808s and Heartbreak
(Roc-A-Fella; US: 24 Nov 2008; UK: 24 Nov 2008)
It would be easy to poke fun at Kanye West for the second track featured on 808s & Heartbreak, “Welcome to Heartbreak”. Here, the rapper goes to a place hip-hop rarely goes to anymore by leaving nothing to the imagination when it comes to his self-doubt. At first glance, his simplistic word usage and somewhat generic storytelling could essentially combine for one big ball of cheese.
But somehow, West overcomes those self-imposed hurdles by offering a result that ultimately ends up being one of the standout songs featured on his fourth album. Much like everything else on 808s, the track’s backbone is a skeletal, harmonious piano line that ends up bleeding itself into being percussive, allowing the beat to creep into one’s mind effortlessly. All told, without such a commanding, melodramatic hook that the keys provide, “Welcome to Heartbreak” could have just been another sad-sap song that appears on 808s. But it’s not, and the reasons for that fall directly on an abnormally thin line between the feeling of pain and the act of grandstanding that West simply had to walk in order for this song to work. And not only does it work, but it triumphs.
Reportedly inspired by a conversation West had with an executive at MTV, “Welcome to Heartbreak” is the epitome of any individual between the ages of 20 and 30. It’s a time when self-doubt is at its most intense, and it’s a time when the statement “Look at everything I haven’t done” floats around in one’s mind far more than the notion of “Look at everything I have done”. Simply put, the track itself humanizes West in a way rappers aren’t supposed to be humanized.
“My friend showed me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs / He said his daughter got a brand new report card / And all I got was a brand new sports car”, his monotone voice grumbles during the first verse. The power of that stanza is its simplicity. There are no fancy metaphors. No wordplay. No intertwining lines with double meanings. None of that. It’s so straight-forward, it’s innovative. He’s taking a chance by breaking down his thoughts and feelings to their simplest, most unpretentious form and reciting them as though any normal person would feel them. That’s hard to do in hip-hop, a land typically reserved for brevity and self-righteousness, and it’s even harder to do it well. West succeeds in a fashion that is both palpable and poignant.
Kid Cudi’s haunting vocals only add smoke to what is an already foggy track. As he croons in between verses, one has to ponder if his effects are aimed at vocally portraying the sound of pain West is trying to convey. What goes criminally unnoticed here is the rapper’s quick mumble of the “I can’t stop havin’ these visions / I gotta get with it” refrain just after the four minute mark. The fuzzy vocals add nonchalance to this final utterance, though it ends up being the most important repeat of them all. It’s as though West is finally hearing back the lyrics he penned to a song aimed at discovering a profound sadness within himself for the first time. With only 20 seconds left on the track, the moment is the most revealing of an already-illuminating performance. It establishes the mindset of an overly inquisitive album aimed at asking questions within one’s self. “Welcome to Hearbreak” is as important as any song that appears on 808s and it’s precisely this kind of introspection that lays the groundwork for the intimacy that lies ahead.