"While you was in limbo, I raised the bar up," Kanye rapped on last year's "The Glory." Now West's back after a tough year personally, and he's delivered by far his most personal album yet. It's not immediately clear if this disc represents a limbo of his own or an elevation to the next level. But one thing is for certain: He's not afraid to take risks. And the payoff this time likely will be a new trend that gives birth to a new breed of copycats. We expressed concerns with last year's classic, Graduation, because we could see the road to Diddy pop from there. But he shot right past the Puffy tendencies, through the Ja Rule-singing phase and squarely into Roger Troutman talk-box territory (although technically different). T-Pain blazed the trail to the sound's return, but what Kanye is doing is unprecedented for an established, successful artist. The results might disappoint fans of his previous albums, but not fans of the man. -- Mason Storm
Despite the fact I knew this sonic shift was taking place and we were all given an accurate preview in the first single -- the drumline-destined "Love Lockdown" -- it wasn't until Kanye wailed his tenth "Hey, hey, hey, hey" or so that I realized that he'd really gone through with it. This was the album. And three minutes into that first song, "Say You Will," the lyrics end and the beat rolls on for another three to give you a chance to breathe, prepare yourself for the rest of the album and appreciate just how insane of a genius West is. What seems crazy at first becomes commonplace by the time the orchestral and absurd "RoboCop" finishes with Kanye belting out a playful-but-ridiculous solo that would have forced a mandatory eject any earlier in the record. But by then you've rode along on an assortment of acceptable tracks that somehow manage to stick, with a backdrop of bass that I haven't experienced since there was a tube in my trunk as a teen. (The TR-808s apparently have been missed.) Among them is "Amazing" featuring Young Jeezy, "Paranoid" (which has a beat I could swear was inspired in part by music from "NBA Jam"), the aforementioned first single and "Heartless," the only track that might have blended into one of his previous efforts unnoticed.
"Welcome to Heartbreak," in which Kanye revisits his theme of family vs. fame, finds Kanye countering a friend's "pictures of his kids" and their "report cards" with "pictures of my cribs" and his "sports cars." Certainly the death of his mother and the split with his fiance contributed to this continued internal conflict. He addresses the former in the final track, "Coldest Winter." Because of his loss, you feel like giving the guy a break for his apparent break from sanity. But it's unnecessary, because against all odds it works. Lil' Wayne even jumps into the Auto-Tune party on "See You in My Nightmares." The remainder continues in the same vein -- with the "808s" supplying the beats and Kanye's lyrics providing the "Heartbreak." It's an instant guilty pleasure with the potential to be much more. I can't hand Kanye a fourth consecutive $50 with a clean conscience, even if it ends up being the album I listen to the most this year (and it could). His other albums might be better, but none might end up being more influential. We'll have to see. Click here to find out how to buy this album.
Entertainment Weekly: A-
Rolling Stone: 3.5
-- Mason StormAround the Way