Kanye West – 808 & Heartbreak

Part 12 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

I was very late to the digital music party, I have to admit. When everything transferred to CD from records / cassettes I was still relatively young in my musical life. I loved that I could just hit track forward or play the song immediately when I wanted to (sounds silly, but if you grew up using fast forward or rewind you know what I mean. The latest hipster obsession with cassette tapes just makes me shake my head in disbelief). I loved that feeling of opening  up a CD, scanning the artwork, reading the lyrics and popping that disc in. I would go into sensory overload as the sounds overtook my body. It didn’t matter what kind of music – hip-hop, metal, indie, punk – the ritual was always the same. I spent loads and loads of money over the years collecting rare import CD’s, CD’s that had been long out of print, hard to find CD’s, etc….

In the days of Napster I would scoff at the entire digital music medium – surely these inferior MP3’s would never replace my beloved CD’s? One year I was given an IPOD for Christmas and my world shifted (didn’t quite change yet). I spent hours and hours uploading my entire collection to Itunes. Loved the MP3’s on my IPOD – still bought CD’s for my car. As the years went by this became more and more cumbersome. I found myself splitting my time between downloading and purchasing the physical product. At this point, I buy a CD if it is the only available medium OR if someone sends me one to listen to. One of the last CD’s I remember purchasing and repeating my ritual with was Kayne West’s 808 & Heartbreak. 

The first thing I did when I opened this CD was admire the audacity of Kanye West – he had included a large poster of himself in the CD package! I immediately printed out a picture of myself, cut out my head, and taped it over Kanye’s. I gave this as a gift to my boss at the time. I’m still not sure she understood my quirky sense of humor, but she played along and even hung it up in her office. The back story of the album was something that really intrigued me. Completely changing his sound / style and creating songs based around his heartache and loss. His mother had died late in 2007 due to complications from cosmetic surgery. His long-term engagement had also been broken off around the same time. Honestly from the way I approach music – it didn’t sound like there was a whole long separating this album from Joy Division’s Closer. A bold statement and perhaps infuriating to some – but once I listened to this album I fell in love with its iciness and haunting portrayal of loss. The “singing” is Kanye using Autotune on his voice on every song. The music is based around electronic synths and the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Absolute perfection.

Welcome to Heartbreak (and the music)

Say You Will has electronic blips, simple drum pattern to start to start the album, with Kanye singing in his deeply manipulated voice “Why would she make calls out the blue / Now I’m awake sleep isn’t new / Hey hey hey hey, don’t say you will, unless you will”. A warm keyboard refrain comes in. It really sounds like no other song before or since (besides other tracks on this album, that is). Kanye keeps coming back to a line that is open-ended and pure poetry “When i grab your neck, I touch your soul / Take off your cool, and lose control”. The song fades into a haunting electronic coda that could have appeared on a Kraftwerk album.

Welcome to Heartbreak sad synth line opens the song before the beat comes in. Very strong melodic synth refrain comes into play and Kanye half speaks / raps “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 (card) / And all I got was a brand new sports car” Kanye is really channeling the spirit of Michael Jackson in his vocal affections on this song. The music builds to an epic chorus “I seen it, I seen it before / I seen it, I seen it before / I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it before / I seen it, I seen it before”. This song reminds me of a warmer version of current alternative soul star The Weeknd. Brilliant.

Heartless first thing you hear is Kanye’s voice “In the night, I hear them talk the coldest story ever told / Somewhere far along this road, he lost his soul / To a woman so heartless” cold synths (I’ll probably use that term too much in this piece) an almost piano bar vibe coming from the synths. Alternating between rapping and singing. Really, really catchy song. Downcast lyrics, uplifting feeling. I love songs like this. Features one of my favorite lines of all time “How could you be so Dr. Evil? / You bringing out a side of me that I don’t know”

Amazing tribal drumming to start the song, downcast vocals and it sounds like actual piano join in shortly after. Lyrics are very self loathing “I’m a monster, I’m a killer / I know I’m wrong / I’m a problem / That’ll never ever be solved” Very much a song that you can sing-a-along to, you may be shocked at what you are singing though. This song also features guest raps by Young Jeezy that reminds us that yeah – before this record Kanye was exclusively a hip-hop producer and recording artist. The song fades out on an instrumental passage, leading to…

Love Lockdown plodding synths fill my headphones, before Kanye enters the song 10 seconds in, singing his auto-tuned heart out “I’m not loving you, the way I wanted to / What I had to do, had to run from you / I’m in love with you but the vibe is wrong / And that haunted me, all the way home” Synths come in…locking down the melody. The drums are really amazing during chorus and must be heard to believed. This song is one of the hits from the record and I can see why. Getting your audience to sing along with this depressing chorus takes a very talented artist “So keep your love locked down / Your love locked down” The song fades out with even more drums exploding in my speakers and Kanye repeating  “You lose”. Stunning.

