How '808s and Heartbreak' birthed contemporary Kanye West's issues
Kanye’s current music may not be up to par with his classic work, but he’s sharing his struggles with a culture that’s only now becoming more accepting that artists aren’t superheroes.
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Kanye West was three albums in when he released 808s and Heartbreak in 2008. His trilogy of college-themed albums was an exercise in the lack of hubris, as they were large, gargantuan works that embraced the idea of celebrity as much as they were politically and socially aware. His antics made him, according to this critic in 2005, the most interesting rapper of the last five years. He was snobby, brash, and a fully-realized genius.
But the death of his mother, Donda West, on November 10, 2007 ended the celebratory post-album hiatus that he deserved. He was thrust into a new world where once fleeting feelings began to absorb his mind. He revealed in an interview that rapping alone wouldn’t enable him to explore the feelings and concepts that were racing in his brain; to this end, Auto-Tune became his brush, and his broken heart, his muse. Once his strokes began to be pressed onto the bleeding melodies, the album became a haunting masterpiece with an array of influences and styles that exposed a previously unseen side of Kanye—a vulnerable one. Instead of being a one-oft confessional of dark thoughts, the album would come to define Kanye West in the decade since its release. Now, as he teeters between the realm of the mentally competent and the afflicted, it appears that the album was a haunting indicator of what was to come.
Part of early Kanye West’s charm was his boyish good looks. Pristine skin, clean cut fades, a perfectly shaped goatee were constants to go along with good genes. When Graduation finished up, Kanye’s shutter shades and bright, neon-infested graphics painted a picture of vibrancy unlike the lean-rocking, snap-dancing contemporaries obsessed with bouncing butts and hydraulic rims. After Kanye’s relatively quiet mourning period following the death of his mother, his appearance changed; it was like someone flipped a switch. His fade was much higher, his facial hair was much darker. The shutter shades that enabled fans to peak into his eyes were replaced with thick, dark glasses that hid the expression of his normally smiling eyes. It was the first indicator that his upcoming album would be a much different affair.
Kanye flew Kid Cudi to Hawaii to work on 808s and Heartbreak because he had become obsessed with “Day N Nite.” Cudi’s mentally-open song helped Kanye understand the own demons that he wrestled with; Cudi would eventually go on to co-write four songs on the album. This would lead to the two developing a tight fraternal bond, with Cudi signing to Kanye’s label imprint G.O.O.D. Music, and this brooding aesthetic bleeding into a forever changed Kanye West that would evolve into the conflicted figure that we see today.
“Love Lockdown” was the album’s lead single and, in a drastic change from previous Kanye showmanship, was emptier than anything he had ever released. It was purposefully barren, and felt designed to sound incomplete. The video, comprised of various shades of beige, equaled the song in its boring set-up; Kanye was in the midst of an impending break-up with the help of frenetic drums that brought about the end of his world. But peeking a little bit closer into the fold revealed the anxiety creeping at Kanye’s mind. The idea at the center of “Love Lockdown” is that preventing the expression of one’s feelings helps to keep a failing façade going longer. It’s a relationship mindset most often associated with depression. “Welcome to Heartbreak” was even darker and murkier, this time explicitly exploring the feelings of vastness and emptiness that come with the dark side of celebrity. “Chased the good life my whole life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?” he croons dejectedly through the second verse. Kanye always held real life close to the chest, usually rooted in celebration. Now he was hurt, and it showed.
From front to back, the album’s content explores mental health illness to varying degrees. The album stays true to its name, reading as the breakup album for men. But many of these songs dug past surface-level emotional guilt and touched on the ever-looming darkness that was consuming his heart. “Say You Will” is about the lack of trust in an ex, but its language reveals a more daunting, personal feeling of anxiety. “Coldest Winter” is a morose look at departure that drums up the depression with its bleak instrumental and somber vocals. “Heartless” is a semi-upbeat look at heartbreak and betrayal that almost feels as if the listener shouldn’t be listening to the conversation that it depicts. It was a turning point in Kanye West’s bleak narrative. The album revealed a man more troubled than he’d ever let on, making clear that the recent tragic events of his life had changed him tremendously. At his darkest, he inspired a stark departure in contemporary hip hop styles, directly inspiring a generation of artists who still draw from the precedent set on the album. But Kanye, never one for remaining on one thing to long, wisely went into another direction.
