Def Jam / Roc-a-Fella, 2008
I remember very well the release of this album and especially the single that came out a few months before the album, Love Lockdown. In fact, I think every rap fan at that time remembers it very well. Kanye West surprised, he took everyone by surprise, nobody knew what to expect, and nobody expected this kind of music. Why you would say?
At the time Kanye West was in his trilogy on the theme of college with his little bear, the album was to be a continuation of this theme and was called Good Ass Job, which was logically the prolongation of Graduation. He was one of the inventors and one of the greatest representatives of back-pack rap, a rap that does not come from the street but from the more privileged circles. The counterpoint is not so much in the fact that he interrupts his saga, but rather in the musicality that changes radically, moving away from the back-pack rap. Kanye West had become one of the references of his generation in Soul sampling, starting with his work on Blueprint in particular, before releasing his solo albums The College Dropout and Late Registration. His third opus, Graduation, had already taken us into more Pop and electric sounds, but the background remained more or less Hip Hop.
With 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye West takes a real turn and radically changes his approach with an album that is more like experimental RnB with a mixture of synth-pop and electro-pop. Looking back today, this kind of 180 degree turn is not surprising from Kanye West, but at the time, it was already much less expected.
What is interesting is to understand why Kanye made this turn at this point in his career by interrupting his saga. In fact, several events intervened in the life of the Chicago rapper. The first is the death of his mother, Donda, as a result of plastic surgery. The second is his separation with his fiancée Alexis Phifer. Mixed with this, the public expectations were getting higher and higher and Kanye had some difficulties to adapt to his growing fame and media pressure, although he always wanted to become a pop star. The timing was finally right to assume this growing popularity and start acting not as a rap star, but rather as a pop culture icon. And for that, nothing better than an RnB/Pop oriented album.
Kanye West808s came from suffering multitude losses at the same time. It’s like losing an arm and a leg and having to find a way to keep walking through it.
Either call it ‘pop’ or ‘pop art,’ either one I’m good with
Following these events, Kanye West will no longer think like a rap star, but like a growing pop star ready to assume his status. His status as a back-pack rapper finally gives him some legitimacy to claim pop-star status, having a foot in both worlds, both appreciated by the rap community, but also by a more typically Pop or Rock audience. He declares himself not to be a rapper anymore, but defines his own music as pop-art, feeling inspired by the achievements of the great pop stars.
If we take the title of the album, it finally indicates a big part of the content that the album will present, both musical but also lyrical. Let’s focus on the first one. The drums are almost entirely made with a Roland TR-808, commonly called 808, a machine that allows to program drum beats mostly used in the 80s in electronic music, dance and hip hop. Kanye West moves away from soul sampling and complex compositions in favor of a minimalist sound with sparse drum machines, high-pitched electronic sounds inspired by Synth-pop and Electro-pop. Ultimately, the album melts into a generally austere atmosphere with drums, drones, gloomy piano and moody strings. As he states himself, this minimalist sound is representative of Kanye West’s state of mind following his various events. Beyond the lyrics, Kanye has always had an excellent ability to communicate with his music.
The massive use of vocoder is another of Kanye’s innovations and it is probably also what has most unsettled Kanye’s fans from the beginning. This can be seen on the first single Love Lockdown where Kanye’s voice becomes almost saturated as it is so high-pitched. The use of vocoder can be seen as an expression of a form of hysteria and inner anger that comes out, as an expression of his unhappiness and anguish, a cry of distress.
The second part of the album title, Heartbreak, is a direct reference to the unfortunate events in the life of the Chicago rapper, and the lyrics will necessarily be impacted. Kanye communicates his unhappiness, he feels lost with a broken heart. On Amazing, he goes so far as to define himself as a monster, feeling fulfilled, yet still convinced of his reign. Street Lights, Welcome To Heartbreak or Love Lockdown are other good examples of Kanye West’s inner unhappiness, where he confesses the emptiness of his life. Strongly inspired by Pop-Rock groups with depressive tendencies, the writing moves away from traditional rap, which usually has long texts, in favor of short lyrics and rhymes. The lyrics are far from being the strong point of the album although they are very communicative. Kanye fulfills the objective.
Kanye WestI’m not loving you, way I wanted to
What I had to do, had to run from you
I’m in love with you, but the vibe is wrong
And that haunted me, all the way home
So you never know, never, never know
Never know enough, ’til it’s over love
‘Til we lose control, system overload
Screaming, “No, no, no, no-no”
I’m not loving you, way I wanted to
See I wanna move, but can’t escape from you
So I keep it low, keep a secret code
So everybody else don’t have to know
For the final word, is 808s & Heartbreak a classic? A game-changer? For the first one, the answer is in my opinion no, the album suffers from a few moments a little softer, especially towards the end, which takes it slightly away from the perfection associated with the famous classics. For the second one, in my opinion, it is much closer to it since it creates a real break. Fans may not have been totally ready for an album like this one, but many will be inspired by this album in the years to come, including Kid Cudi to name a few. For a rap album, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board since it doesn’t really meet the criteria of traditional rap. If we take the album for what it is, an experimental R&B album, the effort is estimable and rather well done. The album’s risk-taking and originality is commendable, in the same way that Common did with Electric Circus a few years earlier. And Kanye is inspired by Common’s approach, while bringing his own concept and musicality. What is certain is that the album marks a breakthrough in Kanye’s career and in retrospect, it has had an undeniable impact on the rap landscape.