Defending a Masterpiece: Why Kanye’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ Is an Amazing Album
“Great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing” - Lester Bangs (Almost Famous)
Confusion. I remember the emotion well. It was like buying a Big Mac and wondering how I ended up with this Whopper Jr.
With each passing song, I wondered when the rapping would begin. Where was the Kanye that spoke of turning tragedy to triumph with a jaw wired shut? Where was the Kanye who touched the sky alongside Lupe? For three consecutive albums he had delivered, and yet, on his fourth offering, he failed to pierce my hip-hop soul like he once did.
My heart sunk into the sole of my shoe when he redirected and renamed Good Ass Job, but I wasn’t prepared for him to completely revamp his artistry. This was a completely new Kanye, a singing Kanye, a tragic Kanye—the darkness of his 808s, the bleakness of his heartbreak didn’t resonate with my 17-year-old desire for the old Kanye.
It was a little over a year after the release of 808s & Heartbreak, the winter of my graduation year, when I tried the album once again. This was the coldest winter of my adolescence, an age of love and heartache, conflict and pain, guilt and longing—emotional scars that can be relieved by the ointment of music. A year can change a lot, especially when a woman enters and exits your life like some beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. The very songs that I once wished to be filled with buoyant boasts, slick brags, and inspirational lyricism sounded perfect as Auto-Tune drenched life anecdotes from a man unafraid to wear the shattered heart on his microphone. He couldn’t sing—he still can't, Kanye’s shortcomings to some may be the Achilles' heel of 808s—a flawed man with an imperfect technique is fitting of such a vulnerable album, but it adds a flavor that even a master singer isn’t able to reproduce. I couldn’t truly be welcomed into heartbreak before; it felt foreign, weird, but the once strange place had suddenly felt like home.
Over the years, Kanye’s fourth album has continued to hold a special place in my music library. Its subject matter, heartbreak, has kept it from aging—an album that is relevant each time a former dream girl arrives in your nightmares, when dealing with a paranoid lover, or eclipsed in a game of cat and mouse by a heartless heroine. From front to back the music West was able to produce is enchanted by an execution of emotions you are likely to relive countless times throughout this lifetime. Not everyone will understand how it feels to drop out of college or graduate with a degree, but we all will be haunted by a former lover, the passing of a parent, and the despair of trying to keep it together while the world slowly crumbles all around.
Without a light at the end of his tunnel, Kanye envelops listeners in his therapeutic release disguised as a pop album. The album never wavers from its central themes—this dedicated focus to pouring out his soul is why the entire project flows like a descending elevator into the depths of his soul. It never stops being dark and heavy, the tone is black as midnight. I don’t care about Complex's ranking of Kanye's album, but Brendan Klinkenberg nailed what lies underneath 808s:
808s is a reflection on a Faustian bargain gone wrong, a message from a man who achieved everything he wanted—fame, fortune, critical adoration, and a place in canon—but realized too late that it was at too high a cost and, to his horror, there was no going back. 808s is the sound of living with decisions you regret.
Abstract moments like “Street Lights,” “Bad News” and “Coldest Winter” have always stood out for their songwriting. The beauty is in their simplicity—you feel as if you’re in the cab underneath the streetlights, you feel as if you’re in the room as bad news is harshly delivered, bringing death to a dream, and you can feel the unforgiving cold of lonely nights, uncertain if love will ever reenter your sleepless world. 808s is the first time I remember artists covering Kanye records, and it’s within those covers where you see the true magic of his writing. The Fray’s version of “Heartless” removes the Auto-Tune and increases the poignant human ache of his words.
Daniel Caesar’s “Streetcar” is a breathtaking rendition of “Street Lights” that exhales an even more chilling air to the masterful record. Daniel is the superior singer, but both songs are exquisite in the way they convey emotion—the world is big enough for both versions.
The man who made a name for himself through soul samples removed all the soul from his beats, the man who was determined to be acknowledged as a rapper decided to sing of his pain, and the man whose name is synonymous with confidence and egotism created a project where both traits are almost completely vacant— 808s & Heartbreak is a selfie of Kanye at his most fragile, vulnerable, and creatively daring.
“Welcome To Heartbreak” and “Pinocchio Story” are my favorite portraits of Kanye West the man—he is an open vein bleeding in both cases. One encompasses a man juxtaposing his famous, lavish lifestyle against the conventional lives of acquaintances. This isn’t the good life he once proclaimed, his life appears to be more a fortress that he's trapped within. Sorrow fills the soul as he admits an inability to stop. He had come too far to go back, sacrificed too much to reset. "Pinocchio Story" gives a closer glimpse into his psyche, stripping him of the persona and revealing a man scarred by the loss of his mother, the loss of reality. Singing this song live, doing it in one take, trying to recreate the rawness of this rant would be impossible. This is Kanye at his most pure and lugubrious. This is a man who made it to paradise and realized that even the most beautiful utopia has a dark side.
When Chance The Rapper revealed his ranking of Kanye’s albums, I wasn’t shocked to find 808s dead last. It’s a subjective list like all lists, no different than Complex. I’m sure he could articulate his reasoning, but it’s also rather common to see 808s at the bottom when categorizing Ye’s best music. It’s rather unfair, out of all Kanye’s projects, this is the one where rapping is almost nonexistent—the black sheep of his discography. I’ve slowly placed the album outside of Kanye’s rap realm, choosing to instead categorize it as a unique body of work that he’ll never recreate.
Every artist will likely have a moment when an inner voice is daring them to go beyond what’s expected, pushing them to escape from the tangle of normalcy and make an album people could hate. It’s been said countless times how 808s was innovative, how it changed the scope of modern rap music, how it ushered in the age of Cudi and Drake, but that’s not what makes the album special. Even if no one was impacted, even if the world wasn’t altered, even if the album was a complete flop, it doesn’t change the music.
During a time where Kanye didn’t know what reality was, he made a project overflowing in realism. It’s a quality that will always make the album relevant. Even after rap’s infatuations with 808s and Auto-Tune are dead, I believe this album will stand the test of time. It survives because of heartbreak, vulnerability, and honesty. It may be placed at the very bottom when discussing Kanye’s rap albums, but it deserves to be ranked high as one of Kanye’s most personal masterpieces.
This is not just an album, but the heartbeat and heartbreak of one of the most prolific artists of the 21st century. May it continue to warm souls during cold winters, and ease the pain of dying love.
By Yoh, aka Y.0.H & Heartbreak aka @Yoh31.
Art Credit: Maddi