We’ve now heard three tracks from 808s and Heartbreak, and they share a distinct style, so we can guess that the rest of the album will sound similar. I didn’t want to judge the tracks too quickly, because I had no reference point to compare the tracks to. But my kneejerk reaction was negative, and justifiably so–Kanye is unarguably out of his element on all of these tracks.

Kanye is not a talented singer, and the unbelievably sparse backing tracks contrast sharply with his production throughout his rap career. In the past, Kanye has rarely been content to leave his sample-based beats unadorned with additional instrumentation, whether a single synthesizer or an ensemble of horn players, featured rappers, a singer and two professional keyboard players.

Even the production is amateurish at best. Kanye’s goofy, cartoonish synthesizers on all of these tracks, particularly “Heartless” (I’m pretty convinced that the synth in the verses is the default flute tone on a $100 Casio keyboard somewhere), is particularly surprising in contrast to his consistently adept use of synthesizers in the past.

FADER, in their review of the listening party for 808s and Heartbreak, similarly struggled for a point of reference, and came up with The Eraser, Thom Yorke’s solo album.  The comparison is tempting because (a) both albums feature emotional, gloomy singing over electronic tracks and (b) both musicians are considered pretty cool in music circles, despite (or in addition to) their tremendous mainstream success. But the comparison falls flat because (a) Thom Yorke can sing, (b) The Eraser is well-produced in the conventional sense, and (c) Thom Yorke draws upon alternative and indie rock influences, whereas Kanye is clearly drawing upon R&B, hip hop, and even the blues.

Of course, the whole reason I wrote this is because I finally came up with a good comparison for 808s and Heartbreak. It’s Cody Chesnutt (the guy at the top of this post).

Cody Chesnutt is best known as the guy who sings the hook on The Roots’ “The Seed 2.0” (which was more or less a rerecorded version of Chesnutt’s “The Seed” with verses from Black Thought squeezed in). He recorded a double album of similar music that he calls neo-soul and I call a lo-fi blend of rock and R&B (with a few drum machines and synthesizers thrown in).

I’m pretty into a lot of the album, although it’s a mixed bag and it’s so long that I’ve never listened to the entire thing. But Chesnutt’s music is appealling in a variety of ways. His songwriting is very good, if conventional and unremarkable. His unique lyricism and fresh, spontaneous sense of melody are always engaging and often funny (The hook in “Boylife in America” begins “All I want is pussy/give me some religion/a brand new Cadillac and a winning lotto ticket”). His varied instrumentation and diverse influences make the album sound creative, and the lo-fi recording and production lend it a sense of spontaneity.

Comparing Kanye West to a guy who recorded his only album in his bedroom with a 4-track recorder is something I never thought I would do. It will still take me a while to get used to the idea, but I look forward to enjoying 808s and Heartbreak more when I get used to the idea of an almost indie Kanye.

By the way, here’s the first Cody Chesnutt track that “Coldest Winter” and “Heartless” reminded me of.

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