In 1982 Neil Young released Trans, an album that featured vocoder, synthesizers and electronic beats. It was a perplexing step for Young. Was this a joke? A comment on computer technology’s infiltration into pop music? A sincere co-opting of electronic sound to help Young achieve his musical vision? An exercise in how the vocoder helped him communicate with his cerebral palsied son? Was it a success? A failure? A mistake?
Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak raises the same questions. Like Young, Kanye has pulled a counterintuitive move: paring emotionally poignant material with cold and inhuman means of musical delivery. For Young, it was Kraftwerk drum beats, vocoder and synths. For West, it’s the Roland TR-808, Auto-Tune, and newer synths.
West and Young both choose song titles that pit hearts against circuits. It’s “Love Lockdown,” “See You in My Nightmares” and “Coldest Winter” vs. “Robocop,” “Street Lights” and “Heartless” for Kanye. For Neil, it’s “Little Thing Called Love,” “Hold On To Your Love” and “Mr Soul” vs. “Computer Age,” “We R in Control” and “Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher).”
In the music, there’s a similar battle between personality and electricity. While West and Young seem to be purposefully escaping into technology, their songs still emerge as their own. Following the hip-hop cameo tradition, Kanye brings Young Jeezy into the mix on “Amazing” and Lil Wayne pops up on “See You in My Nightmares.” The result is a slight turn back towards the social atmosphere of Graduation, Late Registration and College Dropout. Neil’s more traditional self comes across on songs like “Little Thing Called Love” and “Mr. Soul,” a reappropriated Buffalo Springfield number. Even strapping on virtual reality goggles cannot completely disguise the egos from which Trans and 808s and Heartbreak spring.
But let’s get to the more important point. Does 808s and Heartbreak succeed?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Kanye West is at a very intriguing moment in his career. 808s, though in some ways similar to Trans, finds itself in a much different situation than Young circa ’82. Back then, tinny vocoders and synths were quite distant from Neil’s gritty band and imperfect croon. Thus the album offers a clear disparity. Now, Kanye’s Auto-Tune vocals and drum machine beats strike no such stark contrast.
With pitch correction par for the course on pop tracks and the 808 a standard for hip-hop and a lot of dance music, West’s album possesses a much blurrier combination of technology and humanity. Auto-Tune has the eerie capability of sometimes sounded more emotive than a “real” voice. The Roland drum machine packs a punch that is hard to duplicate on a snare or kick drum no matter how hard you hit it.
808s is, therefore, less overtly bizarre or innovative than Trans, but more pertinent tale of the growing grey area between technology and reality. Kanye highlights this with a mixture an often subtle use of technology. The 808 beats don’t pound us in the face like they could. There’s acoustic piano in there. We can still recognize his voice beneath the Auto-Tune. Thus it’s hard to tell what parts are unadulterated sound and which are carefully crafted Pro Tools plug-ins. Even that acoustic piano could be “fake.”
Amidst this ambiguity, Kanye also finds his own feelings and emotions in a state of flux and uncertainty. His Auto-Tune-carved vocal lines sound more vulnerable than if they were gritty and unprocessed. Sharp rap lines are replaced by awkward phrases like “Oh you’re kidding me / You must be joking / Or are you smoking? / Oh you’re kidding me / Haha that was a good one / Your First good one in a while.” Having lost his mother to botched plastic surgery in late 2008, West documents his flaying and anxiety on the album. Having seen life enhancing technology fail his mother, he no longer knows where to go in his own 21st century technological existence.
808s and Heartbreak makes important comments on both the current pop climate and the personal changes of its creator and brings those issues together into a cohesive and revealing work of art. That, I think, is what makes it a great album.