OK, so I've been kind of skeptical of 808s & Heartbreak: I didn't like the singles very much, I'm not a huge fan of the voice-run-through-the-computer thing, and I was ready to believe that Kanye had made a big mistake singing and not rapping for an entire album. But this morning (mostly because Via Chicago kept pestering me to buy it) I finally got a copy, and as I've walked around the city being sprayed in the face by hail and freezing rain all day it's been playing in a loop on my iPod. Since the weather is still awful and I don't plan to be going outside again all night, I thought I'd settle in and give my initial impressions of the album.
I actually like it a lot so far, much more than I was expecting to. It's funny that it's the album we kept bringing up in those discussions about The End of the Album, because in my judgement it's the very definition of "Album" in the sense that the songs were clearly written to go together, and are stronger when heard in relation to each other than when heard alone. Even the single "Heartless"--which has really left me cold when I've heard it by itself--sounds much better when you hear it after the first two songs have brought you under the weird, icy spell Kanye is trying to create.
As I was listening to this today I reflected a couple of times that I hadn't heard a new album that made me feel this creeped out and isolated from the other people on the street since maybe Kid A. (That's largely meant as a compliment) One of the criticisms of this album has been that it sounds more like a collection of sketches than of fully realized songs, but I don't think that gives Kanye enough credit. He made a very deliberate choice to use stripped down, cold, computerized arrangements, and this album wouldn't have the same effect at all if it was filled with his trademark lush, warm, richly harmonic beats. He brilliantly casts a mood over the listener of isolation, sadness, and regret, and even the computerized vocals add to that sensation: he rarely grants you even the human connection of listening to another person's voice without some kind of mechanized effect twisting the sound.
The album definitely isn't flawless start to finish (I don't know how to feel about the bizarre "Robocop" for example), and I certainly hope that 808s & Heartbreak will turn out to be an interesting interlude before he goes back to rapping and making hip hop beats again. But after only a few listens, I also think there's a lot to admire here, and there is reason to hope that the experience of testing his limits and making this very different sort of music will inform his future work and help him grow as an artist.
Kanye West is one of the defining artists of his generation, and I probably should have given him more benefit of the doubt from the get go.