Paranoid repeating keyboard line before the warmer music enters the equation turning this song into Kanye’s version of…Prince? Somewhat of a deeper album cut, keeps the flow going with the album. Key lyrics “Baby don’t worry about it / Lady don’t even think about it / You worry bout the wrong things, the wrong thing”

Robocop Synth line to begin the song…sounding like something out of a mid 80’s science fiction movie. Perhaps Terminator? Or..oh yes, Robocop. Synth violins join in as the song builds to a rousing chorus. This is my favorite song on the record I have to say. Really heartbreaking but funny lyrics “Bout the baddest girl I ever seen  / Straight up out a movie scene  / Who knew she was a drama queen  / That a turn my life to Stephen King  / Up late night like she on patrol  / Checking everything like I’m on parole  / I told her some things she don’t need to know  / She never let it go”. If you only know Kanye from his public persona, listen this song, I promise you will have a new perspective. The entire music breaks down to just violins as he sings “You spoiled little LA girl / You’re just an LA girl / You spoiled little LA girl / You’re just an LA girl / You spoiled little LA girl / You’re just an LA girl (you need to stop it now) / You spoiled little LA girl / You’re just an LA girl (you need to stop it now)” Ouch.

Street Lights experimental electronic piece. Downcast vocal treatments, driving beat kicks in after 30 seconds. Beat keeps fading back to the experimental opening piece. Pure poetry here “Seems like, street lights, glowin / Happen to be just like moments, passin / In front of me so I hopped in, the cab and / I paid my fare see I know my destination”

Bad News Kanye singing through a megaphone while under the influence of auto-tune all the while sounding like he is on the verge of suicide? In real life – I’d call 911. On record, it is absolutely stunning. More tribal drumming, more electronic flourishes throughout the song. Sounds like it’s about Kanye finding out his girlfriend was cheating on him (as far as I can tell) “People will talk / Like its old news
I played it off and act like I already knew / Let me ask you  / How long have you known too / You played it off and act like he’s brand new” The synth solo at about the 2 1/2 minute mark echos classical music, stirring your emotions in an evocative way. It still surprises me that someones heartache can cause elation. Brilliant piece of music.

See You In My Nightmare Warmer piece of music after the preceding suicidal masterpiece. You can really tell Kanye is pouring his heart and soul into this track. Synths anchor down the entire song, drums nowhere to be found, echoes a march of some sort. Key lyrics “I got my life / And it’s my only one / I got the night / I’m running from the sun / So good night” Lil Wayne is featured on this song, and violins swell around him as raps / sings his part.

Coldest Winter One of the saddest songs ever created, begins with a squelch of electronic noise before Kanye starts belting it out. Timely electronic drums / synths back him up. This song is all about unexpectedly losing his mother “On lonely nights I start to fade  / (On lonely nights I start to fade)  / Her love is a thousand miles away  / (Her love is a thousand miles away)  / Memories made in the coldest winter
Goodbye my friend will I ever love again  / Memories made in the coldest winter” The song breaks down to just the drums for the last few seconds before cutting out.

Pinocchio Story it took me a few spins to warm up to this when I first heard this record. It didn’t seem to fit the flow of the record and since it was a freestyle recorded live…it just seemed odd. On closer inspection, it is a Marvin Gaye-ish masterpiece of a song. His voice is pure on this track, minimal instrumental accompaniment. Lyrics cut straight to the heart “What does it feel like to live real life to be real?
Not some facade on TV that no can really feel / Do you really have the stamina… / For everybody that sees you and that say ‘where’s my camera?’ / For everybody that sees you and says ‘sign my autograph’ / For everybody that sees you and says that ‘you all that’ / You all that / I just want to be a real boy” His singing becomes laced with emotion as it leads up to this last stunning chorus which can serve as the mantra for this album “They say Kanye you keep it too real boy / Perspective and Wise man say, one day you’ll find your way / The wise man say, you’ll find your way / The wise man say, you’ll find your way / The wise man say”

I don’t care if you dislike Kanye West because of his public persona. Even if you dislike hip-hop or even the songs you have heard from Kanye West on the radio, do yourself a favor and buy this album. Put on your headphones, open your mind, and be transported to a place where heartbreak for the artist equals elation for the listener. You won’t regret it. I promise.

Join me next week as I discuss (finally, for those of you who know me in real life) Joy Division’s Closer 

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