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Welcome To Heartbreak: How Kanye West Made Rap Sad

It’s 1992. You walk into a music studio and calmly inform Dr.Dre and his assembled crew that the future of rap is 80’s synths, tribal drums and pained, emotional confessions about their failings. You are, naturally, laughed out of the room. No one wants sad rappers and synths, it’s ridiculous.

It’s 2008. Kanye West, fresh off a string of critical and commercial slam dunks, readies the release of an album consisting of 80s synths, tribal drums and pained, emotional confessions about his failings.  It was a stylistic change met with bemused bewilderment and was widely predicted to result in a flop. West considered it a melancholic pop album rather than hip-hop, one infused with Phil Collins and tribal drums. Everyone else considered it time to send him scurrying back to the brashness that made The College Dropout and Late Registration so great. Instead it was a smash success and largely won over the critics, albeit slowly. A pretty cool party trick and a bold ‘pop art’ experiment, now where’s that new Lil’ Wayne album?

It’s 2012. A new movement has emerged in hip-hop, a bold shift to a new, melancholic, synth inflected style led by the likes of Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. The tribal drums didn’t make the jump but most of 808 did and it’s cemented itself as the forerunner to the future of hip-hop and quite possibly the most influential album of the past 5 years.

It’s not often that an album triggers a stylistic shift so seismic; in 1992 it was Dre with The Chronic; in 2002 it was White Stripes and White Blood Cells; and in 2004 it was Green Day and American Idiot. One thing those albums perhaps prove is that the most influential albums don’t have to be the best. 808 is just as good an example.

For it is by no means a masterpiece. It is an inherently flawed album and one that quite simply fails to stack up when compared to the likes of Beautiful Dark Fantasy. For one, Kanye can’t sing. At all. He couldn’t hit a note with an A-bomb. Whilst his drowning of his voice in Auto-tune works in a strange, robotic way it doesn’t change the fact that his trademark drawl is, well, a drawl. For those who’ve followed on from him this hasn’t been a problem. The likes of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are great singers as well as rappers and, freed from the crutch of auto-tune, are able to express their totally deep inner anguish with more personality. Heartbreak is also hindered by some songs that just aren’t very good. Depressing is fine, but depressing and dull is a seriously bad mix. All the same it’s still a tremendously bold album and one of the most sonically interesting in years, if only because of how much it shakes up the formula.

And who knows how long the 808 wave will run? Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange was the most acclaimed album of the year and The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar are coming into the spotlight too now. Throw in Drake’s proven commercial pull and the answer could be quite a while. Frank Ocean has even managed to upstage Tyler The Creator within Odd Future in what’s proving to be an interesting battle between the new and the new-old. The real question is whether this new aesthetic will catch on amongst the artists and producers or remain that of a fleeting few.

The fact that it has caught on at all is something of a shock. It would have been inconceivable at the time of The Chronic for an artist like Frank Ocean to discuss a gay relationship in the liner notes of an album but now, with 808 ushering in a more personal approach, it’s lauded and feeds into his success rather than his downfall. It’s a change for the better in my opinion. The bravado and braggadocio of old could only go on so long and was seriously limiting what artists could discuss. Rap was stuck on the same topics it had been covering for decades when genres all around it were maturing, or already had.  Now, instead of boasting about sports cars Kanye was reflecting on how that was all he had to show when his friends had the achievements of their children. Pretty damning stuff toward the culture that had built up in the genre, and one that Kanye was at he forefront of.

808 wasn’t a total success at an album but it’s legacy has ensured it’s place as a keystone in rap history rather than a minor detour.

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