Despite what some critics have written about Kanye West's fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak doesn't sound especially shocking. Sure, the record incorporates “tribal”-style drum machines and Auto-Tuned vocals, but bassy, accessible singles like “Robocop” and “Love Lockdown” make nonissues of West's much-discussed crooning and use of a vocoder. He was never much of an MC, anyway, and singing is better suited to these beats. (By comparison, guest star Young Jeezy's rapping sounds absolutely Paleolithic.)
Thematically, the album plunges deeper into West's usual neuroses (insecurity, spiritual unease, and the difficulties of celebrity). The death of his mother and a relationship fissure have brought these concerns into sharper focus. Still, Heartbreak's tracks avoid specifics about loss, and instead deal in generalities (on “Coldest Winter,” he sings, “Goodbye, my friend/Will I ever love again?”). The move from slang-heavy rap particulars to clearly articulated pop universals completes a transition West started with his last album, Graduation; he wants to enable crowds worldwide to sing along at his shows like they do at U2 concerts. Heartbreak's strict commitment to this aesthetic helps West achieve what he set out to create: an immediately jelling, singular testament to indescribable suffering.