Undefined Collective

Classic Album Review

808s & Heartbreak - Kanye West


William Espinoza

June 24, 2018

A friend told me to review the first record I felt compelled to say something about. In the never ending list of albums, initially this felt like quite a daunting task. Review #1; so easy to do yet so hard to start. But as I sat with that remark, it became clear to me there was only one record that could do this justice.
And so this brings me to Review #1: Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak. Much has been said about this record, from being the worst of Kanye’s releases to being the album that shaped present day hip hop. Although I would firmly agree with the latter statement, we often neglect to give this record the praise it is due.
Admittedly, when I first heard it, I hated it. Why was he doing all this singing? What is up with all this auto-tune? Why do I care if you keep your love locked down? These were the burning questions of my adolescent mind. It took almost 10 years after its initial release for me to revisit this tape and freed from the shackles of my own expectations, I was able to listen with the open ears it deserves.

“The TR-808 is extensively used throughout the record to create a sense of emptiness to parallel these sentiments of loss, isolation and extreme grief.”

The title of this record pretty much hits the nail on the head as far as the content of this album goes. Between losing his mother due to surgical complications and breaking off his engagement, heartbreak was the only fixture that could accurately represent this time in his life. The TR-808 is extensively used throughout the record to create a sense of emptiness to parallel these sentiments of loss, isolation and extreme grief. This marked a huge shift from his past endeavors. The sparse production serves as a dark canvas on which he paints his world of desolation with a degree of vulnerability we have never seen from him.
Serving as almost an extended introduction, the track “Say You Will” quickly informs the audience that the grandiose, celebratory nature of Graduation is a thing of the past. He sings “don’t say you will, unless you will” pleading for his partner to not falsely raise his hopes. However, by the end of the song he’s found begging for his partner to do the opposite.  He has been broken down to such an extreme that knowingly being fed lies is the only means for comfort he has left. The constant droning of the choir in the background denotes the part of him that is aware matters will not change while the looping drum arrangement, progressing from deep bass to high electronic notes, mirrors the patterns of developing expectations only to be brought back down to a crushing reality. Even once his croons come to an end, the beat goes on and on trapping the listener in these same cycles.
The record really begins as the choir slowly fades out and the delicate strings of “Welcome to Heartbreak” replace them. Lamenting the life he worked so hard to achieve, he ascertains that in reflection this new life has only brought him misery. On this track he is desperately searching for the reason he ended up in this dark place. Kid Cudi joins him for a breathtaking chorus explaining how his life has been reduced to nothing more than a blur of visions in front of him. Despite his search for meaning in the present and answers from the past, the demands of fame force him to further dissociate from the life he can already barely recognize.
This dissociation proves to be a crucial concept of the record. When making this record, he said he felt all these melodies inside of him that could not be expressed through his conventional rap methods. Unfortunately for him, his voice was not exactly one of his major selling points. This led him to the usage of auto tune for almost the entirety of this record. It has been argued that this was purely a talentless singer leaning on a much needed crutch. Despite this claim, there are other artistic implications aside from the voice correction.
Professing such dark and deep emotions can prove to be a more daunting task than most would care to admit. However, by using auto tune he is able to allow for a degree of separation between himself and the darkness that has enveloped him. Like other rappers have done in the past, it almost creates an alternate persona through which he has both the freedom to explore uncomfortable corners of his mind while also asserting that this sadness does not define him. So what some see as an artist attempting to make up for what he lacks in skill, I see as person using the instruments in front of him as tools for processing heartbreak.

“… by using auto tune he is able to allow for a degree of separation between himself and the darkness that has enveloped him.”

These adjusted vocals make up much of this record and with the production contribute to a very clean and polished feel. That is until the emotional climax of the record, “Pinocchio Story”. A live cut from a show in Singapore, this song has shouting from the crowd, awkward pauses, and is just a mesh of sounds. By nature of a live freestyle, there was no time to emulate the sonic façade he had created for this record, and as a result we see the artist in his most immediate form. Just how these thoughts and fears and doubts indiscriminately appear in life, the path down this song is random and without direction. This is a pure stream of consciousness of a man who has lost his way and does not think it can ever be made right again. It is a fitting end to a record with a persistently bleak outlook that provides little to no reprieve.
Before this tape, Kanye was seen as some larger than life figure, a sometimes crazed celebrity, and at other times a musical genius. Never had he seemed so incredibly human and grounded as he did on this record. It was both therapeutic for the artist and a humble reminder to the listener that even our idols can fall from grace. He may never make as grand of a statement as he did with this record. He created a completely new sound and shattered the prior notions of what is and isn’t hip hop.  It is honest, ambitious and, much like its creator, flawed, but within these imperfections lies a collection of songs that when brought together are no less than perfect.

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