In this week’s edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, Associate Editor Chris Bosman, and Senior Staff Writer Dan Caffrey look back on Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the highly-influential fourth studio album that sent fans, critics, and producers into a spell. The three discuss its ensuing legacy, how it redefined the rapper’s persona, and its links to his latest effort, next week’s Yeezus.
Michael Roffman (MR): 808s & Heartbreak was one of the last CD purchases I actively sought out. (I think I bought it along with The Killers’ Day and Age.) It was at Circuit City, before it closed its doors, and I remember feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Prior to its release, Kanye West had cited Phil Collins as a major influence, and for some reason, I hyped it in my head that we’d be getting a dozen tracks akin to “Flashing Lights”. Instead, it felt almost sterile, as if he was singing from a photo processing center in Silicon Valley, which admittedly has all to do with the Auto-Tune and the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
Looking back, this really was the beginning to Kanye 2.0. It segued away from the portraits of Chicago within his first three albums, and shifted him towards something bigger than any one location, which explains the spectral feeling of the overall album. The video for “Love Lockdown”, with its post-modern visuals and crisp decor, suggests that West’s vision was far more avant-garde than what he previously intended — and in many ways, you could see the blueprints to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in many of the tracks here.
In other words, there’s a lot to discuss.
Dan Caffrey (DC): It’s funny that you bring up the Phil Collins comparison, which is the first time I’m hearing that statement. Had I been aware of the intended aesthetic before I first listened to the record, I think I would have had the opposite reaction of you, Mike. Phil Collins’ most famous material has always sounded distant and chilly to me, and, as you said, that’s exactly what 808s is. Like you (and many others), I wasn’t really fond of the new direction at the time, but it’s aged surprisingly well. Part of me attributes that to the general direction taken by indie R&B or electropop or whatever you want to call it.
I wouldn’t say artists like The Weeknd or James Blake are like Kanye West, but they sometimes embody 808s disenchantment with romance, mixed with beats that sound like they were crafted in a wind tunnel. The Weeknd and Blake both also have touches of hip-hop on their albums without fully diving into the genre, a trait I’d argue is shared by 808s. Kanye West is, for all intensive purposes, a hip-hop artist, but there’s little rapping to be found here.
I think another reason 808s works so well retrospectively has to do with Kanye’s subsequent career. I’m not sure fans would have continued to go down the rabbit hole with him, had he stayed fully emerged in the electropop genre. But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy cemented him as a true artist who’s unafraid to experiment and pull things from different sounds. Does that make sense? Do you guys agree?
Chris Bosman (BC): It’s completely accurate that West’s subsequent career has recontextualized 808s. It’s the origin story for both My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s Messiah-complex, Messiah persona, and the nihilistic Janus godhead persona of Watch the Throne. Prior to it, West was hamstrung by the major-key pop-rap sentiments of his first trio of records; he needed to reject that sound completely to learn how to compose without it. Had he never made 808s, West likely would have used his College Dropout tricks ad naseum as a crutch throughout his career. With 808s under his belt, he could feel confident enough to splice Aphex Twin, recast Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as a horror show narrator, and crib Gil Scott-Heron without self-consciousness, while still keeping “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” strings in his back pocket.
You know, you mention the Weekend and James Blake as possible influences from this record, but the reach of 808s goes even further than that. You can confidently trace a path from 808s to the oversharing, overly earnest, endlessly melancholy Tumblr rap sect; to any rapper pilfering from minimalist club music, like Zebra Katz on “Ima Read”; hell, even to the rise of uber-aggressive trap in the vein of fellow Chicagoan Chief Keef. It wasn’t the insta-classic that Late Registration was, but its simplicity made it more imitable, even if West’s skill with 808s’ intentionally limited palette made it difficult for those imitators to match up. It’s accurate to call 808s a transitional record, one that allowed Kanye West to try more outrageous, experimental, and interesting things, but I think its greater legacy is that of the non-Kanye West music it spawned.
