[RCA Records] *** 1/2
Kanye West, the self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don, is a flashy dude - known, on record, for clever turns of phrase, attention-grabbing beats and huge walls of sound, and off, for his cool-gear-and-hot-girls lifestyle blog.
Subtlety is not his strong suit. Neither is self-control.
Yet, his new album, 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam), is austere and disciplined. And his self-imposed constrictions - singing (with loads of AutoTune) instead of rapping, sticking to distinctly nonhip-hop rhythms and new-wave-era synths - have unleashed a new burst of creativity that rivals his debut, The College Dropout.
That said, fans of Flashy Kanye don't have a lot to hang onto here. The only times he raps is on the '80s dance throwback "Paranoid" - the album's bounciest song and pretty much its happiest moment, even though the chorus is "You worry about the wrong things" - and the life-questioning "Welcome to Heartbreak." Only on "Robocop" does West allow a glimpse of his humor, as he drops not-so-veiled insults over string flourishes.
The bulk of the album is similar to the singles "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless," minimalist laments, sung essentially in monotone, about busted relationships and intimacy issues. Such songs as "Street Lights" and "Say You Will" actually have more in common with One Republic than hip-hop.
With 808s & Heartbreak, West tears down all the bad habits that have crept in during his previous three albums and builds something bold and new in their place. His current musical vision may be dark, but it can also be beautiful.
Also new : Guns N' Roses' long-awaited Chinese Democracy (Black Frog/Geffen; Grade: B); Ludacris' Theater of the Mind (Def Jam); promising debuts from Kevin Rudolf (Universal Motown) and Shontelle (Universal Motown); Tom Jones' 24 Hours (S-Curve); David Byrne and Brian Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo); Trace Adkins' X (Ten) (Capitol Nashville)