12/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Kanye West's New Album: Pain Not Flash

"808s & Heartbreak" sounds like none of his other albums, nor any rap album of note -- "minimal but functional" is how he has described it to MTV. At best, it is a rough sketch for a great album, with ideas he would have typically rendered with complexity, here distilled to a few words, a few synthesizer notes, a lean drumbeat. At worst, it's clumsy and underfed, a reminder that all of that ornamentation served a purpose. After all, what is Kanye West without scale?

Mr. West would have been forgiven for taking a break after releasing "Graduation," his third album, last year. His mother, Donda West, died last November following complications from plastic surgery. In April Mr. West split from his fiancée, Alexis Phifer. By any measure, these are seismic changes, yet he persisted with recording.

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