The following is the fourth in an eightpart series documenting the discography of Kanye West. Each week, Arts will feature a piece detailing the merits of one of West’s albums, in chronological order.
If you want prime breakup music, go listen to Bjork or D’angelo—not Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreak.” Both artists are more successful at conveying heavy emotions than West is on this release. That being said, I love this album. How could I not?
When my first girlfriend broke my heart in my second year of high school, how could I have survived without the cold, warbling artefacts of “Street Lights”? How could I have really thought about my life without the long, voiceless outros of “Bad News” and “Say You Will”? During all the lengthy, lonely times in my car throughout my adolescence, “808s” was there for me. If you think this appreciation is sappy, I can assure you that my high school life was much sappier.
There’s a sadness here that feels distinctly modern. In its best moments, “808s” resonates in an (auto)tune in which we can all find solace. Like a lens, I can look through these songs and see my life from a new perspective. But this lens is flawed and cracked.
Its main fault is that “808s and Heartbreak” is inspired by misogyny. Unfortunately, what powers the emotional reverence that many fans have for this album is Kanye’s consistent degradation of women.
Kanye has not addressed this problem, but it is a common thread throughout his career. The artist did release a touching song about his relationship with women on his last solo project, “Ye”—but he later announced on Twitter that it was written by a ghost writer.
I honestly think that Mr. West cannot write about women in a positive manner. I think his sexism runs too deep. This problem is only exacerbated when we compare himtoother,lessmisogynisticmalewriters. D’angelo’s “Voodoo” is an epic that focuses on finding the feminine within the masculine. Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” displays introspection that Kanye has never approached. And Frank Ocean revels in the deconstruction of misogyny through his alternative conceptions of masculinity.
Examples that totally blow this album out of the water include Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” SZA’s “CTRL” and any album by Bjork (except “Volta”). Each of these albums displays a higher level of emotional depth and musical excellence than what Kanye showcases here. Kanye West gets a lot of undue reverence, and this album is a prime example. I love “808s and Heartbreak,” but I will be the first to admit it’s not much better than mediocre. And when it’s not mediocre, it is downright toxic.
“Mrs. So Fly crash-lands in my room/ Can’t waste no time, she might leave soon,” Kanye croons on the opener “Say You Will.” What a great way to start off a breakup album. Now, I am not saying that Kanye West is talking about raping someone here, but I am saying that this line has a certain undertone to it which could be interpreted that way. The latter part of the line is certainly embedded with very dark readings, and I think to not hold Kanye accountable for this is a symptom of toxic artist obsession.
Even if you don’t agree with my reading, I would encourage you to question from where the emotional weight in this line comes. And even if you think I am being too pickyortooconcernedaboutwhatartIconsume, I would argue that it is incontestable that this album is popular precisely because it resides in this complex emotional state wherein darker thoughts are given validity. Breakup albums necessarily have to console us in our darker thoughts, but this album’s “breakup” is fueled by toxic masculinity. Kanye talks a lot about being in love, but I don’t see true love anywhere here.
Let’s move on. “Heartless” is a magnificent song, yet it also applies to the argument I’m putting forward. Kanye is detailing a complex fracturing of a relationship. But come on, it’s always felt heartless of Kanye to air his dirty laundry on a track like this.
Then again, breakups are complicated, and I don’t want to police feelings here. But I will argue that the rule of cool presides over this song, and that the track’s swagger comes from Kanye’s misogyny. This isn’t Kanye addressing his feelings, it’s him denigrating a woman. It makes me uncomfortable, and it stops me from listening on repeat.
But, hey, “Heartless” is fantastic. It’s honestly probably one of the best on the album: soaring vocals, crooning auto-tunes, powerful sense of flow and drama. However, it also rubs me the wrong way. This album makes me feel as confused as an actual breakup.
So let’s talk about elements that aren’t so confusing: “Robocop” isn’t that good of a song. The production is too simple and distorted, the lyrics aren’t funny enough to save the track, Kanye again falls back on a misogynistic trope and the chorus is lazy and sucks.Okay,okay,womenarerobotswhen they don’t let Kanye do what he wants.
I also find the ending hilarious where Kanye starts punching down, “You spoiled little L.A. girl/you’re just an L.A. girl/You need to stop it now.” I find it hilarious that Kanye wrote this, put it on wax and then proceeded to completely inhabit the role of spoiled pop star for the rest of his career (“The Life of Pablo” is the musical equivalent of a spoiled kid’s tummy ache).
I’m running out of space here, so let’s go rapid fire: “Street Lights” and “Bad News” are the only songs on here with which I don’t have problems. The Jeezy feature on “Amazing” is fire, and he completely outshines Kanye. “See You in My Nightmares” has an awful burp-sample embedded in the beat, “Paranoid” is a horrendous attempt at a lighter song. And “Coldest Winter” showcases Kanye’s lackluster talent as a singer.
But still, I love this album. I grew up with it. It has the emotional intelligence of a dull brick, and it is fueled by misogyny, but it holds sentimental value. Seriously, go listen to Bjork or D’angelo instead.