Kanye West

"808's and Heartbreak" (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam) -- 2.5 STARS

In 1979, Lester Bangs wrote, “These are mutant times, and Talking Heads are the most human of mutant groups.” Give it a few tweaks, and the sentence is relevant to 2008: for these are robot times, and Kanye West is the most human of robot artists.

It’s excusable to mistake West for an android. After all, his jaw’s half metal since that fateful car crash, and he got nanoimplants (or whatever) in the video for “Stronger.” And yeah, each track on his bold new effort, “808s and Heartbreaks,” gets the Auto-Tune treatment: he’s foresaken rap, and his questionable singing chops are lazer-bevelled into serviceable shape by software. But take a closer look at this reinvention of an album—Kanye as solely-strings-and-synths balladeer?—and he’s still human. On second single “Heartless,” he confesses that he “lost his soul / To a woman so heartless.” But she didn’t heist his heart, which beats throughout this mournful disc.

On first single “Love Lockdown,” it absolutely pounds. Taiko drums and 808s undergird stabbing piano chords while electro-Gaye Kanye hugs the contours of a repetitious minor-blues melody. It’s the first movement to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” gone horribly, stunningly wrong, and Kanye’s regret seeps through the vocoding: “I’m not loving you / The way I wanted to.”

The “you” here seems clear. Kanye and his fiancée called the whole thing off last summer, and this is his “Sea Change.” That titular heartbreak inspired the wounded but flat “Heartless” and also “Paranoid,” where an insouciant-in-spite-of-it Kanye robo-raps over melted-butter synths and a soulful, multi-tracked hook.

The loss that pervades “808s” also stems from the recent death of Kanye’s mother (guy’s had a rough year). On “Welcome to Heartbreak,” he reevaluates. “My friend show me pictures of his kids,” he laments, “And all I can show him was pictures of my cribs.” His mother’s passing might also explain Kanye’s fatigue. Faint-hearted opener “Say You Will” is clogged by a slow, three-minute outro with life-support beeps and an awful synth choir. Wondrously bizarre electrojam “Robocop” sounds like a Spector production, and it could have been a year-end roundup highlight if it didn’t digress into a lazy rant against his ex.

Vulnerability isn’t new for Kanye, who’s explored self-doubt since “The College Dropout.” But he’s still emotionally opaque—animatronic, even—and it’s worth remembering that while he could see out of the famous venetian-blind sunglasses, we couldn’t see in. The award-show tantrums, the paparazzi skirmishes: they suggested a Kanye incapable of mature self-expression, an impression “808s” confirms. Sure, he’s hurt, but the album’s few flashes of actual honesty can only depict the skeletal outlines of a relationship, only make for a handful of wrenching tracks.

As a rapper in a genre dominated by macho swagger, his limited emotional palette worked wonders. Here, he’s a singer-songwriter, and he’s lost his acute powers of observation and his humor. The aesthetic shift belies his “Graduation” claim that “The hood love to listen to Jeezy and Weezy / And oh yeah, Yeezy.” Nonetheless, both Young Jeezy and Lil’ Wayne make cameos. Kanye invited them to a pity party, but they must not have caught that first word: a medicore Jeezy verse overpowers the plodding “Amazing,” and Wayne’s wisecracks weaken Ye’s jealousy on “See You in My Nightmares.”

The album nods off to live freestyle “Pinocchio Story,” and Kanye hits the depths of his self-pity when he sings, “Real life, what does it feel like?” Which is bad news: if he too fancies himself a robot, then pop music’s in trouble. It’s already crowded with robots—the Jonas Brothers, the Duff sisters, a shiny Britney just wheeled out of the repair shop—and, unlike those droids, Kanye’s always had heart, has always made vital music. These days, his heart resembles the one on the cover of “808s”—desiccated and ailing, it can’t pump enough to power a full LP—but at least it still has the capacity to throb occasionally. So get the man some beta blockers and a Prozac, and let’s hope for the best.

—Reviewer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at