Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Coldest Story Ever Told: The Influence Of Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak





The Coldest Story Ever Told

Kanye West arrived at Auckland’s Westin Hotel in December 2008 looking exhausted, at the end of every possible rope. He was in New Zealand to promote—or perhaps explain—808s & Heartbreak, the new album he recorded in an ungodly rush amidst his continent-hopping Glow in the Dark tour. Sporting Tom Ford shades so dark that they seemed to obscure half his face, he waded through a 40-minute press conference in seeming slow-motion. Still reeling from the death of his mother as well as a breakup with his fiancĂ©e, he explained how “808s came from suffering multitude losses at the same time—it’s like losing an arm and a leg and having to find a way to keep walking through it.” When a reporter asked what he planned to see during his visit to New Zealand, he replied dryly: “The back of my eyelids."

In the time leading up to the album’s November release, West gave the impression of a man running on fumes, flooring the pedal through the most nightmarish moment in his life. There was a manic quality to his promo tour: Just one week before his New Zealand press conference, he was in New York performing 808’s lead single, “Love Lockdown”, on “Letterman”. The song called for him to sing alone, and he botched the first take in front of the studio audience. On take two, he still sounded shaky, badly missing a note even with real-time pitch correction software. But his body was twanging with effort as he gripped the mic stand for balance while heaving himself into the music. Kanye West had always been audacious, but this was a new kind of wire-walk.


808s & Heartbreak was West’s great pivot: He had promised since 2005 that his fourth album would be called Good Ass Job, the capper to his premeditated hip-hop takeover. But then he evidently threw out this life script. “Hip-hop is over for me now,” he started saying, dismissively, in interviews. “From now on, I want to be seen alongside only the musicians you see in the old black-and-white photographs—Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles.”

This was the moment, just after his iconic shutter shades, when all of his vague ideas about fashion, design, and pop art streamlined with his sharper notions about pop music. The project was surprisingly elegant in presentation for something thrown together in less than a month, its minimalist artwork—a lone deflated heart surrounded by grey—acting as a perfect introduction to the bare sounds within. 808s might have been his most complete zeitgeist achievement to date, a crack in time when he was truly, as he once put it, “on the freeway in a fucking plane, in all lanes at all times.”

808s & Heartbreak artwork. Photo by Willy Vanderperre. Illustration by Kaws.


Kanye is performing the entirety of 808s this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, perhaps as a well-timed reminder, after a somewhat flat year, of what his peculiar brand of bravery can accomplish at its best. Looking back, it’s easy to see how many point-of-no-return qualities the album had. He was required to stretch far, far beyond his abilities to make it. Technically, he was (and is) a bad singer, as he readily acknowledged. So he made his voice more palatable and melodic with Auto-Tune, a piece of software that was loathed at the time for its association with T-Pain, a true innovator who became seen, in hindsight, as a happy jester running a fad into the ground. But after collaborating with T-Pain on the Top 10 hit “Good Life”—and then experimenting with Auto-Tune while playing that song live—West recruited him to help with 808s, essentially making that sound cool again.

Tallahassee Pain was only one of the ghosts in Kanye’s machine: Kid CuDi, an art-student dropout, was also brought in to help with the chilly synths and mournful air West was chasing. And 808s marked the birth and flowering of West’s “creative CEO” method of album-making. Late Registration boasted four co-producers, while Graduation had eight, but on 808s, the liner notes exploded: There were at least five co-writers on nearly every song. To hear producer Jeff Bhasker tell it, there were eight writers in the room when West was turning mumbles into what would become “Love Lockdown” while zoning for hours on that simple, thump-thump-THUMP, boom pattern.





That boom is a bedrock sound of hip-hop, but West saw it as a way to propel himself beyond the genre’s walls. “I’m trying to put on those Phil Collins melodies,” West told Miss Info, naming the most elusive and least-explored influence on 808s. He was talking about Collins’ synth-like, proto-Auto-Tuned voice, but there’s also a sonic kinship between the hard, sharp, and dry drums that Collins popularized on his earliest solo records and the uncanny explosions in dead space that make up 808s’ beats. Collins first came upon this “gated reverb” drum sound while working on Peter Gabriel’s 1980 track “Intruder”, when the song’s engineer, Hugh Padgham, used a microphone normally used for in-studio communication—something closer to an intercom—and then trapped and snuffed out any overtones with a signal processor called a noise gate. It made the drum hits both vivid and lifeless, loud sounds that confused our sense of how loud sounds travel. The technique was famously employed on Collins’ signature hit “In the Air Tonight”, which Kanye has covered live.

West’s reinterpretation of this effect came from the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Created by Ikutaro Kakehashi and Don Lewis and meant to retail for a consumer-friendly price in the early ‘80s, this microwave-shaped piece of hardware made drum sounds that were laughably simple, at least to the professional drummers who feared that robots were going to replace them. Who would listen to this tinny little boomp and blish and not yearn for the presence of a real drummer? Compared to the much more expensive LinnDrum machine, which struck fear into the bones of session players everywhere, the 808 seemed merely cute.

