This is the first part of an in-depth, three-part series, “An Album Conversation,” that discusses Kanye West’s albums and the events that inspired them.
Kanye West, a complete auteur of music. His catalog spans across seven solo projects. After the releases of his first three projects, which I will now call “ The School Trilogy,” he was set to release his fourth project called “Good Ass Job.” After losing his mother and ending his relationship with his ex-fiancé Alexis Phifer, that entire idea was scrapped and what came of it was something that was opposite from what he was known for.
No chopped up sample, no intricate bars; just something that was what it was. “808’s & Heartbreak” is a quasi-lifeless symphony of dainty strings, liberal synth and electro. It is more android than robot. It emotes a memoir of a stoic artist. The production is minimal and bare, but works with efficiency and absoluteness. After deconstructing the culmination of songs, I saw that it acts as the five stages of West’s grief, but not in equal parts.
The production introduced a new kind of sound into hip hop that would soon mold how the genre was tackled. The sound is described in the album’s namesake: The 808’s are the weight of the song and the autotune is the sonic representation of heartbreak. The sounds are so sparse that each note barely holds on long enough to get to the next one. Even with this airy production, it still seems to somehow feel full and heavy.
The lingering bass line in the songs holds a particular kind of weight. Not a muscle kind of weight, but the deep bass that you feel in your gut that you can only get from sub woofers. The kind that rattles every moving piece in your car. This constant bass that carries itself from cover to cover acts as heartbeat, no matter how synthetic, to breathe even a small amount of life into the robotism.
Lyrically it’s hardly a rap album. The songs are written like ballads. The lyrics are more stretched as opposed to a quicker cadence in rap lyrics. With his auto tune use, it gives them even more character to go along with the production. His voice whines and wanes over the vastness of the the beat. When truly diving into the lyrics and song placement, it is very specific. The five stages of grief is a well-placed, underlining meaning to the album.
The first three songs “Say You Will,” “Welcome To Heartbreak” and “Heartless” represent denial. This leans more toward the ending of his relationship, not wanting to believe his situation. The songs “Amazing” and “Love Lockdown” play as a spurt of anger. They are high in bravado and suppressed feelings. With “Paranoid” and “RoboCop” serving as bargaining, this does not only start a tonal shift in the album, but also a stronger internal conflict that is shrouded by the lighter sounds. He tells Phifer her faults, bargaining with himself as if he is glad that it’s over so he no longer has to deal with that.
The fourth stage, depression, is the longest and has the most arc in this album. It starts with “Street Lights,” and sonically it’s bliss. It shows a romanticized version of depression that is popular in ballads from reclusive artists, poems, paintings and the social media platform, Tumblr. In his lyrics “life’s just not fair” references the passing of his mother and the song speaks on how quickly his life is moving. “Bad News” talks about how Phifer cheated on him, and it leads him into the deepest part of his depression as heard in “See You In My Nightmares” and “Coldest Winter.”
Lastly, he ends the album with a live recording of a freestyle performance called “Pinocchio Story.” This is not metaphorically heavy as far as songs go. The lyrics are direct and act as a stream of consciousness, and with the live dumping of emotion it serves as the final stage of his grief: Acceptance.
This album is a mastery of minimalism. The stoic, bleak and bare minimum that the album has is something that death and departure warrants. He simultaneously lost two of the most important women in his life at the time. But when your heart breaks and you have to keep living, what do you do?
Some use a pacemaker, others use 808’s.