First and foremost, I'd like to express my exasperation at hearing or reading people moaning at some - currently successful - black artists (Kanye West being one of them), accusing them of having betrayed the so-called "original true spirit of hip hop". These, behaving like self-proclaimed guardians of some private temple, seem to forget that hip hop, like every other form of art, is a mean not an end.
I also recall the great Mos Def was once asked, a few years ago, what he thought of his peers parading in videos with lavish ladies and expensive cars instead of providing supposed conscious statements in their music. His answer has baffled me for years (and still does): he said that it was precisely this (i.e. the fact of seeing black people behaving that way in front of huge audiences of, say, MTV proportions) that was revolutionary, more than any kind of political contest. And so, whether you fancy it or not. I can't agree more, as it seems, more generally, that a black artist is, still nowadays, supposed to deliver what's expected of him: making "black music".
Sorry for that somewhat long introduction, but I thought those two distinct points could be helpful to fully understand what Kanye West's fourth album proper is all about, and what it aims to be. On the previous one, 2007's "Graduation", he already considerably extended his sonic palette (sampling Daft Punk or legendary german krautrockers, Can), yet after that, last summer he produced, in the form of his duet with the promising Estelle, the wonderful "American Boy", which can only be described as the single best musical mainstream moment of the year, all straightforward dancefloor power and heavy beat science upfront.
"8O8s & Heartbreak" is an altogether very different beast to both those releases; having recently both lost his mother and ended up a longtime relationship with his fiancee, Kanye West isn't exactly in a partying mood here, to say the least. Yet, and it's what makes this record so satisfying, he still manages to entertain while expressing his utter sadness and pouring his deepest doubts over every song featured. From the first few bars of "Say You Will", it's understood Kanye's probably unleashed his landmark piece of music this time: over a bleak, possibly new wavish rhythm synth, he croons in a desperate yet suggestive and seductive manner about the loss of his love. The much-publicized use of the auto-tune process, supposedly a limitation, in fact allows him more freedom than ever: some reviewer pointed out he's not Nas nor Guru (he actually barely raps on the whole LP, mind you), and heaven knows he ain't Marvin Gaye either, but if the spine-tingling lament that is "Heartless" or the broody hypnotic complaint the first single "Love Lockdown" manages to be fail to move you, then nothing ever will. On the only upbeat track, "Paranoid", Kanye West even delivers the most perfect slice of pop angst ever heard since, say, Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence" (yeah, that good). Perhaps only the quite blank "Robocop" is a relative failure, as every other song is a fascinating trip through this visionary artist's mind, even the somewhat rawer-sounding live freestyle "Pinocchio Story", that closes proceedings with an overwhelming tearjerking class.
Being very intimate, sounding entertaining at it and clearly conscious of what he does, somewhere between Kool & The Gang produced by New Order and the late and great Al Green stuck with The Neptunes in an elevator, Kanye West has achieved, minor weaknesses aside, a truly perfect pop album.
In a world that enjoys nothing as much as pigeonholing people of every kind (let alone artists), that alone is a triumph in itself.
TO ENJOY, CHERISH AND TREASURE...