It should be known first off, that I am a huge Kanye West fan. I realize that this is pretty controversial given that it’s become increasingly en vogue to dislike him, and relish the opportunity to use him as a punch line, while laughing at the outrageous weekly sound bites that he provides the media with about, at once, being a modern day Phil Collins, the Mike Jordan of music, or the love-child of Prince and MJ. One such bombastic statement of Ye’s, was his recent account that with his 4th album, 808s & Heartbreak, he was approaching retailers about classifying the album under the genre “Pop Art” rather than what they would have defaulted to, “Hip Hop”. “Where does this douche get off??” I read in a piece reacting to this news. Well, while I won’t sit here and try to defend the idea that in a modern day re-write of the Bible, Kanye would be a central character because of his importance to the human race, I will try to shed some light on why his likening his Senior-effort to a can of soup in Warhol’s kitchen might be legitimate. But first some background…
The College Dropout (West’s debut album) is responsible for cementing his place in Hip Hop history. It was his impassioned fight to be taken seriously as a rapper in a world dominated by the 21st century’s rapper turned hustler, embodied most aptly by his future SoundScan Nemesis Mr. Curtis Cent. In a sense, West’s clash with 50 (though I realize that it was never actually a clash) began with the release of this album. West’s introduction to rap was at once exciting, and controversial – a return to back-pack rap, set over sped-up soul beats with infectious drums, all constructed by a dude rich enough to go to University of Chicago who wore pink polos and shopped at the GAP. No one knew what to make of him, but the album etched out his place in the industry, and within two short years, he released a follow-up, in Late Registration, which pounded-out a dent over-top of whatever etch his freshman disc was able to create. The sound was bigger, so to were the collaborations. Miri Ben Ari’s modest strings were replaced with Jon Brion’s. GLC’s modest hooks were replaced by the Game’s, and instead of being out-rapped by his collaborators (see: Kweli’s verse on Get’Em High) he was proving his lyrical skill was on a new level by rapping on par with the likes of Paul Wall, Killa Cam and (big bro) Jay-Z. With this album, Kanye’s world opened up. He found himself touring with the Stones and U2, and in the same way that he learnt “how to make rapping about ‘real stuff’ sound cool” from Mos Def and Kweli when he first moved out to New York in 2002, his new tour-mates taught him how to make his songs and messages more universally accessible – or as West calls it, gave him “stadium status”.
Graduation, West’s celebration album, was born out of this. The album is laced with a new sense of worldliness and a sense of achievement in the music industry and belonging in the rap game that he only seemed to wish for on his previous efforts. Coupled with his change in style, came swagger and bravado in his public image and song lyrics, which replaced lyrics of being “brought-down” or held back from shining. West no longer sounded “so self-conscious” but rather expected others to bow, “in the presence of greatness” or if they preferred, “so hard until their knees hit their foreheads”. This time the strings were replaced with heavy synths, the samples were even more bold (see: Elton John, John Holt, Steeley Dan and Phillip Mitchell) and the collaborations were few and far between – a sign that Kanye now had the confidence to stand alone on (virtually) an entire album. All of a sudden the guy that no one wanted to sign to a rap label in 2003, was thrust into the international spotlight with the highest selling album of the year, and a supporting tour which did numbers that no other Hip Hop act has even come close to. Kanye was living the good life, and his grand mama wasn’t the only girl calling him baby.
Fast-forward one year and he sings the lyric “chased the good life my whole life long, now I look back on my life … and my life gone,” on 808s second track, “Welcome to Heartbreak”.
His follow-up to ‘07’s Graduation was meant to be an album called A Good Ass Job, which he’d announced before the release of Late Registration. In concept, one would imagine that this album would have aimed to take the themes and style of Graduation a step further, but it was clear that Kanye no longer felt he had a good ass job – and anyone with an RSS to Perez knows exactly why that is – death, materiality, paparazzi and heartbreak, all fed his depression, and resulted in a new – Pop Art – direction.
808s & Heartbreak is a reaction to pop culture, a meditation on what the implications are of getting everything you wished for, and an experimentation with a hodgepodge of musical and artistic devices. West creates a cocktail for his heartbreak, made up of TR-808 and Taeko drum patterns, distortion, animal cries, strings, monk choirs and the much talked-about auto-tune vocoder. In fact, every song on the album is built around 808s, amplified by Taeko drums and has West singing through auto-tune. In taking auto-tune and putting it in an unfamiliar context (i.e. one that does not involve singing about either Apple Bottom Jeans or boots with the fuurr), Kanye is doing exactly what Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol were in the 50s and 60s – at once softly parodying and illustrating his cultural connection to the device. Auto-tune as a symbol of Hollywood, has at once created his career and destroyed his life – it is the sound of his heartbreak, but also the device that allows him to sing and emote – making its meaning complex and convoluted but the central symbol of his pent-up frustration.
One of the most notable differences on this album from his previous work, is that he uses very few samples, and virtually no collaborations. Everything on this effort has been absolutely stripped-down. His live performances, videos, album packaging and of course the actual sound of the album, are all minimalistic, especially when compared to the ornate and grandiose style used during the promotion of Graduation (see: Takashi Murakami). When debuting the album to industry insiders, West collaborated with Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian modern artist known for her use of female nude models. VBKW2 (their performance piece at the listening session) consisted of 40 nude females, striking various vogue-esque poses while the album played in the background. Kanye explained that the theme he was trying to portray was emotional nakedness. 808s does exactly this from its offset.
