If Graduation is Fame, 808s & Heartbreak Kills. In the wake of Graduation‘s superlative Indian summer high, 808s and Heartbreak is the inevitable comedown – the crash of the coldest winter. West described this album as “Pop Art,” in its ability to merge hip-hop credibility with mainstream appeal to innovate authentic music in a way only paralleled by Pink Floyd: Welcome to heartbreak – the dark side of the moon.
The album opens with “Say You Will,” where West proclaims:
“When I grab your neck, I touch your soul. Take off your cool, then lose control.”
808s finds beauty in the darkest places, because it is those places that hold the greatest truth. The opener lays the path the rest of the tracks will follow. West’s lyrics this time around are less hype, more heart (break), less Louis V more lamenting, less Flashing Lights more Street Lights.
“Grab your neck, touch your soul” reminds me of the opener to Crash:
“It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”
Kanye is Mr. Show Up to Show Out – because we are so desensitized to true music and true artistry in the midst of fluff that to wake us up, he’s got to knock us out (just ask George “Doesn’t care about Black people” Bush, or Taylor “I’ve always wanted to be a Disney princess, thanks for being the villain” Swift).
“Take off your cool, then lose control,” is Ye stripping off the white guido tuxedo, taking off the shutter shades, and being comfortable in the catharsis of creatively controlled chaos.
The sound and the story align to underscore a sense of discord, distortion, and a dichotomy between the genuine and the unnatural – but more so how he makes the two harmonize and make sense. There is indigenous percussion, very bass-driven beats, but in the shadow of heartbreak the beat goes on – slowly, deliberately, but steadily and surely.
The 808 warps the bass beat, but in a way where the distortion sits on top. It is a clear dichotomy between the tracks: the surface mechanical staccato distortion over the steady deep bass – “heart breakbeats,” if you will. Here, West combines the two core examples of man and machine: the inescapable despair of heartbreak, and the undeniable precision of the 808 to reveal the flip side of perception. It is the breaking point, where pushing Auto-Tune to the limit results in distortion, Kanye’s world pushing him to the limit, results in that prevailing drive to go on – even when he has no clear direction
“All the streetlights glowing, Happen to be/ Just like moments passing, In front of me/ So I hopped in the cab and I paid my fare/ See I know my destination, But I’m just not there”
At the core of the album is the dark side, the cold winter, the heartless world; Kanye at his wit’s end – which is still wittier than most of the listeners – to the point of recorded mania on tracks like “Paranoid,” where you literally hear chilling chuckles and pseudo-schizo rants in the background.
Even at Ye’s coldest, most detached moments,
“It’s amazing I’m the reason, everyone fired up this evening…”
He grabs you by the neck to touch your soul. The mixed responses to his veering away from the staple sound and look had some questioning his sanity, but enlisting Young Jeezy and Lil’ Wayne on two of the standout tracks, “Amazing” and “See You in my Nightmares,” showed that Ye was crazy like a fox – “hip-hop” or not, 808s would trap the street’s ears because everyone knows the hood loves to listen to Jeezy and Weezy, and oh yeah Yeezy. Oddly enough, it is in “Paranoid” where he hits on the root of the issue:
“You worry ’bout the wrong things, the wrong things.”
808s isn’t about being technically precise or sonically pleasing – Ye gave you perfection from album the first. He gave you innovative, classic, catchy, lyrical, well-polished crisp production: that’s why you loved College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation. But above all,
“I’m a monster, I’m a maven; I know this world is changin’ / Never gave in, never gave up; I’m the only thing I’m afraid of.”
When Donda West died, life changed; but West as an artist – a maven – coped the only way he knew how: through music and his art.
808s is perfect and unforgettable in its peerless encapsulation of how Kanye was feeling at that very moment, it was an immersion into his world – and you may not have known what he was thinking, but you couldn’t help but feel it.
The prose and production alike are simple, yet multifaceted. Pianos, multiple vocal levels, strings, tribal drums, horns, all beneath the litany of vocoder and 808 add-ons. Lyrics that are blatantly literal, delivered in a manner that is polar to the perception of the Louis Vuitton Don – but it works in the Pop realm of self-contextualization.
The clearest sound remains the steady drums, the indigenous sound, the roots, the heartbeat; it maintains throughout the entire journey – through 808s, Auto-Tune, through heartbreaks and fickle mainstream. When pushed to the limit, 808s surge and shut down but humans survive. 808s and Heartbreak sounds like what would happen if Mozart met Microsoft and Mac – wait imma let you finish – and had the greatest artist of all-time produce the project. It’s classical and contemporary in a very raw way – harmonious discord.
The sound and story alike reveal the comfort of the familiar, the underlying acceptance of loss within nostalgia, the uncertainty of the new, but the inevitability in accepting it as well. Kanye was always in control, but when he lost that control – and his cool,
“It’s funny Pinocchio lied and that’s what kept him from it? I tell the truth and I keep runnin’/ It’s like I’m looking for something out there trying to find something, I turn on the tv and see me and see nothing –”
he found a way to contain the chaos and convey it to the listener,
“And the fame will be got caught and the day I moved to L.A./ Maybe it was all my fault, all my fault to be a real boy/ Chasing the American dream, chasing everything we seen, up on the TV screen/ And the Benz left and the clothes left, and the hoes left and the hoes and…”
It is what it is, and it’s not comfortable; but that’s the L.A. crash: you don’t feel comfortable, but at least you feel.
Honestly, I don’t “get” 808s and Heartbreak in the way I get Graduation, or Back to Black, or Frank, or My First Mixtape, or My Second Mixtape, or shameless plugs. I’ll never know what really means what. When I write these pieces, I know I’ll never be able to convey what I get about what the album’s got, but I manage. Enough people get the album’s general idea to where I’m another interpretation of what already is. 808s I’ll never get though, but it’s okay because Kanye didn’t get it either. He spoke from the broken heart.
Any time someone of Kanye’s caliber, within his capacity, can boldly go to their closet and display their skeletons – en route to expelling their inner demons – overlooking gratuity and pity in light of artistry and connection, it is more than noteworthy – it is unforgettable.