Kanye West 808s & Heartbreak – Rescuing Pop from Mediocrity

Kanye West 808s & Heartbreak
Pic: Matt Sayles/AP

I ran a fanzine for a while back in the day; even named a solo album after it – The Clutter of Pop
The fanzine had a simple premise – in the period that I wrote it, the early 90′s, pop music appeared to have lost its way and to me everything that was released seemed to be cluttering up the airwaves both real and figuratively. I tried to find a path through that jungle. Around the same time Nirvana delivered one of my all time favorite pop songs, Smells Like Teen Spirit, that drove a wedge through the clutter like the bow of an icebreaker but that’s another story. The clutter of pop music today has fragmented into odd little chunks [think Miley Cyrus,] but the horizon is clearer and it’s easier now for everyone to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Which brings me to the troubled world of Kanye West, a true pop star.

In late November Kanye West delivered 808s & Heartbreak. It is a dark almost unrelenting album, a cry from the heart of someone who already has all the attention he could possibly want to receive. It may come to be seen as a work of genius from an artist who laid himself bare [without resorting to clich̩ as many have before him.] It is art that can be mapped to the scars that appear to have been caused by the damage inflicted by a failed relationship, self loathing, and perhaps even the death of his beloved mother Рwhich must still hang over his head dragging him down. Lyrically Kanye plucks at these scars; he is covering ground on this album that is not the usual domain of multi-platinum selling popular artists. This album is not for the kids or the weak-kneed.

Roland TR-808 Portland Pampelmoose
Roland TR 808

Even the title of the album hints at conflict – An 808 is the penal code for disturbing the peace yet is more widely known amongst musicians, producers and beatmakers as the preeminent beat box, the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Hailed in song by both Kelis – “I’m back wit a 808 cause I’m bossy” and Blaque – “We be going boom like an 808″ and by Family Force 5 on Erfquake – “Drop that 808/The walls begin to shake/It’s too much for the club to take.” And of course on ‘I Love the Way You Move’ Outkast’s Big Boi dropped – “But I know y’all wanted the 808 can you feel that B-A-S-S, bass.” Is Kanye suggesting that the bass thump of an 808 beat in the trunk of a chopped out car is the antidote to Heartbreak? 808 as metaphor?

Listen to Kanye West – Paranoid

Kanye is nothing if unpredictable and he never shies away from experimentation. On 808s he has found the minimalism of the techno pioneer, Juan Atkins, who is credited as the founder of Detroit techno. On the track Heartless the simplicity of the 808 drum machine beat, the Auto-tuner and the arpeggiated synthesizer strings hark back to another pop genius, Prince – I awoke one morning to the sound of the clipped Linn drum beats of his single Sign O’ The Times and was so intoxicated by the song that I went out immediately and bought the double vinyl album.

Kanye has many parallels to Prince and not just as a manipulative, ego-centric taskmaster who is willing to defy genres. They both sing in praise of women – or rather the female form in glossy but mildly sexist terms – and they both have ways of declaiming their love for lost partners. Unlike Prince who tends to adulate women and not circumscribe all the details of his relationship with them except in sexual terms, Kanye seems to struggle with finding the space for a successful relationship. For him it’s love as battle – On Coldest Winter, Kanye sings “Memories made in the coldest winter” but at times the Auto-tuner makes ‘memories’ sound like ‘enemies’ or is that deliberate? And on the bonus live track, Pinocchio Story (Freestyle Live From Singapore,) he sounds defeated, alone, empty, as he rails against buying luxury goods and expensive vacation spots that will never free his mind from “outta this jail..” [That's a new anti-materialist Kanye, right there!] This live sad delivery may be his inherent showmanship coming through but he does come across as genuinely lonely and depressed – this is not necessarily a sentiment that his millions of fans may want to hear. Check it:

“There is no Gucci I can buy, there is no Louis Vuitton to put on,
There is no YSL that they could sell, to get my heart out of this hell
And my mind out of this jail.”

808s & Heartbreak may well be the product of a troubled mind after a rough year for Kanye; it is without doubt cathartic.

I see something else at work here too – the ability today for us all to mashup culture and broadcast it with ease. Video it, photograph it, record it, mash it, borrow and steal but most of all – share it. We have the ability to move our emotions rapidly out into the world now via personal blogs, newsletters, texting, and social platforms like Twitter.

MySpace and Facebook don’t count here – a walled garden is not the place for these emotions – two-way communication is required. Kanye is no neophyte when it comes to technology and he understands electronic media as well as anyone. This album didn’t need to be released on CD; each of these musical emotional statements, I won’t call them songs, could have been released online for us to collect, as if each formed a page in an electronic diary. Kanye’s daily pain would then unfold before us. Just as an unmistakable image forms of someone you follow daily on Twitter, formed by reading their seemingly innocuous 140 character musings, we would get to know Kanye.

If that had been the case I would argue that Kanye’s fans would have bonded with him even deeper on a different level. Each track discovered over time would be another layer of Kanye peeled away and each recipient would translate the sentiments differently. There would be a sub-culture of people waiting, searching for, and then when found, ultimately analyzing every lyric. The total sum of these parts would be far greater than the whole. Imagine a global audience in two-way communication discussing the pros and cons of Kanye, his life and 808s & Heartbreak.

It would have been a groundbreaking move – instead all of this emotion is bundled into one CD – straitjacketed, trapped, ours to unlock.

The 808 is the modern equivalent of ancient drums in the jungle and Kanye knows full well that it will call us to attention from every sub-woofer in our neighborhoods. The Heartbreak though is his alone. Meanwhile this album will stand the test of time.

Buy 808s & Heartbreak here

Read tons of Kanye stories – New York Times Topics – Kanye

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