God, it has taken long enough.
Just months ago I watched Kanye West jump and groove to Graduation for the Glow In The Dark Tour. How appropriate that his first post-Graduation album is his most mature LP.
Perhaps Mr. West has grown up?
808s & Heartbreak is a monumental work of, as West would put it, pop art. It's instantly likable--give "RoboCop" thirty seconds and see if you aren't hooked--but is, above all, a culturally significant album. As a rapper, West has transformed from "that guy who rocked the VMA's" in 2004 with "Jesus Walks" to "that guy who sings like T-Pain." He has traveled a full arc of musical tone; College Dropout was gritty and eager; Late Registration was pompous and self-praising; Graduation was elegant and frothy; with Heartbreak, Kanye has given us everything. He wants freedom from controlling lovers (the relentless banger "Paranoid") but longs for a family ("Welcome to Heartbreak"). He is thrilled his fans adore him ("Amazing") but, really, just wants to be alone ("Street Lights"). Kanye is, and always will be, an enigma. Very few artists, however, can channel their personal struggles and mysterious personas into believable music.
Playing "RoboCop," easily the most accessible track on the album, to peers this morning, they all thought the same thing: This is a pretty album. It's light and sparse, relying on more traditional instruments (including rap verses) only when Ye is aiming most to please. He plays like he's all strong on his own--just listen to the entire Late Registration album--but he lives for approval. Why else would he regularly update a style blog? Why else would he have exploded after Entertainment Weekly gave him a B+ for his last tour? Why else did he swear off the VMAs forever? And, more telling, why did he return?
Point being, Kanye wants the American audience to like this album. At first listen, "Love Lockdown" sounds self-indulgent, but why can't music be elevated and different at the same time? Usher may have gotten a monster hit out of "Love in this Club," but will Rolling Stone be chronicling that single's rise to fame in ten years? Unless it's remixed by Cut Copy or something, no. Heartbreak is packed with hits. "Amazing," featuring a Young Jeezy verse that balances Ye's muffled vocals, is perfectly suited for radio...in 2012. "Bad News," one of the few slow jams on the entire album, could fit a movie soundtrack-- about robots in love. So, as evidenced by the only moderate success of "Love Lockdown" (built mostly on buzz) and the likely-to-bomb "Heartless"--still one of the strongest tracks--Kanye's got a fantastic pop album with nowhere to go.
Honestly, though, in a radio environment where "Let It Rock" by some guy named Rudolf can climb the charts, why would Kanye want to?
So, maybe Kanye's graduated. Or, at least graduated from his former self. He's recently admitted to an obsession with style and design, and when you combine an obsessive compulsive rapper-slash-vocoderalist (I love it!) with good style...well, you're just short of enlightenment. However, they say a child is the most honest of us all; that, as we age, we gain inhibitions and fears and become self-conscious. Heartbreak is none of these things. It is an uninhibited as that meme with the boy dancing to "Single Ladies." It is as fearless as, well, Kanye West.
In "graduating," Kanye West didn't grow up. He's cut deep to the heart of what makes music good, and what makes an artist exactly that: simplicity. Heartbreak is Kanye's Like A Virgin, his Hot Fuss, his Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is his post-Graduation moment, but he's never seemed so young.