Give Life Back To Music 08.26.13: Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak Posted by Sean Comer on 08.26.2013
411's Sean Comer continues his personal journey through the music of Kanye West with a look at the rapper's electronic-heavy departure from his previous work, 2008's 808s & Heartbreak!
Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
Shockingly often, less is more.
With his first three albums, Kanye West served the hip-hop world with notice: he was a rarely-seen breed of artist. With The College Dropout and Late Registration, he demonstrated an unusually intuitive ear for the complementary blending of well-chosen, carefully placed samples and those borrowed elements' complementary juxtaposition with ornate, soulful orchestration. Graduation heralded his evolutionary step forward into hip-hop production rooted in synth and EDM – in a sense, delivering his overture to this week's experiment in composition.
Through every album, he employed frank, cynical, self-aware and self-conscious thoughtfulness that was then uncommon for an MC broken as far through to the mainstream as he.
With his fourth album, he stripped away much of the bombast, spectacle and even a considerable degree of exultant self-aggrandizement to deliver 808s & Heartbreak, a fairly succinct album that exemplifies a precious joy in music: hearing an artist approach the alchemy of sound in an unheard-of fashion that leaves you skeptical initially, but eventually conceding that it's actual rare brilliance that redefines a genre.
808s & Heartbreak
November 24, 2008
I have never reversed my opinion of an album after a second listen quite as dramatically as I did after recently listening to this one for only the second time since its 2008 release.
Perhaps it was the more discerning ear I leant it this time around. Perhaps, after two failed serious relationships (when this was released, I was actually still in the only serious relationship I'd ever had and engaged to be married), I'm wizened enough by experience to expose some more sensitive strings to being authoritatively plucked by the album's theme of a relationship's decay.
Whatever restrained my appreciation in the first place, this is an example of how an artist's natural expansion of horizons can end up transcending the narrow, relative bounds of "good", "bad", "better" or "worse" to be grounded more in a compulsion to always deliver something different. Of course, "different" doesn't necessarily mean "bad" or "good", but it definitely means "not the same".
Maybe that was my problem: I was still clinging to the idea that there was a "signature" Kanye West style.
The album is sparse – and effectively so. It's a testament to Kanye's powerful, engaging wordplay and lyrical themes that even the huge production and musical layout of his previous three albums' tracks don't overshadow the spotlight on his rapping. That said, with the subdued nature and theme of his lyrics here, 808s just couldn't be so compelling except under Kanye's minimalist approach and a certain conscientious use of space in the overall sound.
Kanye makes rhythm the true core of these songs the way most artists, within hip-hop and other genres alike, typically utilize melody. From beginning to end, it's stunningly effective, too. The synth and piano are understated enough to color the tracks, but the treble rarely establishes anything resembling a hook. It's a brilliant approach to structure, and one that few (if any) producers had effectively imitated before or have since.
The greatest triumph, though, was taking Auto-Tune – a tool universally regarded as a producer's last-gasp reach to make a terrible singer's voice palatable to human ears – and darkening every morose track with the 808s particularly evocative, heartbreaking urgency. In fact, during production, that was what Kanye dubbed the distorted effect: "heartbreak," a tone symbolic of a personal life that was fractured by failed relationships and the recent death of his mother.
There should be no trying to cherry-pick one "best" track from this album. It's best heard as a complete composition, beginning to end, a damaged man's letter to a lover that spurned him. Put a gun to my head and order me to pick one, though, and it could only be "Love Lockdown". This is Kanye's smoldering tango with a woman's lingering essence that just won't loosen its grip on him. The tapping, minimalist cadence might as well be the hammering of the relationship's ghost at the door to his heart. The repeated measures of piano in the first verse escalate Kanye's boiling tension until the chorus erupts with fuller drums and claps in an urgent gallop. It's truly perfect in its final state.
Once more, listening to this album is like reading a novel: there's a unity in tone that makes it a single bonded statement. However, he does break briefly here and there to keep the experience from quickly growing stale. "Amazing" is so mood and almost anthemic, it's no wonder Frank Mir has often pegged it for his UFC walk-out music; it's like a grim rolling cloud, or a cadence initializing a march to war with intent to conquer. Just the same, "Coldest Winter" is a more frantic bleeding of Kanye's confusion at the late Donda West's passing due to complications from plastic surgery, a moment that took from Kanye's life a woman who had been the volatile artist's conscience and calming element.
Appropriately, the song is uniquely poetic for Kanye. It's a poignant delivery marked with the kind of passion Kanye's previously displayed on tracks such as "Two Words" or "Homecoming".
Also…it's the album finale. Nope, there is no happy ending here. There is no closing this up on a positive, chin-up note. It begins and ends in disillusion, closing the curtain on a downtrodden image of an otherwise audacious, brazen, sometimes off-putting man.
If the previous three albums were glimpses into the madness of an artist's mind, this was a close, unflinching look at the downpour in his heart. It's not chaotic. There's very little grandeur. It's a tenderness that's compelling for all its minimalism, set against a backdrop that reminds me sometimes of Daft Punk's TRON: Legacy OST, especially on mid-tempo "Paranoid". There's a sense of being in an expansive, austere place with bare walls and no light. You find yourself drawn to the movement of what lights blink in the darkness. With no distractions to attract your eye, you're left to be fascinated only by the few objects the light illuminates. No skits this time around. No interludes, either. Even the guest appearances are limited to Young Jeezy's fairly inconsequential verse on "Amazing" and Mr. Hudson's guest vocals added to "Paranoid".
Unfortunately, now comes the proof that my love is rarely unconditional. The returns were bound to diminish eventually. Next week, I explain why an album that everybody seems to love managed to leave me the coldest of everything in his discography. As a bonus to round things out, I'll expound upon how his most recent solo effort brought Kanye right back to the kind of genre-defying creativity that made 808s> something special.
Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas, kids.