A significantly more brash fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy followed in 2010, which toned down the mental health gymnastics to slip stray thoughts about his sanity into songs without hindrance. On “Power,” he raps, “Reality is catching up with me /Taking my inner child, I’m fighting for custody” which attempts to make bare the ongoing struggle for clarity that comes with the theatricality of the music industry—even if the song itself is a luxe look at the life of the wealthy. On “Dark Fantasy,” he sneaks in two vulnerable lines about hiding pain with “Me drown sorrow in that Diablo / Me drown bravery in my bravado.”
His following two albums, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, adhered to a similar structure, growing increasingly louder as the music, becoming less sensible, attempted to hide the concepts he spilled so frequently about on 808s and Heartbreak. The revealing bridge of “How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up” on Yeezus‘ violent opener “On Sight” reveals his attempts to tuck in troubled thinking. Cudi appears on Yeezus‘ “Guilt Trip” for a somber chorus aimed at an ex, which seems to be directed at the world itself. “If you love me so much then why’d you let me go?” he sings drunkenly. He embraces his asshole ways on The Life of Pablo‘s “Feedback” with “I’ve been outta my mind a long time / I be saying how I feel at the wrong time,” which reveals the continued belief that he’s off his rocker. The growing amount of struggle bars on these two releases impacted the public’s reception of his work, ultimately making him come to terms with the idea that brashness isn’t always the best way to channel one’s ideas.
Kanye released ye in June, and, since then, the discussion of mental health’s importance has been directly correlated with the album. Outrageous announcements and just a general pattern of craziness made many people question exactly what was going on with him. The album, surprisingly, delved deep into that, being perhaps his most personal since 808s and Heartbreak nearly a decade before. From the album opener, Kanye bared his most vulnerable thought processes. He revealed a jumble of suicidal thoughts and pondered aloud whether he should say something to counterbalance the resulting shock of his reveal. On the next song, “Yikes,” the song starts with “Shit could get menacin’, frightenin’, find help / Sometimes I scare myself, myself” as he continues to excavate deep-seated feelings that previous albums embedded within party songs.
While the album is comprised of only seven tracks, the world gets more out of Kanye that’s ever been revealed. Yes, he’s conflicted. Yes, he’s misogynistic. Yes, he’s childish. But he comes to terms with all of these realizations through sheer openness and makes it clear that he’s been this way for a long time. The album’s cover features scribbled neon words that say, “I hate being Bi-Polar, it’s awesome” and pretty much sums up his most critically-conflicted body of work thus far.
Kids See Ghosts delved a bit further into his affixation with mental health issues with, of course, Kid Cudi at his side. The album’s forgettable presence is only elevated by the stark attention to healing and suffering that the two explore across a number of vignettes: the vivacious “Freee,” the hopeful “Reborn,” and confrontational “Fire.” In the age of rapid-fire music releases—the album came a week after ye did—the musicality of the album was swallowed up. What’s survived is the enduring idea that Kanye’s more honest and vulnerable than he’s ever been.
This version of Kanye West can be directly traced back to 808s and Heartbreak, where Kanye first explored his unstable mental structure under the guise of dealing with heartbreak. It’s here that the seeds were planted; his following two albums dialed back the doom and gloom and continued to give hints of an enduring struggle. When he finally embraced his troubles, and picked up the strings, he became one of the most honest rappers in the game. His music may not be up to par with his classic work, but he’s sharing the crux of his struggles with a culture that’s only now becoming more accepting of the idea that our artists aren’t superheroes. Kanye’s initial cry for help came 10 years ago and has transformed him, slowly, into rap’s most conflicted, yet honest figure. As the road for Yandhi continues to stretch farther and farther, we can only appreciate that Kanye’s keeping us updated on his mental health, journey, and reasons for the delays. We can only thank 808s and Heartbreak for that.
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