Experimentation is dicey business within hip-hop. While the genre isn’t the one-note wasteland its detractors paint it as, rap albums that stray too far from the tried and true formulas more often miss than hit.
Six years after the fact, Common still hasn’t erased the hippie-channeled Electric Circus from the gray matter of most listeners.
Mos Def made his 1999 debut classic Black on Both Sides seem like a faint memory when he unleashed The New Danger in 2004; a mish-mash of elementary guitar licks and equally forgettable lyrics.
Even Andre 3000’s semi-brilliant The Love Below caused a stir because the more eccentric half of OutKast had benched his effortless delivery in favor of crooning.
Despite the resistance to anything too different in hip-hop, it’s vital for emcees to keep retooling and evolving as creative artists. Fail to do that and you either fall off the map or become a caricature of your former self (hi, Snoop Dogg!).
So maybe it shouldn’t come as any surprise to see, or rather hear, Kanye West wiping the drawing board clean and drawing up a new game plan on 808s and Heartbreaks.
After all, the producer-rapper invests almost as much energy in convincing the world of his complexities as he does creating music.
Unfortunately for Kanye followers, the self-professed Michael Jordan of the music industry’s new game plan is delivered to our eardrums via Auto-Tune.
The once rightfully mocked robotic voice distorter utilized strictly by atrocities like T-Pain has somehow become a hip-hop staple in the last two years.
Used sparingly by West not too long ago, he and the device are now as tough to pry apart as a parent dropping their kid off for the first day of kindergarten.
The Auto-Tune also makes any sort of fluid lyrical delivery an exercise in futility. But don’t worry, because Ye takes a page out of Andre 3000’s book here and scraps the rapping all together.
That in and of itself wouldn’t be such an issue if doing so hadn’t seemingly stripped the typically quotable Kanye of anything interesting to lament.
“Welcome to Heartbreak” is a potentially intriguing confession of self-loathing marred by cringe-worthy lyrics like, “My god said she’s getting married by the lake / But I couldn’t figure out who I’d wanna take / Bad enough that I showed up late / I had to leave before they even cut the cake.”
I’m sure Kanye meant well with tracks such as “Coldest Winter,” an ode to his mother, who died during surgery last year. But with precisely six paint-by-number lines spread over three verses, the content is too generic to generate anything poignant.
As with his catalog of solo classics, Kanye himself is at the helm of the production.
Unlike his first three albums, though, West opts to limit the crate-digging and sticks mostly to a sound best linked to electro pop.
The near-complete absence of rapping coupled with production that strays from hip-hop mores results in an album with lethargic, uninspired offerings.
Anyone who’s followed West’s career knows a workaholic lies beneath the childish façade. Let’s commend him for his attempt to nudge along his innovator status. But then let’s tell him he needs to head back to the drawing board.