808s & Heartbreak is unsurprisingly easy to love. I say “unsurprisingly” because Kanye West’s weirdness has become an expected pleasure. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is, after all, another un-review, in which I write about a much-beloved artist who has recently put out an album.
Let’s go back. Back to a time when “backpack rapper” wasn’t a slur…
2004: Ain’t no tuition for having no ambition.
I thought Kanye was a joke when The College Dropout came out my sophomore year of college. This was mostly due to “Slow Jams” being the most ridiculous R&B song I’d ever heard. I was sure dude was hip-hop’s answer to Weird Al. And then one of my friends from school — who was always ahead of the curve — mentioned how he had to go to Best Buy and pick up the new Kanye West album. My response was ambivalent at best. At the time, I was heavy into Thievery Corporation, The Streets, and Air. They served as antidotes to the slurring, angry Southern rap I was forced to listen to at every turn.
One day, a group of us were in a car, going somewhere — maybe the movies — and said friend put the CD in the stereo. I side-eyed the speakers the entire time we were listening to it. What was this foolishness? Then “The New Workout Plan” came on, and by the time it got to the soul-clap portion, I was giggling.
Kanye was the buzz all over campus. (One interesting thing about going to a black school is that while it’s not as homogeneous as one would assume, there is a certain musical solidarity. And once you hear about music from one person, next thing you know, everyone is listening to it and talking about it.) I borrowed a copy of Dropout from another friend, and by the third spin, I was hooked. From the sad sing-a-long “We Don’t Care” to the 12-minute how-he-did-it opus “Last Call,” I was struck by the sped-up soul beats, the halting, goofy flow, and the weird, smart references which caught me off guard (“my teacher said I was a loser / I told him “why don’t you kill me?”).
The College Dropout soon replaced Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as the album of choice on campus. In dorm rooms, cars, the auditorium, and dribbling out of earphones, it was everywhere. Months passed, and people played it like it was still new.
And when it did get old, we had to wait. We had to wait a long, long time. By the end of 2004, everyone was jonesing for a new Kanye West album. But it had to be good.
2005: You know what this is. It’s a celebration, bitches.
When the title of ‘Ye’s sophomore album was released, it was clear he wasn’t done with us yet. Late Registration brought an even stronger tie-in to college life. By the time it dropped, I was starting my senior year, and everything I’d learned outside of the classroom was beginning to crystallize.
The plinky-plonky, winsome piano (and pitchy Adam Levine) on “Heard ‘Em Say” was just the first surprise. The “Broke Phi Broke” skits — which, like “School Spirit” from Dropout, were widely panned by most music critics who know little to nothing about BGLOs — were hilarious to most of my classmates. “Gold Digger” was a breakout hit, thanks to Jamie Foxx, Ray Charles, and the lingerie models in the video.
But man, when I heard “We Major” I was done. That is, to this day, my absolute favorite Kanye track. The orchestral feel, the joyousness, the soaring ba-da-ba-bas, and of course, Kanye asking, “can I talk my shit again?”
By this time, he had picked up a bad rap. He was “arrogant,” and prone to making proclamations of his own greatness. And he was successful, which made him a magnet for criticism. Sort of how the law of teh internets means that anything written about Beyonce will bring out both haters who insist she’s “fake” and 35 years old, and stans who will treat her like a sexy saint, any mention of Kanye brought out fans and people who couldn’t stand him because of his cockiness.
I adopted an amused, indulgent attitude toward his outbursts. One, because I adore the ridiculous (see: my love for Nicole Richie, NY’s Daily Intelligencer, and Jesus Christ Superstar). Two, because I loved his work, and I’d listened to enough of it to hear vulnerability and sincerity. He may have seemed like a jerk, but that’s only because he was acting like a jerk. I’ve always had the impression that he knew he was being over the top, and he did it because he could. And because it was expected, and amusing. Plus, the boy loved his mama, so he couldn’t be all bad, right? So when he asked “can I talk my shit again?” it made me smile
Late Registration is my personal favorite. Partially because of the memories associated with it — it followed me from late nights in the newspaper office to late nights in the club — and partially because of the warmth and humor. (Incidentally, on Metacritic, West’s albums have had steadily dropping ratings, whereas I would rate each album stronger than the previous.) In this second album, he went to unusual places without sacrificing the silliness, the momentary self-consciousness, and the creative, lush production.
2007: I’m doin’ pretty good as far as geniuses go.
I graduated, and the following year, West released Graduation. I had a WTF moment when I first heard “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” but its forcefulness was undeniable. I cheered when 50 took a nosedive on the release date, and wished he’d keep his word to stop recording and stick to shilling Vitamin Water. Alas, that was not to be. Sonically the most daring album yet, I think Graduation was his best, but it didn’t hold the same emotional impact for me as the previous two.
Eventually “Stronger,” “Barry Bonds,” and “Drunk And Hot Girls,” stopped sounding odd, and I was able to focus on the lyrics. I immediately adored “Flashing Lights,” with Dwele’s plaintive vocals and the badass video. The Jay-Z inspired “Big Brother” was the Kanye I was familiar with. On that track, he was reflective, contrite, and frustrated. And overall, Graduation’s Kanye was grown up, pissed off, and a little disillusioned with fame, but still moving forward.
And then his mother died. I remember trying to listen to “Hey Mama” after I heard the news, but I had to turn it off. A song which had once been an upbeat tribute to his best friend brought me to tears. There was video of him breaking down at a concert, and I remember some people expressing sentiments like “even the most arrogant people can be hurt by something so sad” but all I could think was that his reaction to his mother’s death was perfectly in keeping with the person he’d revealed himself to be over the last three albums.
I’m not sure what his fourth album would have been like without the heartbreak of the previous year, including a breakup with the lovely and talented Alexis Phifer. Maybe it would’ve been “Stronger” on steroids. Maybe it would have been a return to the soulful sound he infused in the Roc-A-Fella label. But I doubt it would’ve resembled 808s.
2008: Goodbye my friend. Will I ever love again?
I actively avoid urban radio for two reasons: 1) songs that are supposed to be “sexy,” but are really just unimaginative and crass; and 2) Auto-Tune. But when I heard that Kanye was going to be singing his entire fourth album in Auto-Tune I was intrigued. There was little he could do musically that would surprise me by this point. It was all a matter of seeing how it came together.
I know that as I take more time to listen to it, more great little moments will be revealed (seriously, I still catch stuff I missed on Late Registration), but my initial reaction is that this is a serious album. There’s a through-line, from start to finish, of real sadness. All of the songs are informed by it; he takes heartbreak seriously and applies himself to the concept. Even the singing isn’t so much about the quality of his voice as it is about the emotion driving it.
“Love Lockdown” while different, even for him, works as an angry indictment of love, as well as a self-protection anthem. And even “RoboCop,” a song that no one else, ever, could ever pull off, has a levity that is tempered by disappointment.
808s and Heartbreak is not a definitive Kanye West album. Rather, it’s one that’ll probably go down in history as a fan favorite. Sort of like Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club or Erykah’s Worldwide Underground, it’s one you’ll recommend to people who are digging a little deeper.
Unlike most rappers who start off boastful and remain that way, never growing, never changing (Weezy, I’m looking at you); and pop stars, who are packaged and sold by people who aren’t as thin, or buff, or pretty, ‘Ye has been his own man from the beginning, for better and for worse. And while that’s more than we’ve asked for, I, for one, am glad he’s given it to us.