Kanye West is a mouthy, impertinent, flamboyant, bellicose, provocative, greedy, and needy individual. He is also a once in a generation talent, with a sense of humor. Something which he very rarely gets credit for. On previous albums before “808s & Heartbreak” Kanye had hilariously taken himself to task for his foibles of style and narcissism. Usually, he never aims his differs at others; there is enough in the mirror for him to clown on. This is evident on the track “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” which was featured on his debut album, “The College Dropout.” He distilled the essential struggle that has defined his career into one sharp joke, stating “Always said if I rapped, I’d say something significant/But now I’m rapping about money, ho’s and rims again.” On the industry changing “808s & Heartbreak,” Mr. West was done letting himself off the hook. As a result of a tumultuous year in his personal life, the album operates solely on the level of catharsis, no commentary, no self-consciousness, no concern for anything but feeling. His mother, Donda West, died following complications from plastic surgery. Afterwards, a few months later Kanye split from his fiancee, Alexis Philfer. These by any measures are seismic changes, yet the artist in him persisted with recording. Lyrics like those found on the track “Pinocchio Story” in which he states “There is no Gucci I can buy, there is no Louis Vuitton to put on. There is no YSL that they could sell, to get my heart out of this hell and my mind out of this jail,” exhibits the pain in which Kanye was dealing with at the time.
“808s & Heartbreak” sounds like none of his other albums, nor at the time any rap album of note. It was minimal but functional. Flaunting pain requires a sort of arrogance, something that comes naturally to Kanye. Every track on the album is rife with anguish, and the lyrics, illustrating the shards of broken relationships, can carry a fresh sting. The first track on the album “Welcome to Heartbreak” is the epitome of any individual between the ages of 20 and 30. It’s a time when one’s self-doubt is at its most intense, as well as a time when the statement “Look at everything I haven’t done” floats around in one’s mind far more than the notion of “Look at everything I have done.” In simpler context, the track humanizes Kanye in a way that rappers aren’t supposed to be humanized. It appeals to the emotions of the listeners, which is the building blocks to a brand. The lyrics “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs/ He said his daughter got a brand new report card/ And all I got was a brand new sports car”, illustrates the power of simplicity. There is no fancy metaphors, no wordplay, and no lines with double meanings. It is so straight-forwarded, it’s innovative. By breaking down his thoughts and feelings to their simplest and unpretentious form, he’s allowing the listeners to feel them. In hip-hop, a genre reserved for brevity and self-righteousness, that is hard to do and ever harder to do well. Kanye is able to succeed in a way that is both poignant and palpable. The haunting vocals that Kid Cudi provides add smoke to an already foggy track. The effects of his vocals are aimed at vocally portraying the sound of pain that Kanye is trying to have illustrated. The lyrics “I can’t stop having these visions/ I gotta get with it” refrain just after the four minute mark. It’s as though Kanye is hearing back the lyrics in which he just said in a song that was aimed at discovering a profound sadness within himself for the first time.
It is this track that establishes the mindset of 808s & Heartbreak. It is an album aimed at asking questions within one’s self. It lays the groundwork for the intimacy that follows throughout the album. 808s & Heartbreak is a perfect illustration of an individual using music to cope with the losses in his life. It is Kanye trying to excise the pain of losing a fiancee and a mother in the same year. Personally, it is something I can relate to myself having lost the girl I was living with at the time to a pregnancy by her ex and my father to a suicide in the same year. Like Kanye, I have used music as my outlet for the pain, hoping for some sort of catharsis. Each track on the album has immediacy with little reflection, which is a strength and a weakness. It makes the album incredibly contradictory. On stand out track “Heartless” the lyrics laments the loss of a girl, yet while also bragging “you’ll never find nobody better than me.” Yet, this is an honest snapshot of the conflicted, unfiltered emotions that one experiences after a break-up. Like most individuals, he is not thinking straight after the losses and neither are his songs as they bounce through his doubts, the career he chose, the regrets, and his cool. The true beauty of 808s comes from the use of auto-tune making the album sounding like a robot discovering its humanity. Something that individuals have to go through after they lose themselves in relationships. It is an album of awkwardness, ambition and honesty. It is an illustration of an individual trying to overcome a bout of self-pity and grief. It took the rise of Drake to realize the brilliance behind the album and how Kanye’s self-proclaimed “futurist” label seems more fact than fiction. “808s & Heartbreak” was a controversial album as well due to the excessive use of auto-tune. Auto-Tune locates the pitch of a record vocal, and moves that recorded information to the nearest “correct” note in a scale, which is selected by the user. With the speed set to zero, unnaturally rapid corrections eliminate portamento, which is the musical term for the slide between two pitches.