It’s crazy that years between albums can make such a difference. We tend to forget that musicians are human and go through the typical ebb and flow of life just like we do. There are points in life that may dictate an artist’s content and overall sound. Kanye West has engaged different aesthetics over his career and pushed his artistic visions to the brink. I want to highlight a particular period in his career which I always referred to as the “ying and yang” of Yeezy. Listening to Graduation and 808’s and Heartbreaks is like hearing the bizzarro version of the same person. An emotional Jekyll and Hyde even. If Graduation is the victory lap in Kanye’s storied career, then 808’s and Heartbreak is the fall of the hometown hero. Nobody stays on top of the world forever it seems.
I always associate triumph with Graduation. Kanye West had a friendly rivalry with 50 Cent at the time and almost sold a million copies in a week. It was great to see that the kid from Chicago had finally come full circle. Right from the start, the album opener, “Good Morning” summed up his journey up to that point. “From the moments of pain/look how far we done came/haters saying you changed/now you’re doing your thing”. Lyrically, West began to switch from the social commentary that was apparent on Late Registration to a more braggadocios tone. Sonically, it was a step into a bigger “stadium music” sound for West. “Stronger”, sampling the Daft Punk hit “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, pushed him from rap artist to crossover star. There was still an edge, but it was more of a rock star vibe. It was here that rappers who did not adhere to the prototypical mode began to flourish.
“Good Life” featuring T-Pain personifies the whole spirit of the album. This was West crossing the finish line. “Homecoming” featuring Chris Martin was West going back home to share the trophy as he reminisces about the times when he was coming into his own and how he carries Chicago with him everywhere he goes. “Flashing Lights” introduces a futuristic sound that is as forward thinking as the whole album. Graduation was not going to fit into any previous rap mode. “Big Brother” tells the personal story between him and Jay-Z, which seems like a declaration. Kanye acknowledged that there was a sibling-like rivalry and although he wanted to emulate him, he wanted to be better than him as well.
Now, what comes up must also come down. 808’s and Heartbreak is the gravity pull – the slamming of the breaks. West had just broken up with his long time girlfriend and his mother had passed away as well. His next project would be extremely vulnerable and personal. 808’s replaced rapping with singing aided by auto-tune and the celebratory production of Graduation, including 808’s drums that drove a harder edge. It’s a further departure from the previous hip-hop persona and dives into an almost synth-pop texture. This is Kanye West stripped to the core. I’ve had many debates about this fact, but I feel that this is the most underrated album out of his whole discography.
Listening to “Love Lockdown” admittedly caught me off guard. This was singing, but it is catchy and stripped down with pounding drums and a piano melody. (West actually performed this on MTV WITHOUT auto-tune, which was pretty damn brave). “Say You Will” is haunting and beat driven. Anyone could have sworn by the arrangement that West has a hunch for being an R&B artist. “Heartless”, which is the song that I believe that broke Kanye from the mold completely, had the same 808 drums, but is supplanted with a flute like melody that crashes into piano. See, that’s the beauty of this album. The softer parts equally take part with the harder arrangements. It’s almost like a metaphor in taking the good with the bad in life.
There are these collections of songs that are extremely beautiful and heartbreaking. “Coldest Winter” speaks about the passing of West’s mother and how close they were. “Goodbye my friend / will I ever love again?”. “Streetlights” eludes to the happiness that seemed to be evading West as he kept losing the people he loved. “I’m just not there / life’s just not fair”. “Bad News” is a break up note that I’m sure we all have been through.
The thing is, these albums have different compositions, but they can both recount memories like they just happened. I think that it’s amazing when artists make a snapshot in their lives and I can relate to it as I go through similar situations. Versatility should be a hot commodity in music and is well represented through the particular up and down periods of the life of Kanye West.