With 808s & Heartbreaks, Kanye is taking a risk by playing it safe. The general consensus surrounding the use of auto-tune to supplement vocals in contemporary R&B and Hip-Hop is that it's nearing played-out status. What T-Pain saturated the market with four years ago has progressively become a crutch for artists desperate for a hit, or a vocal cover-up. How T-Pain managed to ride the vocoder wave to pop-culture relevancy is beyond me, but of late, other artists are finding it harder and harder to gain guaranteed radio play with a little vocal distortion (Who's really checking for Ciara's Go Girl?). Keeping all of that in mind, why would Kanye find this as an appropriate time to release an album entirely consisting of auto-tune use?
Publicly, Kanye has very much established himself as a trendsetter. From music to fashion, and wherever else he places his finger, the man has a way of making most anything his own. That's why it comes as no surprise that even as he uses the auto-tune device on his latest single, Love Lockdown, it still manages to standout from most anything else on Top 40 radio today. While I'm not necessarily a fan of Love Lockdown in particular (dude is really singing, like, for real), the handful of other songs that I've heard from 808s & Heartbreaks stand as some of Kanye's best work to date.
Easily the standout of the bunch, Heartless sees Kanye tauntingly responding to the wrath of an ex over a beat that's slick enough to ease you from the car-ride, right into the club. The writing is as stellar as the production, as Kanye effortlessly illustrates the pain accompanying a break-up with a seamless balance of bluster and vulnerability. Robocop opens with a taste of 80s-tinged electronica that provides the backdrop for the rest of the song's effectively clunky production. Though the beat becomes a bit cluttered toward the bridge, it is salvaged by a smooth transition into the much more aurally-welcoming chorus. Like Love Lockdown, Kanye sings his way through Coldest Winter, but there's an air of desperation in his voice that gives the latter a sense of candor that makes it infinitely more personable than the former. The strain that rests in Kanye's vocals throughout the song loans relevance to the sentiment of its lyrics, as he wonders if he'll "ever love again."
Unlike other artists, Kanye's use of auto-tune on the four tracks above doesn't hamper their appeal. His reliance on the device is a reflection of his fascination with it, and an artist has to follow their inspiration. While some might argue that 808s & Heartbreaks looks to stand as a regression for Mr. West, I see the effort shaping up to be much more of a reinvention.