MR: Parallels to James Blake and The Weeknd are apt — 808s is flooded with R&B and it digitizes the raw emotion and isolated feelings that the two crooners have carved their brands out of today. Though, Kanye’s style hops whereas those two feel content to remain subdued; in other words, as loud and sweeping as “Retrograde” or “Wicked Games” might get, they could never translate to the club scene like, say, “Love Lockdown” or “Paranoid” or even “Heartless”. As much as Kanye takes this down to Earth — especially after a spacey, feel good record like Graduation — he doesn’t box up the lights, the pizzaz, or the two dozen spotlights. These songs are stripped and raw, but they’re still slick bangers (for lack of a better word) that ease this away from the boggy R&B that we’ve come to squeeze today.
Chris, I’d have to agree with you about the influence over the Tumblr rap section. It’s not exactly trap, but tracks like “Amazing” do come to mind as being slight harbingers of someone like Chief Keef. The difference, though, is that the Late Registration-era Kanye sort of pops out in light doses here. Both “Robocop” and “Heartless” wouldn’t be out of place in his Chitown tales and, from a production and musical standpoint, I could even see the latter on the sugar-coated, popped out Graduation.
Speaking of which, has there ever been a more drastic 180 from album to album? Listen to both records back to back and try to remember that they were only a year apart. A. Fucking. Year. To go from “Champion”, “Stronger”, and “Good Life” to “Heartless”, “Paranoid”, and “Coldest Winter” is unfathomable; it’s like if the happy-go-lucky ending of A New Hope segued immediately into the carbonite chaos of The Empire Strikes Back. Then you remember all the shit that happened to him following his triumphant record: his mother’s death, his epic break up, the alcoholism, and, well, yeah, that’ll do it. The way he weaves his world into this music, it makes you wonder if Kanye has a sort of Truman complex.
Does art imitate life for him, or is it the other way around? ::passes the bowl::
DC: Good question. Since he seems to always be creating, I’d say it’s a little of both. And as we’ve seen from his relationship with the media, Kanye’s not a man who’s able to separate his life from his art, or vice versa.
As far as 180s go, I’d argue that Neil Young maybe does the same thing, albeit with less consistency in way of quality. The variances between any of his ’80s output, not to mention Ragged Glory to Harvest Moon, then back to grunge with Sleeps With Angels, is insane.
But I digress. Mike, I also agree with what you said about Kanye being much less subdued than Blake, The Weeknd, or any other artist of their ilk. Let’s not forget, 808s is his most minimalist and, until Yeezus, probably his most experimental album (we’ll see). And yet it still provided enough ego and batshit insanity for a South Park spoof.
But I digress…again. Let’s talk more about this life imitates art thing. It’s well-covered territory, sure, but I think it’s funny how some artists insist that the two are separate, while others always view them as one in the same. Has Kanye commented on this? I feel like he’d put himself in the latter category, or just ignore the question altogether.
MR: I think Kanye answered that question himself this week, when he called 808s “the first, like, black new wave album.” What I find interesting about his comments is how unaware he was (or maybe still is) with what he created. At the time of its release, he called it a “pop art” album, though this week he stated, “I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with [the graphic designer] Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.” Okay, so “pop art” could arguably be aligned with “new wave”, but I’d like to think he’s not as self-aware and scrupulous as he appears to be, and that maybe, just maybe, it’s art imitating him. Since the beginning, he’s just done his own thing — which includes verbiage in the third person like he’s HULK — and the product follows him, usually without any consequences.
What’s important to note, as well, is that he’s surpassed any point of parody, either. I’d say he’s parody-proof (though I’m sure Parker and Stone could find something) between the countless memes stemming from the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, the ludicrous interviews, and, well, his marriage to Kim Kardashian. It’s all so outlandish that all we can do now is go, “of course.” That’s the sort of power or ego few, if any, really ever have. With 808s, that ego and power takes backseat to the emotions, which is why almost five years later, we’re quick to note the importance of this album. It’s not his strongest — it’s actually one of his weakest in what’s a near-diamond catalogue — but it’s his most necessary. That is, until now with Yeezus, which could be just as groundbreaking as 808s.
Is it me or am I making this discussion cyclical?
CB: It’s not necessarily cyclical; it’s interlocked. Kanye’s discography is so autobiographical that every part of it ends up relating back to every other part of it. People look for symbolism and allusion and self-referentialism in West’s songs like they’re pouring over a religious text. Which, by the way, is exactly how West wants it; one Yeezus song is actually titled “I Am A God”. In West’s mind, with each album he’s writing a new book of his own Bible.
