On 808s and Heartbreak, West might be making his own hip-hop version of a concept album where the concept is sadness. But he isn't fitting a cookie-cutter mold, he's innovating.
Kanye West’s first three albums, all with education-themed titles, have been cemented as a true trilogy, not just a nominal one, by the release of his fourth album, 808s and Heartbreak, which moves in a different direction. The move seems instinctive, from the gut and based on the specific circumstances of his life: his mother passed away and his relationship with his girlfriend dissolved. It’s mostly the latter that these songs cover, though the former no doubt influenced the sad demeanor of the album. “I can’t stop having these visions,” a line goes on the second song, “Welcome to Heartbreak”. Across the album, it’s as if he has a compulsion to sing about heartbreak, as if he couldn’t get himself to stop writing one more song about how cold his ex was towards him and how cold he feels now.
It’s a confessional concept album, but one where the mood communicates the concept even better than the lyrics. The songs tell no cohesive story arc, lyrically, though there’s plenty of bitterness, sadness, confusion, betrayal, and the like. The album projects all of these actions and emotions, but it’s the stark yet intricate music that does it best. The lyrics are generally run-of-the-mill, not that far removed from your average emo band, even if they came from his real-life pains and have a different starting place. West is a multi-million-album-selling artist worried about public image and the paparazzi, after all, and that’s part of the subject here too. It helps feed his loneliness. But as the title makes clear, the concept is not just heartbreak, but 808s. It’s about building an aura of heartbreak from a simple machine, by today’s standards: the TR-808 drum machine that was the foundation of so much rap music in the ‘80s. It’s about the heartbreak and the 808s becoming entwined as one sound.
West sings on all of the songs, but his singing isn’t as distant from rapping as you might expect. It seems cobbled-together, adapted to suit a specific purpose, which is how his rapping was at first, too. He was a successful producer figuring out a way to rap, so he could make music on his own terms start to finish. His rapping style always had an amateurish, guy-down-the-street quality to it, even though he has progressed in skill with each album. His singing is even less professional than that. He’s never going to be the next Marvin Gaye, just like he’s never going to be Rakim. In both arenas he’s not innately gifted, nor technically proficient. And he isn’t trying to be. Across 808s and Heartbreak, he doesn’t sing like this album is his breakout move to become known as a singer. His voice works mainly as texture. The way he sings adds to the album’s mood. It’s a stylistic choice, one of many choices he makes to create the album’s distinct atmosphere.
One tool he uses to give his voice a particular texture is Auto-Tune, or some similar pitch-correction/voice-filtering software. He turns the most explicit manifestations of these effects on and off throughout the album, not randomly but purposely. He turns it on to make his voice cold and robotic, to make it blend in with its surroundings. Even the most specific lyrics project feeling more than specifics he sings like this. In "Welcome to the Heartbreak", for example, he's telling stories about life as a lonely celebrity, but it's the tone of the story that leaves the impression, not the stories themselves. He turns the vocal effects off to sound naked, vulnerable. The lyrics that hit most, emotionally, are those sung the most straight, like on "Street Lights". (The exception is the album-ending live-freestyle "Pinocchio Story". It is the most meandering track, an uninteresting diary entry without exciting music to bolster it.)
Perhaps he picked up on this Auto-Tune technique from its current-day popularity among R&B singers (T-Pain, most notably). But the way he uses it is not about mimicking others' success. Nor is it an attempt at perceived perfection, at seamlessness. If he were trying to sound like a professional, skilled singer, his whole approach to singing, and to the album, would have been different. Instead it's about getting that science-fiction sound, about his voice bleeding into the cold clang of the drum machine, becoming one with the machine... and then separating from it, at key points. Either he listened to modern-day R&B and heard loneliness in the technique, or he heard the tool’s capacity to create a feeling of loneliness and isolation. Or, perhaps more likely, he heard it and just thought it sounded cool, a clear motivating force behind his music from the beginning.
The album's opening track, "Say You Will", sets the mood well. Two simple synth notes repeat like a game of Pong, back and forth, lending strangeness. '80s soft-pop piano gives an emotional foundation, while other synth chords hover like a choir. The song's extended outro keeps the music going a couple more minutes after West has stopped singing. This hammers home the feeling of the song while introducing the fact that West's presence as a composer/arranger is as important, maybe even more important, to 808s and Heartbreak as his presence on the microphone.
On each of West's successive albums the music has grown in sophistication and impact. 808s and Heartbreak is another step forward in that direction. The thematic focus of the album is driven by the music; West singing these songs 'unplugged' with a guitar or something (not that that would happen) would be mostly boring. Though the vocals as presented here play a significant role in the sound, an instrumental version of this album could almost communicate the same stories of heartbreak and loneliness. Then again, it's easy to listen to this album almost as an instrumental work already, as a film score, with West's voice just another instrument, albeit one of the leads.
