MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
One of the most anticipated albums of the year was released this week. It's by hip-hop artist Kanye West, and it's called, "808s and Heartbreak." The album comes after a year of personal heartbreak for West, and it's a departure in style. The rapper sings the entire album, but he filters his vocals through the popular processing system known as Auto-Tune. Reviewer Oliver Wang says West makes it work, for the most part.
OLIVER WANG: As a friend recently joked, who knew that 10 years ago Cher would predict the future sound of hip-hop? "Believe" was the first major hit featuring Auto-Tune, which is intended to correct off-pitch notes, but when pushed to the extremes, leaves behind a telltale electronic signature.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BELIEVE")
CHER: (Singing) No matter how hard I try, You keep pushing me aside. I can't break through...
WANG: What began as a little-known production tool has exploded into pop music with such artists as T-Pain and Demarco recording entire albums using the program's strange, quasi-robotic sound. Rappers including Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg have played with Auto-Tune as well. But no rapper has taken things as far as Kanye West on "808s and Heartbreak."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HEARTLESS")
KANYE WEST: (Singing) In the night, I hear him talk. Coldest story ever told. Somewhere far along this road, He lost his soul to a woman so heartless...
WANG: Skeptics predicted Kanye's indulgence in a gimmick like Auto-Tune would be an artistic train wreck. Perhaps one day soon, we'll look back on this as Kanye's equivalent to "The Ethel Merman Disco Album." But for now, Kanye's Auto-Tune experiment is shtick with a strategy as his ghostly, mechanical vocals enhance the album's despondent atmosphere.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WELCOME TO HEARTBREAK")
WEST: (Singing) My friend showed me pictures of his kids. And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs. He said his daughter got a brand-new report card. And all I got was a brand-new sports car. And my head keeps spinning. Can't stop having these visions. I gotta keep with it...
WANG: The unspoken presence haunting the album is the unexpected death of Kanye's mother a year ago. He devoted several songs explicitly to her when she was alive. But here, he conspicuously avoids mentioning his mother at all. It's impossible not to read his constant verses about lost love and romantic distress as a thinly veiled transference of filial grief. But the Auto-Tune creates a strange dissonance. His heartaches sounds detached, distant.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BAD NEWS")
WEST: (Singing) Didn't you know I was waiting on you? Waiting on a dream that'll never come true. Didn't you know I was waiting on you? My face turned to stone when I heard the news. When you decide to break the rules. 'Cause I just heard some real bad news...
WANG: As for the sound behind the vocals, Kanye began his career with the warm, analogue thump of classic soul samples, but this album is starkly electronic, filled with wheezing synthesizers, hyper-processed string arrangements, and stripped-down club beats made from clicks and claps. The Auto-Tune vocals are a perfect fit with an album whose sonic stamp is already so cold and metallic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LOVE LOCKDOWN")
WEST: (Singing) I'm not lovin' you the way I wanted to. What I had to do, Had to run from you. I'm in love with you, But the vibe is wrong. And that haunted me all the way home...
WANG: Not all of Kanye's fans will warm to "808s and Heartbreak." But even if it's destined to be an acquired taste, it's worth sampling. This is a deeply personal album, not just because of Kanye's family tragedy, but for its willingness to take a leap, however indulgent, of creative faith. Kanye has always tried to push pop's musical conventions forward. And even if his new album is his most off-kilter, it doesn't mean he's missed the mark.
BLOCK: Oliver Wang writes about music for The L.A. Weekly, Vibe, and Soulsides.com. The new album by Kanye West is called "808s and Heartbreak."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "COLDEST WINTER")
WEST: (Singing) Goodbye, my friend. Will I ever love again? Goodbye, my friend. Will I ever...
BLOCK: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.