And 808s is probably the first record that actually had Kanye thinking about his own legacy and actually writing it into his music. It was such a studious step away from everything he had been doing– to continue your analogy, Mike, a record that was intentionally coal instead of a diamond– and he was so obviously aware of at least that part of it, even if he wasn’t aware of how important that record would be. It was repetitious, it was morose, it had house, it had minimalist shoegaze, it had yeah okay even though it’s kinda cringe-inducing “black new wave.”
But, like, how TV shows will write into a later episode an allusion to an earlier one to give an innocuous moment added portent, 808s contains enough touchstones to Kanye’s earlier material– and his personal life in the lead-up to the record’s release– that he created a spiderweb within the genealogy of his music.
Basically, Kanye is Damon Lindelof writing Lost.
MR: That’s hilarious, even if it gives Lindelof way too much credit. [Laughs.] The legacy aspect does go far beyond the effort’s influential musicality. Lyrically, he sets himself up for the inner demigod he creates for himself with Fantasy — it’s almost Shakespearian. On closing track “Closing Track”, he leaves us with the line “Goodbye, my friend, will I ever love again?” Since the first three records revolve around Yeezy’s devotion to God, family, friends, and lovers — I mean, c’mon, “Big Brother”, the heartwarming ode to Jay-Z, closes out Graduation— 808s slams the door on it all, explaining why there’s so much hate, self-aggrandizing, and animosity on everything of his that’s come out since.
To be honest, outside of “White Dress” for The Man with the Iron Fists soundtrack last year, I can’t think of a track of his that’s been wholly uplifting without that clerical adrenaline of juicing one’s ego. The rest of his interview with The New York Times does nothing but bolster the “Monster” he’s created. His whole hindsight on Taylor Swift, especially. As he said: “You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: ‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.’”
It’s true, we’ll always want him on our shelves. He’s an influential genius, even if he isn’t on par with Steve Jobs or Michael Jordan (despite his ludicrous intentions), but his ego will always be his blessing and his curse. It’s what spawns the art, but it’s also what shatters his ability to even be an anti-hero. Regardless of how much I love the music, I can never champion the guy. He’s worse than post-Decision LeBron James (and, ahem, I’m the biggest Heat fan in IL); in fact, I’d go so far as to say his chest-pumping ethos recalls the explicit histrionics of someone as despicable as Tyson and as sleazy as Donald Trump.
Granted, that obsessive self worth was rampant across Dropout, Registration, and Graduation, but it took backseat to the story. I feel now, and this is something that we can credit 808s for, it’s his prime objective. To me, it’s a turn off, but also what makes him so unique. I guess it’s this weird Shakespearean catch-22.
CB: And here I am, on the opposite side of the fence, loving Kanye specifically for all those histrionics. I buy into his complaints, and I champion his rants and interruptions, because through his music Kanye has reminded me and everyone who has ever felt, justified or otherwise, like the underappreciated scholars of High Fidelity, of ourselves. And he’s reminded us nowhere moreso than on the melodrama, the self-absorption, the utter heart-on-every-sleeve audacity of the LiveJournal entry that was 808s & Heartbreak.
MR: If we look at Kanye as the villain, and 808s as his epic transformation, then yes, I can’t help but applaud him and agree wholeheartedly with you. Actually, let’s look at it that way. [Laughs.] With respect to pop culture’s past, it takes a specific story for a villain to really work and be not only believable but agreeable. Kanye’s certainly done that. I can’t stop thinking about The Dark Knight, specifically Joker and Two-Face, the former a formidable foe three steps ahead of everyone and the latter a fallen hero. I feel Kanye’s both, which explains why I can’t shake him, regardless of the asinine dribble he eeks out in interviews.
Here’s the thing: Villains are more intriguing than heroes, and in an age of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, the villains reign supreme. As Bruce Wayne foolishly suggests in aforementioned film, “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.” Kanye’s trick is that for every curtain he burns down, there’s two or three more sewn and cast across, leaving us in speculation and anticipation and yet always chasing. I think fans are destined to do this forever.