, is both a reflection of the hard times West has suffered through and a testament to his artistic fortitude.
Just as hard as it to pinpoint what facet of a great Kanye West song makes it great (is it the thunderous live percussion, the triumphant Curtis Mayfield sample or Lupe Fiasco's killer verse that makes "Touch the Sky?"), it is incredibly difficult to decide which ingredient of 808s spoils the soup. Perhaps the obvious starting point would be West's decision to sing on every one of these songs and dispense with rapping altogether. In his previous life as a rapper, West certainly evidenced a predisposition to sing-songiness; even in his verses, his delivery packs more inflection and musicality than, say, the straight-ahead attacks of Common or Nas. But as someone trying to carry a tune, West would be unbearable without Auto-Tune, and even with the computer enhancement he sounds only a little better than the average drunk at a karaoke bar or halfway-serious American Idol reject. In addition to applying a sense of monotony, the rigid aesthetic boundaries of 808s—stark, laser-like synth lines, tribal 808 drum patterns, diaphanous string passages—leave little cover for West's vocal flaws. "Street Lights" is a song that would probably be nothing more than harmless balladry in the hands of Ne-Yo or The-Dream, but under West's awkward, wistful ownership it's just not palatable. Similarly, "Heartless" has all the makings of a classic, minor-key club anthem, darkly swaggering and indulgent of love's travails—if only it were sung by Usher.
The guest singers that show up occasionally will come out of this flop with ascendant reputations. Anytime another voice shows up here, especially one worthy of a microphone, the ears prick up eagerly. Mr. Hudson's chorus is a big reason why "Paranoid," a disco-tinged track brighter than anything else on the album, largely succeeds, even though the song begs for a pulsating bassline. And Kid Cudi's anxious cooing on "Welcome to the Heartbreak" provides a perfect counter to West's attenuated sketches about fame and self-loathing. While Lil Wayne's appearance on "See You in My Nightmares" represents the worst of his recent Auto-Tuned, soft-rock indulgences, rapper-of-the-year candidate Young Jeezy absolutely kills on the one track that lives up to the Kanye West brand. "Amazing" takes a ruminative piano riff, West's catchiest tune and a shuffling drumbeat evocative of a broomstick on marble to spin an eerie vision of a kingpin's braggadocio colored with disgust and sarcasm: Lord Kanye surveys his minions of chipmunk-soul-producers and pink-polo-wearers and realizes it's worth little more than peanuts. Jeezy's joyless, snarling addendum, worrying over his blood pressure and the inevitability of defeat, is an appropriate "thank you" for West's soul-searching elevation of The Recession's "Put On."
It's a little interesting that 808s is being released the same week as Guns N' Roses's long-awaited Chinese Democracy. Both albums evidence the excesses of two different types of artistic egos, and the eras in which those egos were bred. On the one hand there is Axl Rose, a creature of stadium-sized, corporate-owned, top-down rock n' roll, fiddling and tweaking for over a decade to produce the ultimate statement, a virtuosic orgy meant to fulfill the prophecy of Zeppelin, Sabbath, the Who and about 30 other Important Rock Bands. And on the other there is Kanye West, swept up in a trend barely two years old, so frightened of irrelevance and failure that he debuts his single on MTV, iTunes and The Ellen Degeneres Show a mere few weeks after writing it and reworks the original version after postings to his blog revealed rumblings of fan frustration. What Rose and West both require is moderation, and someone to implement said moderation: It's no coincidence that West's two best co-producers, DJ Toomp and Jon Brion, don't show up in the liner notes of 808s.
Whether the album represents the beginnings of a permanent artistic devolution or a momentary bump in the road to glory, only time will tell. One heartening point to keep in mind is that no matter the reception of 808s, West will probably find something to complain about or be dissatisfied with. Indeed, he's reportedly already back in the studio working on his comeback.