Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

(Def Jam)


After briefly threatening to descend into the foreboding world of great-but-not-throttling on the pure pop effort Graduation in 2007, Kanye West bounced back a year later with a bold, odd, instantly classic album of Autotune rambling and overextended Human League dark nights of the soul. 808s & Heartbreak is a stark contradiction to everything a more traditional artist might have done on his fourth album, and as much as it finally fails to stand up to his earliest work -- owing largely to the way it flies completely off the rails in its final fifteen minutes -- it may be his most purely brilliant record, and certainly his most emotional and I suspect in the end his most far-reaching and influential. For certain, it's difficult to imagine the pastoral whimsy and lush wickedness of followup My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy without the floodgates this opened to West expressing his demons, West demanding his audience meet him on his own terms.

What gets lost in all that, I suppose, is just how ingenious 808s is, and how completely -- lyrically, musically, production-wise, everything -- he knocks the first nine tracks out of the park. From the hauntingly stark breakup ballad "Say You Will" through the ceaseless punching of the popcraft and hellish confession that follows and the twin benchmarks of the undeniable "Heartless" and synthpop monster "Paranoid," West is on to something with his marriage of naked regret and bitterness about the end of a relationship to arid, sterile-sounding electronic soundscapes. Digitizing his voice until it's only periodically identifiable, West uses the distance to comfort himself in taking us on a tour of his darkest impulses, which to be frank sounds an awful lot like every other Kanye West album, but there's something profound and universal in these grooves, in the way they so effectively capture the misery, the abandon, the scariness of a new and unwanted single life. It's some of the loneliest mainstream music ever recorded, and West knows it. He milks it for everything until we feel as sad (yet oddly satisfied) as he does.

I was traveling in Ohio shortly after 808s came out; "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless" were playing everywhere. All the friends I met up with during my vacation talked about the record, which sounded so perfect against the icy December chill so completely unfamiliar to this southern kid. Dealing with my own relationship-fallout issues at the time, I became rapidly obsessed with "Heartless" and subsequently with the record as a whole. The moments that meant the most to me then, and that still have devastating resonance now, were "Say You Will," the joyfully ruthless "Paranoid," and "Bad News," a "See Line Woman"-derived forerunner of sorts to the subsequent album's "Blame Game." The discomforting honesty with which West approaches the sinking feeling and lingering ache of a bad or even amicable breakup peaks here as he approaches a pain so dire it takes on an almost physical presence. West's attempts at singing may usually be dubious, ingratiating as they are, but the pain he lives in and gives his full body to here is enough to make something outside this album like "Stronger" or the Jay-Z collaboration "Otis" seem even more like pure posturing, like an actor's game that's finally beside the point. It may be full of synthetics and carefully processed and treated, but 808s is finally as raw and revealing and crushingly real as Plastic Ono Band.

Its indulgences, however, give it an unwelcome touch of Some Time in New York City. The out-of-nowhere Lil Wayne collaboration "See You in My Nightmares" is an overly busy disaster, despite its radio success, and Weezy's bit seems shoehorned in as an obligatory bone thrown to hip hop normalcy. "Coldest Winter" is just meandering, failing to temper the ragged melodramatics so faithfully toned down elsewhere. Worst of all is the freestyle "Pinocchio Story," listed as a "bonus track" but present on every version of the record, which seems to stretch on for hours and really sends the pure emotionalism of the rest of Heartbreak into pretentious and trite territory, all of the performer's worst self-absorbed tendencies summarized in six minutes.

Without all that, the pace and quality here would never flag, all capturing a particular kind of urban depression and a palette of personal loss that seems individualistic on contact but of course is familiar to anyone who's been alone for any length of time. The echoes are constant and unexpected -- Tears for Fears, Everything But the Girl, even Suicide -- but never function as kitsch, rather as a document of desperation amid sprawl. All the folks I spoke to about 808s at the time kept saying they thought this was an album West "had to make," or he would've lost his mind. I agree, but maybe we feel that way because we needed it as much as he did.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
with Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (2011)

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