808s & Heartbreak drops today, and after months of leaks and opinions flying back and forth I'm still firmly in the not excited camp. I think my main problem is that the folks who are hopping on the bandwagon are citing reasons that don't jibe with what I've been hearing.
There are those who say that the album's different and innovative. Now, keep in mind that I haven't heard the record in its entirety so my opinions are just going off of the songs that've been floating around the internets (Welcome to Heartbreak, Robocop, Love Lockdown, and Street Lights are all I've heard at this point), but I will concede that the album is different. Innovative? I'm not too sure. To my ears it sounds like a New Wave or Indie Dance/Pop record and given the popularity of artists like Santogold, M.I.A., and J.U.S.T.I.C.E in recent years (particularly amongst the Hip Hop community) it doesn't sound like he's trumping those folks aside from the fact that he's Kanye. The name recognition gets more people looking and in turn more people analyzing the work (just like me, natch). It's different because it's different than the rest of his catalog. The album being different isn't so much a problem, as I feel like Hip Hop fans are being pushed to really champion this album as a work of Hip Hop when the guy who created doesn't even consider it as such.
There's also the matter of Kanye embracing the much-maligned autotune vocal effect. The very fact that it's been used and abused this year by nearly every popular R&B and Hip Hop artist of dubious vocal ability is troubling enough. You've got a guy who's supposed to be setting trends when he comes out. With his previous albums, so many producers and artists copied after him it was ridiculous. What started with an autotune laden feature on Young Jeezy's single "Put On" exploded into an album full of the crutch that T-Pain hath wrought. Now unlike T-Pain and the host of other people that use this thing, I honestly believe Kanye has something different in mind than simply covering the fact that he doesn't have the greatest singing voice in the world. Perhaps, given the themes of heartbreak and loneliness that run through the album, the cold mechanical nature of the vocal effect is suppose to juxtapose with the raw emotion that Kanye is putting out there for the listener. That's a fresh use of the autotune if that's the case. Still doesn't mean it's exactly a treat to listen to.
Which brings me to the idea that the album should be respected simply because Kanye's being emotionally vulnerable in a way that's unheard of for a Hip Hop artist. Without bothering to go back to the argument that this isn't a Hip Hop record, I'll concede that Kanye should certainly be commended for being brave enough to channel what has to be a helluva hard time into music, and going with what he feels his heart pushed him toward. All that said, it's not the first time that Hip Hop's had artists who put their hearts on their sleeves in such a way. There's examples from the underground, sure: Slug from Atmosphere built his career off of baring emotion from the Lucy Ford EP onward. Jean Grae's laid it all out there for her listeners, not only in song (the painfully raw My Story from Jeanius details her personal experience with abortion), but as a person as well. Admittedly, mainstream Hip Hop isn't exactly awash with folks willing to bare their soul on record, but not too long ago one-half of one of the most heralded Hip Hop groups of all time released a concept album based around the ups-and-down of his own love life. Andre 3000 took a lot more Ls back when Speakerboxx/The Love Below came out than Kanye has over 808s, but they're both personal pieces of music where the artist uncompromisingly follows what it is they want to do.
Which is why I still respect Kanye as an artist. Despite any shade that might get thrown at him from folks like me, he chooses to push ahead with his vision. For that reason alone his music will always get my attention, if not my outright adulation. Hopefully once I actually sit down with a purchased copy of 808s & Heatbreak being able to hear it as a complete work will change my mind. For now though, I'll be in the corner with the haters, wishing T-Pain had never decided to turn into a "sanger."