Remember when Kanye West threatened to make an album where he would bear his heartbroken soul, align with T-Pain, sing on every song with the then inescapable Auto-Tune effect and, less problematically, lean on the common element -- the Roland TR-808 drum machine -- of classics like "Make It Last Forever," "Posse on Broadway," "808," and "Bossy"? It would have been a wreck, a case of an artist working through paralyzing heartache while loose in a toy store. Except West wasn't joking. Not only did he go through with it, but Roc-A-Fella released the result in time for the 2008 Christmas shopping season. It was indeed a wreck, if a kind of fascinating one, which helped make the material -- voiced by someone who could not really sing, whose substantial shortcomings were not made less obvious by a polarizing studio device -- seem a little less difficult on the ears.
In various spots across 808s & Heartbreak, the constant flutter of West's processed voice, along with a seldom interrupted sluggish march of aching sounds, is enlivened by the disarming manner in which despair and dejection are conveyed. When, in "Welcome to Heartbreak," he dispassionately recounts sitting alone on a flight, ahead of a laughing family, he makes first class sound like Siberia; he'd swap lives with the father in an instant. The majority of the lyrics, however, are directed at an ex who evidently did some damage; in "RoboCop" alone, she gets compared to the antagonist in Misery and is called a "spoiled little L.A. girl." Earlier in the album, the number she did on him is called "the coldest story ever told," yet he admits he still fantasizes about her. All the blocky drums, dragging strings, droning synths, and joyless pianos lead to a bleak set of productions -- even the synthetic calliope in "Heartless" is unnerved, and the relative pep of "Paranoid" provides no respite, its bitter lyrics subverting a boisterous beat. Several tracks have almost as much in common with irrefutably bleak post-punk albums, such as New Order's Movement and the Cure's Pornography, as contemporary rap and R&B. ("Coldest Winter," where West longs for his departed mother, samples the most desolate song from the first Tears for Fears album.) For anyone sifting through a broken relationship and self-letdown, this could all be therapeutic. Otherwise, no matter its commendable fearlessness, the album is a listless, bleary trudge along West's permafrost.