I have this vision of Kanye West sitting in a hotel room, sad-eyed and head down, listening to his lady break up with him. She rattles off a long list of reasons why it's not working, and West storms off in a huff, angry yet devastated.
The next day, he goes straight to the studio and records "808s & Heartbreak," which is out today, just a little more than a year since his last album, "Graduation."
That's probably not how it happened, but on "808s," West holds a serious grudge. He sounds reactionary, ready to exact revenge on anyone who's broken his heart. It is by far the strangest record he's ever made: a willfully sullen and uncompromising electro-pop album from one of hip-hop's biggest stars. Aside from the first two singles ("Love Lockdown," "Heartless"), much of "808s" sounds like a sonic wasteland, with West's digitized voice floating in like a tumbleweed.
It's his first serious attempt to sing more than rap. But he relies so heavily on Auto-Tune, the du jour studio trick that dominates Top 40 urban radio, that you don't get a real sense of his vocal chops. He doesn't sing so much as he allows Auto-Tune to bend his pitch, flattening out all the nuances.
But his vocals are easy to overlook because the production values are so interesting. The songs have a lot going on, yet they sound bone-dry, sometimes industrial and cold. "Say You Will" opens the album on a spartan note, trailing off into three minutes of blips pinging back and forth.
The biggest problem here is West's songwriting. Some of his better lyrics would be clever as one-off rhymes in a rap song, but they're not strong enough to build into full-blown choruses. The shockingly shallow hook of "Amazing" is just West looping the words "so amazing"; not even guest rapper Young Jeezy, sounding like he's just snuffed out his 100th cigarette of the day, gives the song much life. Similarly, Lil Wayne's talent is squandered on "See You in My Nightmares."
After a foreboding cello intro, West hints at inner turmoil on "Welcome to Heartbreak," but it's hard to feel sorry for a guy who seems to have it all. "My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs," he sings.
He's more in his element on the dance track "Paranoid," perhaps because he's back to rapping. He's quick on his feet as he glides over the kind of pulsating '80s synthesizers you might expect from Lupe Fiasco. And West finally gets in some good lines: "You wanna check into the Heartbreak Hotel/ But sorry, we're closed."
At least the brokenhearted star gets in the last word - it's just too bad he decided to sing it.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.