It's all of the small sounds together that make the music so impactful. This is stark music that relies on almost primitive tools: a past-date drum machine, some synthesizers, some strings (also synthesized, perhaps). It will be described as "minimalist", and does sound minimalist. But at the same time it's layered, filled with small, interesting sounds that at first go un-noticed or seem unimportant. "Coldest Winter" uses a machine-gun blast of electric fuzz and funky drums to liven up what might otherwise resemble a Seal ballad.
"Amazing" is filled with unusual sounds. At first you just notice how the coldness of his voice, singing a purposely repetitive tune, is balanced by choir-ish vocals and keyboard. But there's also lower, growling backing vocals that eventually turn to a Chewbacca-like grunt, which together with the beats conveys a toughness even while the song creeps forward with gentle melancholy. The peak of the song is when jungle-like cries, which could be animal, human or robot, give way to silence…and then Young Jeezy jumps in with the first true rap of the album. He's a menacing MC, the perfect choice for the cold atmosphere of the album. Both guest rappers, Jeezy on "Amazing" and Lil’ Wayne on "See You in My Nightmares", were smartly chosen. Their tough voices fit the milieu perfectly. Guest singers are used when the hook benefits from a true singer, either to state it clearly or to set up a commentary that stands outside of West's own perspective of the hurt one, the angry one.
The way this album was recorded relatively quickly, announced unexpectedly, and released earlier than expected may give the impression that it was tossed-off or rushed. But the album itself is confidently constructed, choices carefully made. Song after song builds up a mood effectively, piece by piece. "Love Lockdown" starts with a heartbeat-like bass tone that manages to be melodic even though it’s barely there. His voice twists from sinister to heartfelt and back, and at one point goes into a brief robot scream. A nice piano melody emerges, and then high-powered drums, like marching-band drummers joined by aggressive hand-claps, kick the song up a thousand notches.
"Love Lockdown" through "Street Lights", the fifth through eighth tracks, are where the album really takes off. This is where he translates the dark feeling of the album into pop-music gold. "Paranoid" and "Robocop" are two of the bleakest or even meanest tracks lyrically, but are also triumphant pop songs that convey the album's feeling of heartbreak while lifting off in jubilant ways. "Paranoid" begins with an insistent tone repeating, then introduces a great melody, and then people laughing, at or with Kanye I'm not sure. Then there's a big 1980s-sounding chord, and then, 50-seconds-in, the song leaps upward, becoming a big, bright pop jam, filled with energy, while all of these pieces keep moving on and even twisting themselves around in different ways. "Robocop" picks up from that, with a similar tenor but lighter and almost busier by nature, with crashing drums paired with delicate strings that keep changing the melody up slightly.
After these buoyant tracks, "Street Lights" is the comedown, a moment of mellow, but it's also the album's most precise and impressive channeling of the mood. Part of this is that the lyrical references to street lights passing by like memories, like time, feel like a resolution of sorts, a progression from some of the name-calling he indulges in. And his singing hits the rawer emotional place that as a listener you want him to hit on an album like this. But it's mostly about the music being brilliantly odd. There's a wavering keyboard sound that almost resembles the noisy feedback of an experimental rock band but is used emotionally, as a melancholy tone that lingers in the air, threatening to fade but still always hanging on. West lets it sink into the background but also stops to shine a light on it, taking the song to still-motion to highlight the feeling. Lush layers of backing vocals are played against this 'noise', absorbing and complementing the strangeness to make the ballad tender as it needs to be. Put this next to previous hip-hop artists' versions of the sad-love ballad, like say LL Cool J's piano ballads, and you'll see that West isn't worked with musical clichés here. He's taking the song-form of the lonely-hearted ballad and giving it his own spin, with depth of sound that generates a depth of feeling.
On 808s and Heartbreak, West might be making his own hip-hop version of Sea Change or In the Wee Small Hours, or countless other concept albums where the concept is sadness. But he isn't fitting a cookie-cutter mold, he's innovating. As a whole the album draws lines between '80s pop, electro, rap, current-day R&B, and other genres, while furthering the production and composition skills that have been West's true skill from the start. Lyrically these songs contain none of the cleverness of his previous raps, but the music expresses way more than the lyrics even reach for.
The success of 808s and Heartbreak doesn’t hinge on Kanye West’s decision to not rap. This is a different style of album and he chose a different style of vocals for it. It isn’t successful just because he is channeling real-life emotions, either. He has always had a confessional aspect to his songs, even though usually he cut back against it with jokes. The album is so successful because of his winning ways with both song and album construction, and with the way he captures a particular feeling through unusual, evocative, carefully crafted music that's both simple and complex, cold and warm, mechanical and human, melodic and harsh.