The album begins with Say You Will, an opener which introduces all the album’s devices very nicely. 808s pound, while a heart monitor pulses in the background and Kanye sings with auto-tune, “Why would she make calls out of the blue … Don’t say you will, unless you will.” His anger is hard for him to mask as he sings lines like “When I grabbed your neck, I touched your soul” – heavy lyrics of the kind West hasn’t really written without masking his vulnerability with humour in the past (See: Bittersweet, “I’ll never hit a girl, but I’ll shake the shit out of you”). The song ends with a 2 minute outro during which the simple beat is allowed to play out. The outro effectively conveys his solitude and reminded me immediately of a film I saw a few years ago called Wavelegnth – kitschy/pretentious … I know; the film’s director uses one long take, focused on one singular object, and gradually zooms in on it for over an hour. It had an agitating effect, and forced introspection on the viewer, which, in my mind, translates quite well to the mood in the opener.
Welcome to Heartbreak introduces West’s second source of heartbreak – fame. For a guy who, until a year ago, rapped about being Hugo’s boss and the Louis Vuitton Don, lyrics like “my friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could do was show him pictures of my cribs,” come as a surprise. Kid Cudi’s appearance as the voice in Kanye’s head is well-integrated, as are Jon Brion strings and the song leaves the listener with the same morose feeling as the opener, as Kanye expresses disgust with himself and his materiality.
The album’s singles Heartless, Amazing and Love Lockdown all follow, and somehow, seem to make more sense within the album’s context than they have/will as singles. Each has Kanye, behind auto-tune, over simple keyboard led beats, but has a totally different vibe from the other. On Heartless, Kanye’s lyrics tell the messy-break-up-story really well as he grieves about his ex being so “Dr. Evil” while still wanting to be up with her “till 3 AM on the phone” – channeling Graduation’s lyrical universality approach, with a little stadium status sprinkled on top. On Amazing, he suddenly sounds stronger, confident, darker and jaded, as he sings “I’m a monster, I’m a killer, I’m amazing … I’m the reason everyone’s fired-up this evening”. His support system, monk choirs and Young Jeezy, both compliment the track well … even though Jeezy’s lyrics about watching his sodium intake, for fear of having a heart attack, are a bit out-of-place. Any confidence we may have thought Kanye built up on Amazing, is shot back down with Love Lockdown, as he mourns the death of his relationship and blames himself for not loving his fiancée “the way [he] wanted to”. The cathartic climax of the song is my favorite part, as it powerfully brings together all the elements of the heartbreak cocktail for the first time on the album.
The blame doesn’t stay pointed in his direction for long though. With the playful Paranoid and Robocop, the two catchiest tracks on the album, he spells out two of his ex’s flaws pretty explicitly: a. She’s super paranoid; b. She’s a “spoiled little L.A. girl”. Sidenote: By this point in the album, I’m wondering if anyone will ever date Alexis Phifer again … kinda feel bad for her .. but I don’t want no Robocop either, so whatever. Paranoid has some sweet 80s synths on it, while Robocop has fitting cinematic strings, sampled from Great Expectations’ “Estella’s Theme”. The two songs are interesting to hear one after the other, because one seems to be written from the perspective of someone who’s still in a relationship (Paranoid), and just realizing his other half’s flaws, while the other (Robocop) is written angrily looking back on these flaws. “You’re worried bout’ the wrong things” becomes “up late night like you’re on patrol, lookin’ for some things you don’t need to know, you never let it go.”
Next up is Streetlights, which was a stand-out track to me from the first time I heard the album. His lyrics move back to the abstract and verge on poetic, as the ballad-structured-song recounts “knowing [his] destination, but just not [being] there.” On this song, Kanye seems to be saying goodbye to “the streets” (i.e. urban music) and the flashing lights (i.e. Hollywood) both of which he ironically worked so hard to gain acceptance from. Monk choirs are replaced with live back-ups, which make Kanye’s character seem less alone all of a sudden – however, the heavy distortion behind his vocals, balances out the mood of the song, by reminding the listener that heartbreak still lingers. He’s caught on a trip, between where he left from and where he wants to go, he’s paid his dues (or fair) but life’s just not fair, and won’t let him get there just yet. That far off place seems to be his recovery point, where the heartbreak will end, and the trappings of fame will lift.
Finally, by Coldest Winter, Kanye is ready to say goodbye to his “friend” – heartbreak, Hollywood, his mother and ex-fiancée – who’ve all haunted him throughout the album. The song, dedicated to his mother, is an interpolation of Tears for Fears’ “Memories Fade,” and markedly has no sign of auto-tune or distortion as he repeats, “goodbye my friend, will I ever long again?”
This was meant to be the end of the album, and thematically would have made sense. However, two weeks prior to the album’s release, he spat a freestyle at a show in Singapore, which Beyonce Knowles heard and convinced him to use as the album’s official closer. I see where B was coming from with this. The song contains some of West’s strongest lyrics ever, and is a heartfelt and intimate moment, which the live recording captures. As he raps about sacrificing real life, for flashing lights, the crazed and inappropriate audience screams seem ironic, and spell out Kanye’s Hollywood/L.A. girl-inspired heartbreak – he’s not a real boy, and has forgotten what it feels like to be one. His line from Graduation’s I Wonder – “the smoke, screens, the chokes and the screams, you ever wonder what it all really means?” – all of a sudden makes much more sense. “Wise men say, one day you’ll find your way,” he closes the album repeating, recalling his struggle on Streetlights to get to his destination. Kanye doesn’t find his way on this album, but he’s on his way and in the process has put out one of the most fascinating concept albums of the past few years. People will hate this album and others will love it, but I think it can be acknowledged that there is nothing out there that quite sounds like 808s & Heartbreak, and as an album plays into a theme most cohesively of all his efforts.
Tags: Kanye West