November 12, 2013 7 comments
In late 2008, I was going through a pretty rough time. I was a college freshman and still not quite acclimated to life outside the confines of my suburban existence. I moved from Greater Boston to the boonies of Pennsylvania for school, and it was a major adjustment. I’d just gotten through a messy breakup, and I didn’t really have much going for me. It was pretty much a period of constant sadness, sprinkled with the occasional marathon video-gaming session and the writing of essays I couldn’t care less about. I was on autopilot, just surviving.
On November 24th, three days before Thanksgiving, I purchased the soundtrack to that period in my life, and it changed the way I, and much of the rap world, looked at, experienced, and enjoyed music.
A year prior to that, Kanye West was going through a similarly tumultuous period on a much larger scale. He had just lost his mother and closest confidant, Donda, to complications following a series of cosmetic surgeries. In April, he and his fiancée, Alexis Phifer, broke up after a lengthy relationship and two-year engagement. The girl Mr. West had spoken so highly of on “Never Let Me Down” and his best friend from “Hey Mama” were gone, and he had no one to turn to. Despite being at the top of the mountain, with three phenomenal albums to his name and legions of fans, Kanye was lonelier than he had ever been. So he did what any great musician would do: he poured his soul into his music.
I remember the confusion surrounding the release of 808s & Heartbreak well. “Why isn’t he rapping?” I heard frequently. “He sounds like a depressed T-Pain. I miss the old Kanye. ‘Love Lockdown,’ from the ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ guy? I don’t buy it. No one’s gonna buy it.” I was skeptical too. The College Dropout and Late Registration dominated my earbuds for the last two years of high school, and I couldn’t picture that guy crooning in Autotune about regret and pain, jealousy and grief-tinged fury.
But screw it, I said. Kanye West had given me three great albums. If this one doesn’t live up to the measuring stick I’d set for him, the blame should fall on me for expecting too much from one man. Deep in my own feelings, I decided to openly immerse myself in Kanye’s. It was one of the best decisions I have made in my musical life.
The deep, resonant bass and off-putting beeps of “Say You Will” struck me immediately. No sped-up soul samples, no backing melody to latch onto. It felt like someone had taken the complexity of loss and distilled it into something digestible. “I wish this song would really come true / I admit I still fantasize about you” hit me in the gut and set the tone for the rest of the album. Yes, Kanye was Autotuned, and yes, it wasn’t rap, but it was beautiful. It was sad boy season, and I was all in.
“Welcome to Heartbreak” had that same resonant core of regret, but was much more aloof. It was as if Kanye had taken his feelings, thrown them into a computer, and programmed it to recite them. Being famous is great, until it messes with basic human needs like the ability to genuinely connect with other people and share in their lives. “Amazing” felt the same way too. “It’s amazing / I’m the reason / everybody fired up this evening,” Kanye sang, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like a grim recitation of his stature. That earworm of a beat still stuck with me, though, and proved beyond any doubt that Kanye could turn the simplest ideas into triumphant tribal mantras with layers of meaning.
I had kept up-to-date with Kanye’s life through the release of the record, but I hadn’t heard many of the leaks. When I heard “Coldest Winter,” I was transported to just that: a frozen wasteland, a man on the brink of collapse, crying out to his loved ones, both romantic and familial. It’s a message to his ex, to his mother, to everyone who saw him through on the way to the top and couldn’t see him any further. In my 2008, it was to my family 700 miles away, to every unrequited crush, to my high school friends who I would never see again. That’s the beauty of the song: its vague target allows you to superimpose yourself onto it and cast the message in any direction you see fit.
808s had its fair share of missteps, to be fair. Five years later, I’m still trying to piece together how “RoboCop” and “See You In My Nightmares” fit in this emotional puzzle. They’re variations on themes scattered throughout the album, but they’re just not as interesting. The latter record, for instance, plods along at a snail’s pace, grazing the surface of anger and betrayal. Lil Wayne delivers his cliche feature, and the hook itself is menacing, but the rest of the song fails to deliver. “RoboCop” contains the most ornate beat on the album, with a full strings section, backing vocals, hydraulic machinery and jackhammering bass drums. There’s even a damn glockenspiel. Such decor didn’t, and still doesn’t, mesh with me. Part of being suspicious of your partner’s activities is building them up to grandiose proportions in your head, but it seemed so over-the-top as to abandon the raw approach the rest of the album was taking. And don’t get me started on “Pinocchio Story,” sonically the worst live-recording-turned-bonus-track I’ve ever heard.
When Kanye popped onto the scene with College Dropout, he made it cool to be a “backpack rapper.” Graduation’s sales competition with 50 Cent’s Curtis cemented this alternative lane for rappers to take. With 808s, Kanye made vulnerability hot. Think of all the artists who’ve come since that play with it on a regular basis. Drake spit over the “Say You Will” instrumental on So Far Gone and is now one of the best-selling artists in music. Kid Cudi’s debut album, Man on the Moon, was a continuation of his labelhead’s theme, laying bare his soul on wax and propelling him to star status. This second, reflective road to rap success has given mainstream artists like J. Cole and Wale a way to get their voices on the radio. They don’t have to sing, but there is now a higher premium on emotional honesty in rap.
“Real hip-hop” purists look upon 808s as an aberration in Kanye’s career, a blip in an otherwise fantastic run of records by one of the greatest rappers of our era. It was met with mixed reactions, mostly due to its dramatic departure from Graduation and the heavy use of Autotune. Over time, I’d like to think these views on the album have softened. Artists should be allowed the room to grow in directions they see fit. If they choose not to, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be harangued for sounding different as long as quality doesn’t suffer. Autotune serves to give those with a melody in their heart a chance to share that melody when they otherwise couldn’t. Its robotic qualities, to me, are a guttural expression of our primal emotions, something Future has taken to new heights.
808s and Heartbreak is not a breakup album, pure depression in LP form, or a minimalist’s experiment in production. It’s a rounded view on love and loss, showing the before, the during and the after. It shows us trepidation, insecurity, incompatibility, infidelity, alienation, depression, and the glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. It came to me at a difficult time in my life, and served as an outlet for some powerful emotions. Every winter since its release, it feels right to play 808s on loop. Call it seasonal affective disorder, the winter blues or what have you. I call it musical empathy.
The debate can continue about 808s’ place in rap, its greatness, its importance. Just don’t question its relevance.