Who could have thought two seemingly insignificant lines on Kanye West’s last album, Graduation, would turn prophetic? With 808s & Heartbreak, Mr. West jumps over to left-field in a big way.
First and foremost, anyone expecting another “hip-hop” album in line with the previous three should readjust their expectations. 808s is not full of the bravado and cocksureness we have all come to expect from West and those in the rap world. Lyrics aside, the sound is also incomparable to any of his past work.
Much had been made of the drastic change in musical style leading up to the release of 808s but West still proves he can put together great melodies. The haunting opener “Say You Will” moves along on what sounds like an EKG and sets the tone for an album where listeners will want to reach out and put a stop to the downward spiral that is gripping West before he flatlines.
808s is a result of West’s introspective therapy after his sudden isolation. Donda West, Kanye’s mother, passed away at the end of 2007. He told People magazine he partly blames his fame and lifestyle for her death. He also ended an 18 month engagement with his fiancé in the early part of 2008.
Grief and loss are prevalent throughout the lyrics. The sound is dominated by a Roland TR-808 drum machine and auto-tune singing, giving everything a glossy, dark, and inhuman feel. It is very evident he is experiencing a seminal period of self adjustment.
There are no female guest appearances or samples. The fairer sex is referenced only as ghosts, visions, or allusions. Past lovers are compared to “RoboCop” and Annie Wilkes in Misery. “You run and tell your friends that you’re leavin’ me … You’ll never find nobody better than me” West utters on “Heartless.” Even this moment of confidence comes off half-hearted. It’s hard not to wonder, is he trying to convince her or himself?
Approaching this album detached will not produce the same results in terms of impact on the listener. This is not to say West has gone incredibly profound with his lyrics, but the conviction in which he delivers them is hard to ignore. “Chased the good life my whole life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?” West wonders on the superb “Welcome to Heartbreak.”
“I’m the only thing I’m afraid of” West laments on “Amazing.” The lack of direction he seems to be facing is akin to a car crash. It is just too difficult to look away, even though the outcome is never going to be positive. The party starting, live it up friend we’ve grown to love has vanished and we know he will never be the same. For all the knocks on West’s singing and ego, he has made a very visceral piece of music.
In the world of hip-hop and rap, showing such displays of emotion have always been taboo. For this, many will discard 808s & Heartbreak without giving it a fair listen. But in a world of glitz and glamour, an artist known to be the epitome of both has highly tempered himself in a stunning display of restraint. It is something we can all learn from and at the very least enjoy the rare moment of vulnerability West has allowed us to witness.