Hip-hop's been about a lot of things, but love was never one of them. Previous forays into the taboo no-fly zone of lovey-dovey hip-hop have proven cheesy at best (see Common's music video for "Come Close" off the Electric Circus album and you'll see exactly what I mean). Hip-hop's always been masculine, volatile, political, clever, subversive, radical, misogynistic, cagey, spiteful, divisive, and violent, but the one thing it's never been is sincerely vulnerable. In fact, the very idea of any self-revealing vulnerability is counter-intuitive to the core manifesto of hip-hop culture at its roots"Hip-hop means never having to say I love you."
Lucky for us, Kanye West doesn't care, or perhaps more accurately, he's not afraid to show us that he does. As an artist he's unique in that he's in the coveted position of being able to transcend the inherent limitations of his own genre. He's afforded the same rarity of free reign granted to Prince, Michael Jackson, the Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, and Thom Yorke before him; the only difference is that Kanye does it while tight-rope walking through the faster than light blogosphere of the 2k generation; between Kanye West, the man, and Kanye West, the larger than life ethos. He's the only artist alive bigger than his own giant sound, bigger than his own art, and that's what makes his recent release of 808s & Heartbreak so damn fascinatingit's hip-hops biggest idol violating every cardinal rule that hip-hop has ever held sacred, and, above all else, doing it in style.
Much has been made of rapper turned singer Kanye crooning his way through 808s with autotune, but that doesn't really matter. Gone are the sped-up, Curtis Mayfield soul samples and extravagant Daft Punk remixes, and in their place is the robotic minimalism of a Roland-808 drum machine. Gone are the bravado, gusto, and humor that have helped make Kanye the Kanye we've come to know (and maybe love). In their place is a stripped down, shell of a man wading through the deepest darkest depths of human emotion. Tracks like "Welcome to Heartbreak" and "Coldest Winter" are so raw and direct that they don't need any transparency whatsoever-- a huge departure for a guy who once gave us gems like, "I'm killing y'all niggas on this lyrical shit, mayonnaise colored Benz, I push miracle whips," or the mock self-indulgence of, "...with my ego, I could show up in a speedo, and still be looked at as a fuckin' hero." For contrast, in "Coldest Winter" he deadpans, "It's four AM and I can't sleep. Her love is all I can see." It's the anti-clever, the anti-funny. It's all the self-deprecation of emo without the poseur-intellect, and Kanye's own humanity is made even more stark painted against the cold and extremely voided canvas of a vintage drum machine.
However, for all the emotional pandering, Kanye still takes the time to showcase his mastery of pop song-craft. "Robocop" is a searing rant on "L.A. girls" complete with a soaring, John Williams style chorus fitted with ED-209 sound effects. Lil' Wayne, Jeezy, and Kid Cudi all make guest appearances that Kanye somehow makes fit, and the first single "Love Lockdown" will probably win an award for "song most likely to be electro-remixed to death 2008." In many ways, 808s is an inadvertent strut of Kanye's own might as a megastarhe does more with less, and still sounds better than anyone else out there.
808s, however, isn't without its flaws (a few of the tracks sound a bit too minimal, like they were rushed together at the last minute), however, that's what makes Kanye's art as accurate a self-portrait as Maltisse or Van Gogh'she's flawed, and he has no qualms about letting the world know. Kanye breaks all the rules of hip-hop while stipulating brand new ones, and he's able to do it all while holding on to his credibility as an artist. In doing so, he's added new dimensions to hip-hop that have yet to be seen, opening multiple doors in a million different directions for a genre that's been progressively defining itself to be more and more limited with each new club banger (don't get me wrongI like club bangers). While 808s & Heartbreak may not be the best or even the most complete album of the year, it's far and away the most important, and solidifies Kanye West, the man, as the most innovative (and certainly the bravest) rap artist of all time. chris gayomali