In terms of controversial artists (heck, even just controversial people), our featured artist today would probably have his name in the dictionary. From a shy, smart kid growing up on the streets of Chicago, to a gregarious, self-involved mega star today – this man has certainly seen his share of ups and down in 37 years.
Kanye West is arguably one of the most successful artists in the hip-hop/rap genre. He’s made a very good living focusing on the art of his style, which most of his peers tend to avoid. He’s never claimed to be a gangster, or even a tough guy for that matter. But he certainly has an ego, which has started to come out in his most recent album releases. But before the Kardashian weddings and wheelchair concert shenanigans, there was a guy just making really good, humble music.
808’s & Heartbreak came out right around Thanksgiving in 2008. It was a major departure from the sound that his fans had grown to love. First and foremost, there was very little “rapping” on the record—he changed mostly to a standard singing style, with the vocals being heavily overproduced by auto-tune. The album was all about how tough life can be and the strife that occurs even for the rich and famous. Kanye had lost his mother, had his fiancée call off an engagement, and was struggling to come to terms with his newfound celebrity status–all in the matter of months. This album does a great job conveying the emotion and sadness he felt while writing and recording.
How does one make a record sound sad or emotional? In this case, lyrics are the best way Kanye does it. When you listen to a track like ‘Welcome to Heartbreak,’ he specifically discusses his prized possessions and grandiose lifestyle, but how they don’t compare to the Average Joe finding love, and having a family. He laments having to go put on a show and please his fans, but missing key moments in his family’s lives like weddings and graduations. Even if you move past the lyrics, the opening of the track is simply a haunting violin sound, with a very dark drumbeat and piano. That sort of minimalist production to me, really moves you to empathize with how he felt.
This album was universally panned by critics upon release. All his albums had sold at least 3 million copies in the U.S. before this effort, and 808’s today comes in at 1.3 million. Some have remarked how this was the start to his downfall as an artist, and that this caused him to lose fans. Now that a few years have passed, many have looked back on this album and remarked how it was essentially revolutionary to the genre. He poured his feelings out in a way most fans had never seen an artist do, and he did it with an almost reckless departure from his typical sound. Maybe didn’t pay off from a numbers perspective – but in terms of concept, perhaps second to none.
Strictly from a music perspective, this is well worth a listen. It produced major singles like ‘Love Lockdown’ and ‘Heartless’ – but those very well may be my least two favorite songs on the record. It’s a relatively short album, coming in at just over 50 minutes – but it feels like a lifetime of regret and memories are coming through my headphones. And we can all relate to bad decisions and heartbreak. Give it a shot at $5 bucks, you may feel a little differently about him or his music afterward.