And yet, because it could never replicate drums, it was free to serve other purposes. It made an elemental shudder when you turned it up loud, sending vibrations up and down packed city blocks. It provided a rough sound that was perfect for an enclosed space with lots of loose rattling parts, like a car. Its brute force and widespread availability in pawn shops helped the 808 to rewrite the rules of hip-hop from the ground up. It is rap’s bedrock boom, and West savvily turned to it the moment he seemed to turn his back on rap completely. He had one eye on the chilly European pop that had once dominated radio formats and MTV playlists as rap music languished on late-night programming blocks and local stations, but he kept the 808s hits: They were souvenirs from home as well as strewn pebbles that might lead him back. He was quick to point out the implications of these aesthetic choices, name-checking Gary Numan in interviews while observing that “even if I’m harmonizing, it’s still from a nigga perspective."
808s & Heartbreak artwork. Photo by Willy Vanderperre. Illustration by Kaws.

Rap music has since absorbed the importance of this distinction into its DNA. The 808s template has seeped into the street-rap groundwater—a realm that West’s music has always had an arms-length relationship to—as a new generation of local artists emerges. Listen to “Say You Will”, the two forlorn specs of sound positioned at either channel like the world’s loneliest game of Pong, and then listen to the late South Carolina rapper Speaker Knockerz’ “Lonely”, a street hit from 2014 that has racked up more than 37 million YouTube views based largely on his popularity with high school kids. Knockerz’ fan base couldn’t have been further from the New Zealand arenas West was courting with 808s, but in “Lonely”’s four piano notes you hear the youth taking West’s 808s template as gospel. Young Thug would not exist as we know him without this album; Future’s deserted-astronaut image would not exist without this album. It is impossible to close your eyes when listening to Dej Loaf’s “Try Me” and not hear Kanye’s piping vocal from “Heartless”. For Lil Durk, Chief Keef, Soulja Boy, and countless others, showing up on a track sounding like you are drowning in the sound of your own voice is now as natural as an introductory ad-lib.

Similarly, contemporary R&B would not glower at us from beneath a cloud of discontent and painkillers if not for 808s. The Weeknd made “I Can’t Feel My Face”, a song about the uneasy comfort of numbness, the biggest hit of the summer, and in doing so credited 808s as his spiritual guide, saying it is “one of the most important bodies of work of my generation.” It has also resonated in artier, post-graduate environs; How to Dress Well has said, "I can't fucking believe that that wasn't the most universally praised record of the decade.”


The only thing more influential than the album’s sound might be its tone: bitter, confused, self-pitying, defensive, and accusatory. West, then as now the most most fascinating, celebrated, and scrutinized egomaniac in pop culture, managed to perform emotional vulnerability without necessarily demonstrating it. In fact, the lyrical content of 808s remains the least forward-thinking, least transgressive element of the album: For all his talk in interviews about how the record broke down “the ABCs of relationships” and offered a male perspective on the devastation of breakups, it stands as West’s least introspective project. It is a seething mountain of hurt projected at a villainous “you” who has broken Our Hero. There is some self-loathing, but self-loathing, after all, is just egomania with heartburn.

In this way, 808s made sullen solitude fashionable again: Most male R&B stars want to be taken seriously as a misunderstood anti-hero now, and in this they are reenacting the public breakdown that West staged without a net. The bloodied mumbling that stumbled forth from the release of this record is unbroken—whenever a high-profile rapper suffers some sort of titanic emotional loss, we now expect them to respond with open wounds translated through warbling vocal filters. For example, after the public disgrace of his fallout with Ciara and the commercial disappointment of 2014’s Honest, Future revitalized his career with a three-mixtape series this year that felt like his own 808s. Like Kanye, he sounded dejected, but more angry than insular; his bad feelings were personal insults, career setbacks he didn’t deserve.


And of course, there is Drake, who emerged near-whole from 808s. There is a line to trace here, and it’s intriguingly irregular: Just as West stumbled upon the 808s sound palette during the long live breakdowns of “Good Life”, where he was called upon to sing T-Pain’s part, Drake hit on his own foggy aesthetic by rapping over 808s’ “Say You Will” on his breakout So Far Gone mixtape. Drake’s creative consigliere Noah “40” Shebib remembered being thunderstruck in the studio when that recording went down: “That shit was so impactful to hear him spilling his heart over that kind of production,” he told XXL. "I was like, 'Yo, fuck it, that shit crazy,' and I ran with that sound.”

In retrospect, going from relatively affable T-Pain, to convulsive Kanye, to polished Drake is like watching the evolution of one disruptive idea about what can happen to rappers’ voices when they pass through the center of the genre. The innovation has shuddered open new spaces, and now artists of all stripes live there. Kanye West has spent the duration of his career attempting to establish his brand as an exacting tastemaker, thought leader, and trendsetter, but it’s possible he made his most impactful statement the moment he fully let his guard down. — Jayson Greene | Pitchfork
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