Monday, March 2, 2009

808s, Heartbreak and Ambition up the Yeezy (Volume One, Issue One)

With Kanye's most recent re-imagining of the VH1 Storytellers format, here's a review of what I believe to be his masterpiece, 808s & Heartbreak...

Beeps and blips bounce back and forth over a sparse drum beat created by the generally reviled Roland TR-808 drum machine. Sampled vocals create a mournful choir and the occasional chord on piano drops. The light among this desolate arrangement? The melodies of auto-tuned Kanye West. A question arises - the same one that came to mind when I heard Charlie Kaufman would be directing a feature film of his own - why?

It all sounds too terrible to be true. A loudmouthed, arrogant popstar lamenting the life he's built for himself full of money, women and sports cars? 808s & Heartbreak would be worthy of contempt were it not so beautifully contradictory and simply strange. You get the sense that Mr. West is really trying something here. Trying to write a proper pop song. Trying to excise the pain of losing a fiancé (she left him) and a mother (to a botched surgery) in the same year.

Above all, Mr. West is coping with this loss using his music, hoping for some sort of catharsis. Each song has all the immediacy we've come to know from Kanye (the man's first single was sung while his jaw was wired shut after a car accident) with little reflection. This is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand it makes the album incredibly contradictory. Sometimes on the same song - "Heartless" laments the loss of a girl, while also bragging "you'll never find nobody better than me." But, in a way, its an honest snapshot of the conflicted, unfiltered emotions one experiences after a break-up. Kanye's not thinking straight and neither are his songs as they bounce through his doubts ("Love Lockdown"), the career he chose ("Amazing"), his regrets ("Street Lights"), and - most underrepresented on this album - his cool (the transcendent "Paranoid").

Then there's the formal elements, most specifically the auto-tune. The man can't sing. But in this day and age why should that stop him? His use of auto-tune I find most effective in his live performances, where the rawness of his voice often overpowers the electronic vibrato of the correction tool. Its not always the most aesthetically pleasing but its real in a way that is absent from most pop. The 808 drum machine is known as a punchline in the music industry for sounding unapologetically fake. It was introduced to Kanye by composer / producer / songwriter Jon Brion (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fiona Apple's When The Pawn..., Meaningless) who co-produced most of Kanye's sophomore effort Late Registration. Brion's love of orchestral strings appears to have also influenced Kanye (see "Robocop" on Storytellers below). The true beauty of 808s comes from the fact that Mr. West uses these tried and despised tools to create something wholly new and interesting. And the album ends up sounding like a robot discovering its humanity.

By "Coldest Winter" Kanye proves himself to be just as big as he boasts he is (or at least on his way), with a heart bigger than any of the written-by-committee trash found on most Top 20 radio. Its an album of awkwardness, ambition and honesty that is extremely refreshing coming from an artist who could just as easily keep shilling out more of the same with great returns. I didn't hear anything else in 2008 that featured an artist challenging himself and pushing himself to the edge of his limitations as much as 808s & Heartbreak did for Kanye. One hopes that once he overcomes this bout of self-pity and grief, this ambition will manifest itself in an even greater way. 808s deserves applause for its intentions and a nod for its achievements. Here's to the self-proclaimed Elvis of our day.

(note: Please delete all versions of the bonus track found at the end of the album as it is pretty lame. You'll be doing yourself and Yeezy a favor.)


  1. Let me be the first to salute the (possibly unintentional) formal brilliance of this essay. A passionate, emotional direct, sometimes clumsy, sometimes graceful, seemingly surface-level defense of an album that could be ascribed the same qualities. Upon my first reading I thought you were hitting big points without a lot of detail. But that's a preposterous idea when one thinks of the album you are describing. It's stripped-down electronic pop, Garageband Motown. I think you managed to render a lot of this album's charms in written form. And I'm just as fascinated as you are at the idea of one of the world's nimblest producers shunning the protective sonic layers that he built his career on.

    I was also curious as to what you thought of the sheer musicality of the album. You mention the influence of Brion, and it seems like Kanye's working with a similar emotional palette, but his style here is starkly minimalist as opposed to Brion's baroque pop. Do you think the foregrounding of Kanye's (sometimes dubious) lyrics helps the album or hinders it? I can think of plenty examples in both camps myself.

