Classics In The Making: Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak

Blood on the Auto-tuned Tracks?

I’m not much of a fan of rap music.  All the rap I hear on the radio isn’t really my cup of tea and I haven’t heard enough good rap albums to become a fan of the genre.  However, with that being said, I know that there are quality rap albums out there, and I know there are plenty of talented rappers out there proving to me that rap can be meaningful.  One of those rappers is Kanye West.  Though me liking his music does not give me much credibility for calling myself a rap fan – he is very mainstream and I have very few people to compare him to – I would say that he has truly deserved his place among the best rappers of all time.  A lot of people would say that last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his best album – it sure was one of the best albums of 2010.  However, I would actually argue that his album before, 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, is the album that truly shows this man’s talent.

Now here’s the thing about this album you need to know: most of the album has Kanye singing, not rapping, with an auto-tuned voice.  The production is also very minimal, not the grandiose production we are usually expecting from Kanye West.  Though auto-tune and robotics are the themes here – I’m tempted to give a Kid A comparison but I feel like that is inappropriate – the songs here are more human and personal than most of popular music today, or even by West’s standards.  Of course 2008 was a hard year for him.  His mother died and he broke off his engagement to his fiancee, making West a lonely man when he was considered to be the king of the music world.  It also didn’t help that West’s personality made him to be an arrogant ass – watch the episode of South Park making fun of him and you’ll know what I mean.  So what does Kanye do with all this going on his life?  He takes a step back and makes something that nobody expected, or wanted, him to make – an album not meant for MTV but for the bedroom, not to be blasted through your car speakers with your friends but through your headphones alone.  This isn’t ringtone rap, this is bedroom Pop music.

What’s most impressive about this album is how clear West is in his aim and storytelling.  From the very first lines of the album’s second song “Welcome to Heartbreak” (“Say You Will” is the first track but it feels more like an intro) you know that this ain’t going to be an easy ride, “My friend showed me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs / Said his daughter got a brand new report card / And all I got was a brand new sports car.”  “Heartless” clearly shows Kanye’s anger and bitterness toward the woman who wronged him.  “Amazing” has Kanye confessing his fears and vulnerability, something that you would of never heard on his previous albums, “I’m exhausted barely breathing / holding on to what I believe in.”  “Street Lights” could very well be my favorite Kanye West song, and go figure it’s the one with Kanye West not rapping.  Instead of talking about women, drugs, and being one of the biggest names in modern music, he is talking about trying to find his place in the world and trying to change who he is, “Do I still have time to grow? / Things ain’t always set in stone.”

This brings up the main reason why I love this album so much – this isn’t really a rap album.  This isn’t an album about how many girls Kanye can get, how much money he has, or how cool he is.  These are songs about love lost, isolation, fear, and loneliness.  This is more of a Pop album, both musically and lyrically, and that was probably Kanye’s intention.  This album isn’t perfect either, every song after “Street Lights” is forgettable and Kanye’s lyrics, though still pretty darn good, has much left to be desired.  But oddly enough, I like this album more because it is flawed. It gives Kanye more creditability as an artist for being able to take a step back and create something as artistic and different as this album.  Also try to think of any other mainstream rapper out there who would dare to make an album like this and be able to pull it off.

This is dark and serious – dare I said it – art, and it will be interesting to see where this album goes in the future.  It could very well be rap music’s closest thing to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, an album of so much baggage and personal depth confessed by a musical genius who before was a mystery to his audience but was made more human and real by a robotic voice.  Never before has someone sounded so human behind a machine’s voice.  Even if you’re not a fan of rap music, and I know there’s plenty of you out there, I highly recommend this album for you to see the possibilities of pop music and where it might be going soon.

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He's responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He's also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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