5. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
The bravest album Kanye ever released, 808s & Heartbreak upended hip-hop's status quo even more radically than The College Dropout four years before it. He had toyed with AutoTune as a way to communicate paralyzing sadness in his verse on Young Jeezy's "Put On," a bleary-eyed, robotic mewling spree that showed him in the midst of a gruesome downward spiral. For 808s, the culmination of that spiral, he went all-in, flipping a technology that had been associated with audacious T-Pain party tracks into an instrument of despair. Crushed by his mother's death and his breakup with fiancee Alexis Phifer, Kanye channeled his depression into bleak electronic song-caskets and pained singing straight out of a '90s emo band's basement. (If you thought Kanye's rapping was clumsy ….) The album certainly has its drawbacks: It finishes with a whimper, not a bang. It introduced Kid Cudi to the world at large. Listening to Kanye play the victim is almost unbearable. But 808s shines in the way all Kanye albums shine: It challenges our expectations (letting the spare digital wasteland of opener "Say You Will" drift uninterrupted for three minutes was a bold choice) and it rewards our appetites. The first eight tracks are all masterful pop songs with serious replay value. When's the last time you listened to "Street Lights"? It's dope.
Hip-hop wasn’t exactly bereft of do-it-all visionary control freaks before Kanye West showed up — just ask Chuck D, the RZA, or DJ Quik — but nobody took the auteur approach to Yeezy’s extremes. Of all the ways Mr. West has contributed to rap’s evolution over the past decade, to me the most exciting is the way he has maintained and escalated the concept of album as art project, and rarely at the expense of enjoyment. Kanye is an expert curator, and his records are painstaking monuments to his inspiration. Each one is designed to be nothing short of an event and a new addition to the canon — short-term smash, long-term masterpiece. In the former respect he always comes through; the latter, more often than not.
Thom Yorke famously sang, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” and sure enough, all the self-important fanfare has accumulated Kanye heaps of derision to go along with the money and acclaim. (In one of his goofiest lyrics, he laments, “People talk so much shit about me in barber shops, they forget to get their hair cut.”) But in Kanye’s case it’s just as accurate to say transparency is what makes him look ugly. He is an ideal rapper for the social media era, churning out solipsistic hip-hop treatises the way some people write awkwardly confessional Facebook updates or pour their hearts out on YouTube. In “Runaway,” he let his pathos hang out to the extent that he might as well have sent us all a picture of his dick. (It’s remarkable that it took him this long to end up on reality TV.) What’s revealed through our collective window into Kanye’s life is often obnoxious, even grotesque, but it’s presented with an artfulness that elevates it beyond mere narcissistic blather. He blasts the tensions that drive him to mythic proportions and puts them on a museum pedestal. His records work because those tensions are a compelling splatter of humanity — and because he’s a musical genius.
But the tensions! The most prominent is the battle between Kanye’s massive ego and his deep self-doubt, a conflict whose communication has escalated from something like diary entries to something more like Star Wars intro text over the course of his catalog. A psychology class could spend days dissecting a line like “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it,” and that’s a relatively subtle example of the Kanye self-esteem ouroboros. By the time My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy rolled around, he might as well have been projecting his neuroses on the moon.
There’s also the whole “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack” thing — the tension between the expectations of clashing cultures and the demands of his muse. Kanye detonated the boundaries between rap’s flossy, hedonistic mainstream and its grimy, ideologue underground with The College Dropout. It was a ballsy move; I sometimes forget just how revolutionary it was because the distinction is all but moot in the hip-hop landscape Kanye helped create, one where T.I. lends his platinum drawl to a skronking El-P beat and nobody blinks. Yeezy’s tendency toward flouting genre taboos and redrawing the map didn’t stop after his debut; the AutoTuned wailing of 808s & Heartbreak was even ballsier, and it basically invented Drake.
Those and Kanye’s other left turns (dalliances with symphonic tropes, club music, prog rock) were conscious artistic decisions, even as they functioned as vehicles for the impulsive mind that gave us “Taylor, I’m a let you finish” and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He’s a loose cannon, but in the studio he finds a way to funnel those outbursts into meticulously crafted tours de force. The wide-eyed kid from Chicago (no need to fill in his pre-fame backstory, just listen to “Last Call”) has accumulated an astonishing wealth of music over the course of less than a decade in the public eye. His body of work is well worth poking and prodding in order to fully appreciate the scope of what he’s accomplished. Let’s do it.
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