Since his triumphant 2004 debut The College Dropout, Kanye West has been plying the same winning formula to steadily diminishing returns. That certainly can't be said of his frustrating, fascinating fourth solo album, 808s & Heartbreak, a radical departure that abandons much of what West does best—hyper-soulful beats, rapping—while exploring daring new sonic and lyrical terrain. The result is a fascinating mass of contradictions. It's an icily synthetic album about tender human emotions and a self-professed "pop" album that takes West's music in defiantly non-commercial new directions. In an era of ringtone raps and the iPod shuffle, Heartbreak demands to be considered as a proper album with a strong, cohesive, overarching vision and conceptually linked tracks, not just an assemblage of songs.
West creates and sustains a delicate, tricky mood—a fuzzy early-morning miasma of self-doubt, regret, and longing for people and places past. Sonically, the aptly titled disc splits the difference between the Auto-Tune R&B; of T-Pain and the glacial electronic atmospherics of '80s new wave at its loneliest. Heartbreak can get monotonously minimalist, but its strongest tracks tweak West's newfangled robo-sounds and "look ma, I'm singing!" amateur croon in intriguing ways. Soaring strings lend a symphonic grandeur to the infectiously goofy "Robocop," "Paranoid" veers into the Neptunes' twitchy, glitchy space-disco, and "Street Lights" is heartbreakingly delicate. Even West's flaws work in his favor: The fragility of his singing imbues the album with an appealing vulnerability and intimacy. Heartbreak is a bittersweet sleeper that hovers somewhere between an interesting failure and a secret success. It seems destined to be the weird little orphan that fans single out as a favorite. West is aiming for art, growth, and radical reinvention, so even when he stumbles and strains there's a nobility in his overreaching.