Auto-Tune: remember that? The craze that boomed through each and every spectrum of the popular culture lexicon like a never-ending sky filled with fireworks that you couldn’t avoid, no matter which radio station you turned to, or which record you decided to buy. You know, right? The device that single-handedly made Top 40 stars out of talentless, fly-by-night faux hip-hop artists, and middle-of-the-road female vocalists. The fad that was deemed inescapable at best and utterly, mind-bogglingly annoying at worst. You remember what that was, right? Good.
Now here’s something you may not know about the tool: Jay-Z didn’t kill it.
Honestly. He didn’t. Sure, his “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” is probably the track most credited with the demise of the popularity of the device that shot T-Pain onto every pop hit heard on American radio, but contrary to popular belief, it didn’t single-handedly take down the fad in the glorious manner most hip-hop fans tend to believe it did.
Instead, that award goes to Kanye West. No, he didn’t overtly call out the Auto-Tune apologists by dedicating an entire song ripping the technique to shreds while proving that great hip-hop music can still be made without the help of some voice-manipulating tool. Instead, West dedicated an entire album to maximizing the device’s potential and subsequently advising anyone within ear shot that no matter which pop star they could get to sing their song, no matter what beat they wanted to throw behind it, and no matter how many times some moderately-talented pretty face trumpeted the sound effect on music television or popular radio, nobody—and he means nobody—was going to get in the way of him revealing to the entire world that Auto-Tune doesn’t have to be all that bad. That is, if it’s used correctly, of course.
And it’s precisely that album in question, 808s & Heartbreak, that is going to criminally be left out of any Kanye West discussion aimed at trying to figure out what is truly the Chicago-born rapper’s masterpiece. Such a dismissal is irresponsible. It’s uneducated, naive, and ignorant. And most of all, it’s unfair. It’s unfair to the body of work West compiled for 808s and it’s unfair to the very real risk he took by releasing such an experiment.
Sandwiched between the enormous success of Graduation (2007) and the critically adored, career-defining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), 808s & Heartbreak has seemingly become the lost Kanye West record. It’s a polarizing expression of art that is constantly divisive within the ranks of the artist’s fans. Do you love it? Do you hate it? There is and never will be an in-between when considering this particular release amongst the rest of West’s catalog.
Plus, it’s honest: it’s sincere. How often do you find a hip-hop star who bares his broken-hearted soul on a record that’s as stripped down as it is heavy? On the surface, 808s & Heartbreak is a break-up album. It’s a man using the loss of romance to reflect on the amount of loss he seems to have found within himself. He isn’t just breaking a woman’s heart, and a woman isn’t just breaking his heart. This is an album dedicated to how many different ways a man can break his own heart. It’s hopeless and romantic. It’s innocent and sincere. It’s moody and simple. It’s atmospheric and true. And more than anything else, it’s painful. It’s really, really painful.
So it’s a shame that most fans and critics alike will merely dismiss this release as “that Auto-Tune album” West once did. It’s more than that. So much more than that, actually. 808s & Heartbreak is the sound of a man changing out of someone he now questions without having any semblance of an answer to the question of what it is he should be changing into. It’s unpredictable and it’s defiant. From front to back, it’s the quintessential portrait of a quarter-life crisis that only now seems just as dark, beautiful, and twisted as anything else hip-hop as ever seen.
That’s right. It wasn’t Jay-Z who killed Auto-Tune. It was merely Kanye West’s perfect attempt at mastering its craft that finally put the fad to rest. And that’s what makes 808s & Heartbreak not just the pinnacle of one man’s career, but the pinnacle of one man’s transition into finding out who he really is, T-Pain be damned.
The album’s first track, “Say You Will”, is only the beginning of that transition. Six seconds: that’s the amount of time it takes Kanye West to start singing after a demoralized few notes. Three minutes and 15 seconds: that’s how long it takes to get to the end of the track after the rapper utters his final word, “will”, as it disappears into what feels like a foggy summer night filled with echoes and loneliness. The track proves to be the absolute, no-doubt-about-it perfect way to begin an album smothered in, well, echoes and loneliness.
With a beat that sounds more like an episode of House than an episode of Cribs, the minimalist approach and downtrodden vibe instantly let any hopeful listener know there will be no “Golddigger” or “All Falls Down” this time around. Nope. Here, Mr. West is sad, and he wants to make sure anyone with headphones is able to not only hear his pain, but feel his heart literally breaking in two while the trippy beeps and melancholy piano chords paint a finely tuned picture of every single imaginable thought his head could hold.
“When I grab your neck / I touch your soul”, West sings. Sad? Yes. Creepy? You bet. Desperate? Sure. But, combined with the hollow, embarrassingly naked music behind it, does it allow us to travel directly into the rapper’s misery without ever doubting the sincerity of his words? Absolutely. And that’s why “Say You Will” is not just a great song, but it’s also a great way to begin a trip into the mind of West himself.
// Notes from the Road
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