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West’s ‘808s’ changed hip-hop, perspective

Trace William Cowen

With his 2008 album “808s & Heartbreak,” Kanye West injected a distinct brand of introspective emotionalism into hip-hop and created an incidental sub-genre (see: Drake) in its aftermath. Those in tune with pop culture understood the album’s immediate and lasting impact as, for lack of a better word, a true game-changer – both for West and pop culture at large.

As a perpetually odd 21-year-old creative seemingly trapped in the Deep South, the arrival of a new Kanye West album was (as always) a welcome gift of encouragement – a message from the other side of success that seemed to say “Really? Me too.” The release of “808s” proved especially meaningful, as I was on the cusp of abandoning a job I despised and exiting an unfulfilling long-term relationship. I wanted to travel. I wanted to write the great (un)American novel. As the postmodern cliché goes, I wanted to find myself.

Fittingly, album opener “Say You Will” embodies this self-hauntedness by balancing its stream-of-consciousness verses with a briefly poetic chorus that is at once cleverly stunted and agelessly prophetic. Recorded in just three weeks in Hawaii with a team of hand-picked collaborators, “808s & Heartbreak” is the introverted little brother to 2013’s “Yeezus” – sharing that album’s stark minimalism and little else. Whereas “Yeezus” is calculatedly abrasive (brilliantly so), “808s & Heartbreak” is genuinely sad. Even during the album’s few moments of boast, West sounds beaten down by life, fame, and his own pressure to repeatedly best himself. The seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach of “Say You Will” carries across each of the album’s 12 tracks, most notably on “Bad News,” with the maximal AutoTune only adding to the urgency. West’s use of AutoTune, however, has less in common with his peers’ warped take on vocal and more in common with Jimi Hendrix’s take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Bob Dylan’s 1965 decision to distort his once raw acoustic folk with the supposed devils of electricity.

West recently revisited elements of this approach in his Paul McCartney collaboration “Only One,” a stirring lullaby written from the perspective of his late mother, Donda West. The sorrow of “808s & Heartbreak” (an album written in the wake of Donda West’s death and the dissolution of West’s relationship with his then-fiance) is still present, but has been filtered through new eyes that only love and time could allow. Similarly, I’m not quite the same person I was in 2008, though I do visit those tendencies sporadically like an old friend. I’m still searching. I’m still traveling (in fact, my significant other and I recently moved across the country to Washington). I haven’t finished that novel, but I’ve put miles of a necessary journey beneath my feet and I’m a better person for it. To paraphrase “Only One” – I’m not perfect, but I’m not my mistakes. No other album encompasses this notion with greater skill and unhindered resilience.

Trace William Cowen is an artist, writer and self-proclaimed “student of pop culture” who lives in Spokane. Follow him on Twitter: @TraceCowen. If you have a Story of the Album to share, send an email to carolynl@spokesman.com.
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