Of all the musical genres, rap has never been one to flirt with experimentation too often. During the gangsta rap phase that blighted much of its recent history, you were lucky to hear a change of tempo let alone an interesting musical idea. More recently, rappers such as 50 Cent, Akon, Nelly and Ja Rule have stuck to a well-trodden path, using female singers to recite a (usually heavily sampled) chorus making it catchy enough for radio and benign enough for them to rap about nothing. Timbaland has tried his best to heave the genre into a new dawn and rappers such as Q-Tip, Common and Lupe Fiasco at least have interesting things to say.
Added to that list of both interesting rappers and exciting producers is Kanye West, a man who, despite his ego (or maybe because of it) has had a hand in some of the best rap singles of recent years. Perhaps aware of the shortcomings of his own success- he too has a habit of relying too heavily on a big sample- his forthcoming fourth album 808s & Heartbreak is shaping up to be a pretty huge departure for him and a fairly brave one at that. By now you've probably heard first single 'Love Lockdown', a song that relies solely on a simple piano motif and some frantic drumming. There's no rapping, just West's weedy voice heavily treated through an auto-tuner. Reaction so far has been mixed, with the single hitting the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, but with large numbers of rap fans ranting at West's mission to change things up.
The second single is mooted to be 'Heartless', another rap-free, auto-tuned ditty with a beat that sounds like it was created using a £25 Casio from Argos.
Another track that's leaked deals with the death of West's mother earlier this year. 'Coldest Winter' samples Tears For Fears (huh?) and is really rather lovely. For once West's singing voice sounds engaging and the minimal drums and ghostly synth lines help create a genuine atmosphere.
Strangest of all the new songs is 'Robocop'. Over exploding beats and robot sound effects (what else) a heavily-treated West talks of not wanting a robocop. Who does he know that's like robocop in the first place? Of all the new songs this is the only one that West claims is not finished, with Herbie Hancock (?) apparently working on it as we speak. Things just got very bizarre indeed...