Editor’s Note: Well, here we are: my Least Favorite Kanye West album, 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak. Coming into the project, this was the only album in Kanye’s oeuvre that I hadn’t already listened to extensively; his “emo-rap” phase just hasn’t ever been my cup of tea. But I want to give it a fair shake, because it continues to be an important touchstone in West’s musical progression: just listen to his recent single “Only One,” which sounds a bit like 808s on antidepressants. Besides, with the recent, totally left-field announcement that Kanye would be performing the album in its entirety later this month, revisiting the 808s era has become an unexpectedly timely pursuit. So let’s get to it, I suppose. First, though, the usual reminder that we’re picking up in the middle of a lengthy series, on which you can catch up here with Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Then, once you’re done, you can pick up with the following Parts 8, 9, 1o, 11, 12, and 13. And no, for those keeping track, Kanye still hasn’t released his seventh solo album–though he did recently (albeit jokingly) announce a bid for the U.S. Presidency in 2020. Hey, man, whatever will keep you busy until I finish this project… – Z.H.
Our discussions of the last two albums in the Kanye West oeuvre have focused on their departures from the trademark sound Kanye developed in the early 2000s: the self-conscious revisions and last-minute shifts in direction that were the product of a drive to constantly stay relevant, to keep hurdling the ever-higher bars he set for himself with his own tireless self-hype. Yet it’s important to keep in mind that few recording artists’ early discographies are as purposeful and calculated as Kanye West’s. Recall that this was the guy who announced the name and principal theme of his first album over a year before it came out; who, indeed, had the concepts for his first four records all laid out as early as June of 2003, when he told MTV’s Joseph Patel that he would follow up his still-unreleased debut with a thematically-linked sequence of albums called Late Registration, Graduation, and Good Ass Job.
But even Kanye could never have predicted the changes that would come in the months immediately following the release of Graduation in September 2007. First, on November 10, his mother Donda West died of complications from cosmetic surgery–a tragedy, he would frequently intimate, for which he blamed himself and his move to Los Angeles, where the intense scrutiny and unrealistic beauty standards of celebrity culture presumably pushed her to elect procedures that risked, and ultimately took, her life. Then, early in 2008, the dissolution of his engagement with designer Alexis Phifer pushed him further into depression. In the meantime, his P.R. conflicts with the entertainment media and mainstream audiences were growing ever more entrenched; he sparked yet another award show controversy when he went off on a rant backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards over the perceived snub of his performance being relegated to a suite rather than the main stage. All this, combined with the anxieties already expressed on Graduation over the dark side of fame, meant that Kanye was clearly not in the mental or emotional state to record a triumphal College Dropout fourquel called Good Ass Job. So instead, he threw the biggest curveball of his career to date.
The album that would arrive in November 2008, just over a year after the release of Graduation and the death of his mother, was more than a shift away from the sound and themes of The College Dropout: it was all but unrecognizable as the work of the same, fresh-faced M.C. from 2004. Half a decade earlier, Kanye had made his name with simple, relatable rhymes over impeccable soul samples; now he was eschewing rap entirely, singing over deliberately unsoulful electronic beats with a digitally-processed voice that sounded like it was coming from a particularly distraught android. Today, for better or worse, 808s & Heartbreak has become a part of the fabric of popular music; as a pioneer of so-called “emo-rap,” its influence is clear on everyone from the obvious Drake to much less predictable figures, like trap robo-crooner Future. But it’s hard to overstate just how ballsy a move it was for Kanye to make at the time. It was, unquestionably, his most divisive artistic statement at that point–and it quickly set the standard for a second act that would serve as a series of such divisive artistic statements.
Continue reading “Je Suis Kanye: The Kanye West Oeuvre – Part 7: Welcome to Heartbreak (2007-2008)”