    I also have to say that I think that Kanye is probably the most important pop star in the world today and I'm hoping that "808s" signals a Bowie-like commitment to experimentation and passionate stylishness (can't wait for those Berlin years. He's already proven he's one of the last contemporary artists capable of a coherent and compelling concept album. Although I don't think "808s" is his best collection of songs (that'd be "Graduation" followed closely by "College Dropout"), I do think it's his best album and one of a distressingly small number of albums in which the songs sound better in sequence than cherry-picked at random.

    I also think that "808s" tangentially confirms Thom Yorke's "The Eraser" as the most important record he's made since "Amnesiac." It was certainly on Kanye's mind in all those Grammy ads. Laptop-electronica-pop is the singer-songwriter with an acoustic.

    Finally, "Robocop." Hoo-doggy. What a tune.

  2. Should say "Laptop-electronica-pop is the NEW singer-songwriter with an acoustic." Sorry to be hopelessly unintelligible.

    Let me also correct another oversight and praise your pictorial selection of "808s" New Order-ish cover (displaying the lineage Kanye is trying to evoke) as well as the Warhol-on-anime photo of the man himself. I feel like he's one of very, very few artists who understand that fashion (and image, perception, persona, blah blah blah) is as essential as the music itself and can act as a compliment or a commentary.

    Also, "Love Lockdown." Hoo-doggy. What a tune.

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  4. Unfortunately, we all seem to be in agreement here. There's a bit of "intellectual groupthink" going on, or something. Ryan has vehement opinions to the contrary, and I was encouraging him to post his comments. Hopefully he'll get in on the discussion so we can have dissenting opinions. Also, McNally, if you're out there, I believe you aren't so hot on "808s" either, right?

    I disagree that "808s" is Kanye's best album. In fact, I think it's his third best album (behind "Graduation" and "The College Dropout," respectively). For all its glorious imperfections, "808s" has nothing with the raw emotion and relevance as "Jesus Walks," nothing that achieves the pop-glory like "Stronger." Also, the Zach Galifianakis official alternate video for "Can't Tell Me Nothing" is by far the best video a Kanye single has produced. Although "808s" certainly works as an album (in fact, it works BETTER as an album -- the tracks individually are much better when contextualized with each other), I think "Jesus Walks" and "Graduation" are even better. But third best in Kanye's world is still pretty damn good.

    And everything that Daren and Eric said about Yeezy's honesty, his willingness to try something new instead of going through the motions and cutting just another album is absolutely true.

    I thought Ye'ss "Storytellers" performance was a bit of an embarrassment, though. On the one hand, I thought the actual performances were fantastic. His voice sounded the better than it ever has. the lighting was... enthralling. The production was brilliant. I've watched several of Kanye's live performances since "808s" dropped and was either nonplussed or downright disappointed. If anyone saw his performance on "SNL" a month or two ago, you'll know what I mean -- his voice sounded raspy; his performance was tired and uninspired. This was not the case with "Storytellers." BUT, Kanye's "discussion" on his work was just, well, bad. He kept trying to freestyle/sing what he was thinking, and it didn't work. Kanye is no freestyler (as Daren's pointed out above), and yet he keeps on tryin'. I cringed in disgust when Kanye started talking about OJ Simpson. But, as I said, the actual performances were great, so that's encouraging.

    Credit where credit's due: My thoughts above have been clarified and distilled by conversations with Ryan Kasmiskie, Daren Sprawls, and Eric Wheeler.

  5. Here I am motherfuckers.

    Daren I am ashamed that you would call the mess that is 808's a heartbreaks a masterpiece, especially when weighed against his previous output. Are you even aware of the references to Ellison's Invisible Man, rife through out The College Drop Out? Do you not remember the start to finish excellence and depth of his past work?

    The thing that always made Kenye stand out was his precision, and picture perfect production. Despite his obvious deficiencies as an MC he managed to sell his craft.

    Let me be the firs to agree with Dan when he says that the storytellers performance was embarrassing. I couldn't even watch. The mad obviously hadn't thought of a single thing to say between old hits, and the songs from 808's seemed even weaker when put next to his older output.

    808's is self indulgent, poorly conceived, and completely lacking in insight. (Eric I swear to god if you start your philosophy 101 bullshit about subjectivity I'll rip your throat out, so don't even try.) Every positive review I read of this album spends more time apologizing for it's flagrant short comings than praising any genuine worth that it may carry. In a year I challenge you all to listening to it again. I'm sure you will all find it quite terrible.

    I plan on writing an entire piece on why this album sucks and why you are all drank to koolaid. Expect me.

  6. Ryan is become death, destroyer of worlds

  7. I'll save what little rebuttal i have for when your wrathful post drops.