First Thoughts on Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak

  “You can’t judge me on this because it’s a reflection of my heart and soul. It’s like judging a grandmother’s love. Can you judge a grandmother’s love by...
By    October 16, 2008



“You can’t judge me on this because it’s a reflection of my heart and soul. It’s like judging a grandmother’s love. Can you judge a grandmother’s love by giving it 2.5 mics, or saying that it only sold a million?”–Kanye West, directly after the first unveiling of Heartbreak & 808s

So Kanye’s already on the defensive. He should be. Let it be said unequivocally: people are going to hate Heartbreak & 808s. Like loath it with every fiber of their being-type hate. Like Godsmack fan at a Decemberists concert hate. Of course, more people will love it. Expect radio to grind the singles into the dirt. Expect 2 million copies sold. Expect critics to get hot and bothered like Leon Phelps in a hot tub with some ginseng and a lady. Indeed, in its auto-tune excess and punch-drunk, woozy 80s electro, it brazenly signals a drastic turn for the weird that the cognoscenti won’t be able to resist. If this doesn’t get Kanye the Album of the Year Grammy that he so nakedly covets, dude might as well change his name to Steely Dan.

But like I said, people are going to fucking hate this record. First off, the conservative rap diehards that West rode in with are probably going to want to pelt him with rotten grapefruit. Get ready to hear that this is Kanye’s Love Below or worse, his Electric Circus. They’re the easiest comparisons and they’re apt–but only to a point. Thing is, like Common and Andre 3K, Kanye has reached that vanishing point, convincing himself that rambling down an experimental path is that only way to avoid growing stale. And rest assured, this is way out past the Euro-techno tongue kiss of Graduation. 808s and Heatbreak is out on the fringes, a pulverizing and plaintive mash-up of pop, electronic and hip-hop into unidentifiable splinters of sound.

Some will inevitably decry this as a cynical bid to earn critical plaudits, snag a half dozen Grammy’s and further burnish Kanye’s image as the troubled artiste. But I don’t buy it. Sure, artists care about critics but only to a limit–no artist really worth a damn would alter their craft for the sake of appeasing the fourth estate (and whatever bloggers are.) Regardless of what you think about Kanye, questioning his artistic bona fides at this point seems counter-intuitive.

That’s Gold, Jerry, Gold…

What I heard on Tuesday night at the Ace Gallery on La Brea is the sort of album that makes hyperbole effortless, an opus wildly original and ingenious, one that I’m still wary to praise to the extent that I believe it deserves . After all, I only heard it once and subsequent listens ain’t going to to top the experience of listening at vertiginous volume, pounded by blood-red epileptic lights, with a Vanessa Beecroft-designed array of 40 nude models (black girls up front, white girls in the back), their faces shadowed by some sort of ersatz-lamb’s wool mask, and an entire crowd of people gasping with disbelief, sensory overload–aided by an open bar. Still, I might as well say what I’m thinking: namely, that this is on my short-list for album of the year.

Take those words with a Cosco-sized bottle of Morton’s. God knows what the replay value will be like. I’m sure, on repeat, a litany of lyrical clunkers will thud like bowling balls. Maybe the sonics will grate: all weary, wounded vocals, all auto-tune, all the time. As for the production aesthetic, think about an El-P I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead-type blur of sound and darkness: a Goliath stomp of stadium-sized, marrow-disintegrating noise. But rather than use 9 Inch Nails/Bomb Squad as the starting point, it’s rooted in Michael Jackson, Prince, Cameo, Morris Day, a little KLF/Utah Saints hip-hop house-type stuff and maybe even TV on the Radio’s sense of space and harmony. And yes, a lot more singing than rapping.

Guest appearances are scarce. From what I could tell, Weezy and Jeezy are the only two who pop up, with Kanye bending them to the will of his lightning and thunder wall of sound. What I heard wasn’t perfect. One song in the middle of the album lagged into treacly, Boyz II Men territory. But I’m willing to forgive it; after all, this is quite self-consciously, Kanye’s break-up album. Get ready to hear the word “mature” thrown around carelessly. Because the focus, as Kanye pointed out afterwards, is on “the irony…That the one who talked about so many labels…Louis Vuitton, what car I was driving, what girls I was getting… lost the most important person to me to Hollywood.”


According to West, the album was recorded in just three weeks in Hawaii, but unlike first single “Love Lockdown,”it doesn’t sound rushed; rather, it’s principal characteristic (and strength) is its achingly palpable sense of heartache and disillusionment. Here, we see the decade’s most arrogant and histrionic persona coming to grips with stark, basic realities: death, heartbreak, isolation. The sort of heart-on-sleeve wrath that made 2Pac so triumphant. It’s a turbulent psychological train-wreck, tailor-made for these jangled, twitchy times.

As for the scene, it was everything you’d expect from a Kanye West LA listening party. Art school girls in high waist pants, high fashion Japanese girls, sundry Hollywood snake-types, the sort of crowd where everyone is somebody, or thinks they are. Celebrities crawled the walls: Rick Ross, Danger Mouse Mos Def, Will.I.AM and most awesomely, a slick-looking Lamar Odom, to whom I was tempted to whisper: “Remember that you can’t do stuff like this in Detroit or Milwaukee come contract negotiation-time.

So bring on the Electric Circus and Love Below comparisons at your own peril, but out of the bunch Kanye is the only one who understood that the next Prince wouldn’t sound like the old one. Perhaps in six months, or even six weeks, I’d rather be locked up than hear “Love Lockdown. “But for now, I’m convinced that Kanye West has delivered another brilliant work. For all his noxious narcissism and eye-rolling bombast, he’s continued to evolve into the most interesting and innovative figure in pop music today. When I left the party, Jay-Z walked in past me, all Sinatra swagger and effortless cool. It seemed fitting, the one-time ruler coming to pass the torch to the new champ–even if he doesn’t rap anymore.

MP3: Kanye West-“Heartless”
MP3: Kanye West-“Love Lockdown”

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