Reexamined: Kanye West’s game-changing ‘808s & Heartbreak’
If nothing else, the name Kanye West means confidence.
He’s called himself a god while demanding faster croissant service in song, commandeered stages from Taylor Swift at the VMAs and Beck at the Grammys, married into the Kardashians, said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” at a live Hurricane Katrina fundraiser, and released a merchandise line sporting reappropriated Confederate flags. That’s just a tasting menu of Kanye moments from the last decade (one to be updated pending his just-announced presidential bid).
So it might perhaps be surprising that his next L.A. stop would be two nights at the Hollywood Bowl playing, in its entirety, the most provocatively miserable album of his career.
It shouldn’t be, though. West’s 2008 LP “808s & Heartbreak,” with its mix of emotional devastation and frosty minimal electronics, has turned out to be one of the most influential albums of contemporary pop music. “808s” helped carve out space for wounded, sincere and avant-garde sounds that Drake, the Weeknd, Frank Ocean and a whole generation of artists would take up the charts and into the marrow of modern music.
When West plays it in its entirety on Sept. 25 and 26, it will be a reminder that the rapper isn’t just the leather-jogging-pants-wearing, free-associative pop culture villain that so many mistake him for. As his stark album cover implies, he’s a songwriter of incredible heart, even when the air’s sucked out of him.
“808s” was a hard left turn for West in 2008. The year before, he released the multiplatinum smash “Graduation,” which sported some of his most effusive, optimistic singles like “Stronger” and “Good Life.” He’d demolished 50 Cent in a same-release-day sales war (coming just a hair short of a million copies in America its first week) and eclipsed his mentor Jay Z at the center of popular American hip-hop.
Then came the bolt of tragedy that would reshape his career. His mother, Donda West, died in November 2007 as a result of heart disease and what the coroner’s report described as “multiple post-operative factors” after undergoing cosmetic surgery. At the same time, West split with his longtime partner and fiancée. In the span of a year, he was nearly unmoored from his family life.
That would be enough to send anyone down a black hole of mourning, but it sent West back into the studio. “808s” was recorded quickly and released in the thick of what he’d describe on record as his “coldest winter.” The album, produced with pop and rap hitmakers like Jeff Bhasker and No I.D., is unabashed in its grief and disconnection. It’s apparent in the sonics — the sub-bass of “Love Lockdown” pulsing like a bad memory, the “Blade Runner” synths of “Paranoid” and “Heartless” promising escape, all barely hiding vacancy and exhaustion.
Most famously, West barely rapped on the album, instead singing through a slathering of Auto-Tune meant not to disguise his off-key singing but to underline it. West’s presence on the album sounds like depression: a songwriter digitizing himself to distraction, nipping off too-big feelings before they render him catatonic. It was a cycle of studio tricks and primal fear; West fixed his mistakes in a way that sounded even more (purposefully) false than before.
West is not a gifted singer, but in 2008 he discovered something new with this tactic: In modern pop, a “vocalist” can sound like anything. Like the album’s titular Roland TR-808 drum machine — a gadget once derided for its seeming inhumanity and later a staple of all pop music — inhumanity can make an artist go deeper. “I keep it low, keep a secret code / so everyone else don’t have to know,” West sings on “Love Lockdown.” That’s “code” like a computer language and “code” like the mystery of loss that he was just starting to unravel.
Though the album eventually became a multiplatinum success, it wasn’t a guaranteed hit at the time. Reviews were mixed, sometimes even hostile: “Here, the drear never lifts, and he never stops wallowing,” wrote Rolling Stone in its initial review. “The full album is a dislocating listen,” said Spin Magazine. “The musical structure overshadows his attempts at introspection.”
None of that was completely wrong, but it failed to anticipate how resonant that sense of dislocation would be for a coming tide of pop music.
Drake, the clearest beneficiary of the album’s heavy-lidded pessimism, has spent nearly his entire career following West’s template on this record. From the cocaine-stained veneers of The Weeknd’s R&B after-parties, to James Blake and Frank Ocean’s blank-spaced future soul, to underground acts like Evian Christ (later a West Collaborator) who suck the serotonin right out of club music, the ideas behind “808s” still ring true.
Kanye West is, right now, America’s greatest pop star and an unmatched antagonist. It’s easy to forget how rare that is. Go back a decade and imagine that West would both marry into reality TV’s most transfixing vacant family and then release perhaps the most difficult, sonically abrasive album to come out on a major label in years (that would be “Yeezus,” whose arty, base provocations may prove just as influential as “808s’” in time).
“808s” marked his shift from a rapper and producer into something else, something entirely contemporary and unmatched by any artist at his tier of influence. In 2008, we hadn’t heard sorrow portrayed quite like this, in all its mess and artifice and distance and clarity. We still haven’t quite heard it like that since.
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