It’s a slow news day in the Dummy office today, but this superb article on Kanye West’s creative peak (IMO) ’808s and Heartbreak’ is providing the afternoon’s reading.
The break beat is, and always has been, a haven for hyper-masculine confessionals that might otherwise go unspoken.
But Kanye West, long as the public has known him, has never needed the break beat to say what he wants to say. He’s not like Nas, who often sounds shy and characterless in interviews despite being a hell of a storyteller in his rhymes, and he’s not like Eminem, who always depended on his alter ego to share his darkest thoughts. His problem—especially outside of the recording booth—has always been the opposite: Kanye has always struggled to withhold (or at least to measure) his confessions.
His fourth studio album, 808s & Heartbreak, is the best musical and lyrical manifestation of Kanye’s need to say everything all at once. He released it in November 2008, after three hit albums that effectively branded a Kanye style of hip hop—and yet 808s wasn’t really a hip hop album. On it, Kanye doesn’t say anything we were accustomed to hearing on any hip hop track, and he doesn’t really sound like Kanye. He sounds like a cyborg. The album is a close partnership with machine (he used the vintage Roland TR-808 drum machine for his beats) and with a kind of artistic dishonesty (he used the modern Auto-Tune device to adjust his subpar singing voice in nearly every track on the album). At the time of its release, the final result was rather startling. Kanye had a style, and the 808 and the Auto-Tune just didn’t jibe with it. And yet the collaboration with those devices allowed him to sing real, unfiltered heartbreak—something that he hadn’t yet done in his career, and something that hip hop as a whole had never really dealt with before.