When I awoke yesterday, I checked my Twitter feed, as I normally do. My day was instantly brightened:
If you’ve read this blog before, you love that I love Yeezy. I would go to the edge of the earth to protect his unfiltered genius. He’s earned his right to an ego, and in an era when many celebrities seem afraid to express real thoughts, Kanye seems authentic and speaks his mind (but not in a hateful, Trump-ian way). The last time I saw him live was at the United Center in Chicago–where this new show would be taking place–and I nearly cried tears of joy.
Then, a few hours later, I got some real bad news:
But my ‘Ye train of thought was still chugging down the tracks. I began to wonder about this whole affair, and what might be going through the mind of Kanye West right now.
This would’ve been the third 808s show of the year. He played the album front to back at the Hollywood Bowl twice last month, and it featured all the over-the-top trappings we’ve come to expect from Kanye’s live shows–fireworks, a full string orchestra, an eerie troop of whiteface men whose main purpose seemed to be artistic intimidation. And because this was 808s, Kanye sang the entire time. This despite him and the rest of the world knowing that Kanye West is an objectively terrible singer. He has to know that, right?
But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kanye has chosen this moment to remind the world that 808s and Heartbreak exists. The album, which debuted to very mixed reviews in 2008, is in the midst of a vast critical reappraisal. From the LA Times, in advance of his performance of the album at the Bowl:
“West’s 2008 LP “808s & Heartbreak,” with its mix of emotional devastation and frosty minimal electronics, has turned out to be one of the most influential albums of contemporary pop music.”
Pitchfork’s hip hop critic Jayson Greene also wrote a magnificent retrospective on the album last month, stating, “Contemporary R&B would not glower at us from beneath a cloud of discontent and painkillers if not for 808s…West, then as now the most fascinating, celebrated, and scrutinized egomaniac in pop culture, managed to perform emotional vulnerability without necessarily demonstrating it”
If we regard Kanye West as a genius (and by all rights we should), 808s is the album that cements that legacy. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may be viewed as his magnum opus, one of the best albums of the past twenty-five years, but it’s brilliant because of the tale of self-overcoming he spins in tracks like “POWER” and “Runaway” interwoven with stunning production and commentary on the status of blacks in America. If MBDTF is Kanye at peak Kanye, 808s is Kanye at peak artistic influence.
And he needs to remind everyone of this. On the whole, Kanye has had an up-and-down 2015. He kicked it off with a bang when he dropped “Only One” as a surprise on New Years. Finally, listeners got a taste of the fruits that had come of his long-reported collaborations with Paul McCartney. Another of these fruits, “FourFiveSeconds,” gave Yeezy his biggest hit since “Heartless.” And yet another, “All Day,” gave us the most frightening, mesmerizing, show-stopping live awards show performance of the year. Meanwhile, Kanye’s fashion work is starting to gain relevance despite its detractors, and his speech at the VMAs will absolutely go down in history as one of the best of all time–call it rambling, call it the ravings of a lunatic, but it was ART, man. #Kanye2020.
But there was the ignominious beef that Kanye started with Beck at the Grammys. That knocked him down a few pegs, a throwback to the nadir of the 2009 VMAs. And everything I’ve mentioned has taken place against the backdrop of Kanye’s mysterious eighth studio album, which keeps getting pushed back and back. It was going to be called So Help Me God, and now it’s going to be called SWISH, but still the record shows no signs of appearing anytime soon. That makes me think that either Kanye is simply focused on other things–totally acceptable, if slightly disappointing–or he’s hit a creative roadblock and can’t work around it just yet.
Meanwhile, Drake has taken advantage of the gap in Kanye’s releases to establish himself as the current king of hip hop. A week ago, a friend of mine posted the following image in a GroupMe I’m in where all the members just talk about music (it’s awesome, by the way):
And that’s not to mention the success of If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, and it’s also not to mention the impending release of Views From The Six, which will surely take the rap world by storm. Fetty Wap and his bouncy summer positivity will probably be wiped from the public consciousness.
Drake is in the middle of a nearly unprecedented run of success that dates back almost to the start of his career. It’s probably fair to call him the best hip hop artist in the game right now. And if there’s one thing we know about Kanye, it’s that no one else but Kanye can be the best.
So if you’re Kanye and you want to usurp the current king and take back your throne without releasing an album to do so, what’s your best plan of action? Remind him that you’re the reason for his success. Without 808s, there’s no Drake. There’s no The Weeknd. There’s no Cudi. There’s no Frank Ocean. Critics often revisit the work of unknown, failed artists years later and crown them as major influencers once the artists are old or dead and can’t even fully reap the benefits of their newly minted masterpieces–think The Velvet Underground and Nico. But in this case, it’s happening to an artist who is very much still in his prime, the most self-conscious man in music, a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and is going to take full advantage of having yet another of his pieces elevated to legend status.
That’s why Kanye is bringing back 808s. It’s a feather in his 2015 cap that’s finally reached full bloom after seven years. And because he’s Kanye, the world’s greatest living paradox, a man who claims to not care what anyone thinks of him but repeatedly contradicts that statement, that feather needs to be rubbed in the nose of anyone who thinks they’ve taken his place as the ruler of the hip hop world.
Now if only he’d bring 808s home to Chicago. (I’m still holding out hope.)