For anyone who’s watched Kanye’s career develop from backpacker to megastar to icon it’s been nothing less than inspiring. But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s nothing fancy or frilly about his climb to Olympus. He’s a worker plain and simple. If you strip away the fashion line, the (mostly-earned) self promotion, the cars and, yes, the blog he’s proven to be a tireless studio laborer. Whether he’s crafting hits for Common or providing extra heat on a verse for DJ Khaled or Estelle, the man takes a tireless pride and blue-collar ferocity to his work.
Like a skilled craftsman, he’s consistently delivered work that cultivated the best parts of its predecessors and pared the excesses (skits and guest spots) that helped in the short term to develop his narrative but threatened to weigh down his considerable talents. And as he’s shaped the edges and worked the stone to a sheen we’ve come to see more and more that the ultimate product of his labor is himself and not the music. When Michelangelo was asked how he carved David from a single piece of marble, he replied simply that the statue was always there and that he merely found it. Well, now Kanye has carved away the layers of his previous work to create an album so revealing, tempestuous and vulnerable that even at its most frustrating moments (and there are plenty of them) it’s nothing less than riveting.
Kanye seems to understand his place in the canon of great generational music acts. And with 808s & Heartbreak he’s asking his listeners to take the leap with him as he finally pushes past the last vestiges of music that pops and into the realm of classic Pop music. A realm that few have reached and where the vast size of the ideas is equal to the size of the audience. Revolver. Pet Sounds. What’s Going On. 808s & Heartbreak is striving – practically fighting – for it’s rightful place alongside those landmark albums that stripped away ornamentation and bloat to reveal something brighter than could be imagined. And the question will remain, did Kanye pull it off?
Full rundown and mp3s after the jump.
For those of you who made it through our pretentious introduction, our Download Guides are a simple, quick system to evaluate albums on a song-by-song basis and thus help you in the ongoing mission to fill your iTunes with all killer and little-to-no filler. We’d recommend you don’t think of this as a review but a way to help you navigate your through the a la carte world of MP3s. Songs are evaluated on a grade school, plus/minus system: A, B, C etc.
- Say You Will – Seriously, if it weren’t for Kanye’s voice on this track, it could be a Thom Yorke song. To call this blip-speckled track sparse is an understatement but it’s an impressive 6 minute intro and a full 180 from the Dropout-Late Registration-Graduation arc of his first three albums. He seems to be throwing down the gauntlet here and challenging his listeners to take a trip into darker parts thus far unknown to him and his fans. If you can’t make it through this track, you probably can’t make it through the album as a whole. But judging it as a song is quite different from judging it as a statement of purpose. As a stand-alone track and for the purposes of the download guide, it’s only recommended for serious Kanye fans.
Final grade: B
- Welcome To Heartbreak – Featuring mixtape star Kid Cudi on the hook, this ominous, brooding track is a reflection on celebrity and wealth. Kanye seems to realize that the success he’s fought so long for is ultimately hollow compared to the smaller, personal accomplishments others have made. “I’ve seen it / I’ve seen it before” he laments over stories about short changing himself as a complete person and his loved ones in pursuit of success.
Final grade: B+
- Heartless – The torture of a relationship that seemingly had everything but ultimately came up fruitless. Auto-tuner is in full effect here, but at least he raps throughout the verses. It’s astounding to hear Kanye not bragging about himself (not that we ever minded that) and show some insecurity. That seems to be the dynamic that Kanye is playing with on the record so far: he’s completely secure and confident of himself as an artist and creator but ultimately vulnerable and pained as a person who finds himself coping with the regular stresses of love and relationships.
Final grade: B-
- Amazing – Here’s the track with Young Jeezy. “I’m a monster, I’m a killer / I know I’m wrong / I’m a problem that’ll never ever be solved.” West simultaneously takes as much pride as regret in his inability to change or be anything but himself. A slow building track that grows with the big drums and bass that drive the album over spare beats.
Final grade: B
- Love Lockdown – Hmmm, where have I heard this before? Piano riff, autotuner, big tribal drums, thumping bass holding the whole track together. This is pretty much like every song on the album so far. That being said, it’s completely different from everything on the radio right now and so far has to be considered one of the singles of the year based off that success alone.
Final grade: B+
- Paranoid – A breath of fresh air from the darkness of the first five tracks. Kanye is actually smiling on this track and makes his plea to get a girl back both charming and reflective. He’s at his best here and this song encapsulates the perfect bridge from his past work to this album. This is one of those tracks that makes you wish it were summer, I’d be shocked if this wasn’t the next single to hit radio.
Final grade: A+
Kanye West – Paranoid
- RoboCop – Continuing with the lighter mood of Paranoid, Robocop can best be described as Kanye’s attempt to channel his inner Brandon Flowers and record a Killers track. Somehow it works. Strings shine along with mechanized beats and huge drums. Fantastic in every way.
Final grade: A+
Kanye West – RoboCop
- Street Lights – An opening that reminds me of — no joke — My Bloody Valentine. The track emerges through the haze of reverb to West’s refrain of “I know my destination / But I’m just not there.” A great track but ultimately a bridge in this album and not a centerpiece like the previous three tracks. One of the more interesting themes that’s started to emerge on this record is the emergence of Kanye as a great writer of pop songs (I mean that in the best way possible)
Final grade: B++
- Bad News – We’re back to the darker, brooding mood of the album’s first half. Thick drums and bass give the track a heavy bottom but you’re better off using your downloads for any of the first four tracks of the record if you want this sound.
Final grade: C-
- See You In My Nightmares – Lil Wayne opens up with what might be one of the most laughable refrains I’ve heard in a while, “I got the right / to put up a fight / but not quite / because you cut off my light / but my sight / is better tonight / and i might / see you in my Night….maaaare.” Apparently this track was written during a “bust a rhyme session” of Kings.
Final grade: D
- Coldest Winter – “Goodbye my friend / Will I ever love again?” Meh. Not sure I care anymore at this point.
Final grade: C-
- Pinocchio Story – A live track recorded on stage in Singapore and a summation of Kanye’s purposes on this record. “What does it feel like / i ask you tonight / to live a real life.” He vents on the frustrations of his life by comparing himself to Pinocchio and his desire to be a real boy. Actually it kind of works in this context, I never thought I’d say that, but damn if Kanye doesn’t prove that he’s willing to try everything and pull it off more often than not.
Final grade: C
Thanks for reading the download guide and be sure to pick up the album legally if you like it or see Kanye on tour.