The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Kanye Shows Flexibility Despite Mainstream Criticism

Observer Scene | Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rap may not be for everyone, though Kanye West seems to be the persistent exception to this rule.

While a lot of listeners are skeptical of rap’s “listen-ability,” nevertheless, the genres’ radio hits blast at parties, dances, and Legend’s Hip-Hop Night. Undoubtedly, anyone with media access, ears, or a pulse knows Kanye West. After hits like “Gold Digger” and “Stronger,” West’s celebrity is ubiquitous in the entertainment business. His most recent release, “808s & Heartbreak,” is another excellent addition to his wildly successful discography that includes “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration.”

This new album rises to the daunting challenge of satisfying preexisting fans while also appealing to an even wider selection of music listeners. Focusing more on R&B and hip-hop than his previous releases, “808s & Heartbreak” continues to display West’s undeniable musical talent and genius ability to blend what can only be called poetry with an extensive mix of musical influences.

“808s & Heartbreak” displays West’s vocal capabilities, which is often overlooked because of his compelling rap. Velvety and secure, West’s vocals have a subtle power, complemented by his repetitive use of simple, clean-cut sounds like strings, pong videogame beeping, tribal drumming and airy chorus singing. This combination of reusing similar music and his smooth vocals creates a new sound not typical of Kanye. This artistic growth displays maturity and flexibility that is consistent with his past talent and proof of his potential for continued growth.

West’s fourth studio album is aptly titled, focusing mostly on (what else) heartbreak. While heartbreak may typically be indicative of heinous breakups, West handles the experience of heartbreak with sensitivity and depth. The album naturally unfolds the complexities of emotions and the experience of heartbreak with awareness to textured emotions and experiences. The album also allows a welcome glimpse into West’s personality and past, which act as a springboard for his lyrics. His commentary and observations, as always, provide insightful glimpse into celebrity and also a sharp understanding of suffering.

It’s exceedingly difficult to select album highlights. In fact, the entire work merits appreciation. “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless” have already become regulars on radio. Both tracks are characterized by their staccato, accented blend of tribal rawness and processed, mechanical beats.

There is something both controlled and passionate in these and other songs on the album. But while the two better-known tracks only show one facet of the album, the other songs highlight other musical elements, such as the drumming and beeping, which persist subtly throughout all the tracks. Additionally, airy chorus chanting and beautiful violin/string instrumental are frequently found in the tracks. “RoboCop” about a “spoiled little LA girl” utilizes the string backup sublimely. “Paranoid” has a 1980s pop style that is both passé and simultaneously musically relevant and likeable. Overall, the subtle instrumental elements and West’s distinctive diction and vocals, unite the varying experiments in sound and emotions.

West’s talent is backed up by many mentionable artists, including Young Jeezy, Kid Cudi, and Lil Wayne. Mostly, these artists provide rapping cameos, which allow some break from West’s singing. Lil Wayne’s and Young Jeezy’s gritty twang provide an intriguing contrast to West’s usual style.

While rap may typically seem abrasive musically, West draws listeners in with his smooth vocals that envelope insightful, poignant lyrics. On the whole, “808s & Heartbreak” is eloquent, simple and rich. It might be a new facet of Kanye West’s personality and style, but his compelling style that fans fell in love with is still distinctly present. As usual, West uses his musical genius and flexible talent to take his craft to the next level, to the benefit of the entertainment and music industry and listeners alike.

Contact Jess Shaffer at jshaffe1@nd.edu.