For those who like to draw a line in the sand to distinguish between "real" hip-hop and that which is not-so-real, Kanye West has shown a consistent ability to blur the line. Since his 2004 breakthrough album, The College Dropout, there have been many rap artists as prolific and visible. But where so many of his peers simply have collections of songs, West has amassed a body of work—and there are few who could claim that since "Rapper's Delight." It is this body of work and the devoted fan base that comes with it that allows West to take risks; and this partially explains the oddity that 808s and Heartbreak represents.
808s and Heartbreak is the artistic culmination of a year of tumult in West's life, beginning with the tragic death of his mother, Dr. Donda West, after botched plastic surgery, and his breakup with longtime girlfriend and fiancé Alexis Phifer. What is quite clear, even after a quick listen, is that West would like to publicly mourn the death of his mother, but his bitterness toward Phifer becomes the default emotion. If there were an artist within hip-hop who would have license to mourn, especially for his mother, it would be West, but he chooses not to take us there—or so it seems.
One of the marked differences between 808s and Heartbreak and West's previous efforts is his reliance on Auto-Tune, the audio processor, which corrects the pitch in singing performances. As described by the New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, "Auto-Tunes locates the pitch of a recorded vocal and moves that recorded information to the nearest 'correct' note in a scale, which is selected by the user." Though Auto-Tune has been used by many mainstream performers, the technology found a new purpose among a young generation of hip-hop and R&B performers, notably T-Pain, who has translated his marginal skills as a vocalist and creation of memorable hooks, into a career of some distinction. And Kanye West is just the latest of several high-profile rap and R&B acts to experiment with the new technology.
West's decision to embrace the technology for a full-fledged project suggests more than simply an attempt to cash in on a profitable trend. Indeed, Auto-Tune references an older tradition within popular music, the use of the vocoder. In the 1970s, the vocoder became a popular tool for musicians including Kraftwert, Pink Floyd and the Electric Light Orchestra. The late Roger Troutman and Teddy Riley are perhaps the best known black performers to rely on the vocoder. In virtually all of these cases, the use of the vocoder was less about obscuring the imperfection of a vocal performance, but more about expanding the range of the human voice. The bridging, if you will, of the human voice with the non-human world. Couple the use of the vocoder with technological staples like the TR-808 drum machine, and one can gather the extent that black performers have been wedded to emergent technologies. In this context, the use of Auto-Tune shouldn't seem unusual. West's use of Auto-Tune is not so much of a departure from his creative sensibilities. His bread-and butter production style relied on changing the pitch of old soul recordings to create what critic Martin Edlund described in the New York Sun as a sonic landscape where "men sound like women and women sound like chipmunks."
In his essay "Feenin': Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music," cultural critic Alexander Weheliye suggests that by "acknowledging the effects of these technologies … black popular music producers and performers persistently emphasize the virtuality of any form of recorded music." The end result for Weheliye is the creation of a "composite identity, a machine suspended between performer and producer that sounds the smooth flow between humans and machines."
A figure like Kanye West becomes an even more compelling example of this dynamic because he is positioned on 808s and Heartbreak as both the performer and the producer. Weheliye further argues that the presence of vocoders and Auto-Tune in contemporary urban music "dodges the naturalism associated with the human voice"—and this is particularly relevant to the reception of black music. "In circumventing the naturalism," Weheliye writes, black urban music "imagines interpersonal relations and informational technologies as mutually constitutive rather than antithetical foils." In other words, Kanye was in need of a filter.
For an artist whose inner-workings are so palpable to his music—Kanye has never failed to clue us in on what's on his mind—the introspection found on 808s and Heartbreak is halting. And yet it's an introspection that exists beyond simple lyrics; so much of the recording sonically recalls the sparse techno sounds of the 1980s such as exemplified in a track like Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." In an interview with MTV News, West cites Collins, Gary Numan and legendary hip-hop vocalist T.J. Swann ("make the music with your mouth, Biz") as inspirations for 808s and Heartbreak. The techno sounds of the early 1980s, including the music of seminal hip-hop figures such as Afrika Bambaataa, were a stark contrast to the hedonistic impulses of disco and punk in the period. For West, this musical archive represents an opportunity to rein in his own excesses, including what is a seeming rebuke of mainstream commercial hip-hop (the cameos of Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne notwithstanding, though I might argue that they are charting the same terrain).
As West reminds listeners on the haunting co-lead single "Heartless," he is man who has "lost his soul." It doesn't take the music critic moonlighting as a therapist to understand that the lyric—directed at "a woman so heartless"—captures what feels like a profound since of guilt for a man whose lack of public tact and restraint is quite legendary. West tries mighty hard to make 808s and Heartbreak about the woman who done him wrong—the Nina Simone "See Line Woman" sample on "Bad News" hints at charges of philandering on the woman's part—but what West leaves listeners with is only a sense of tremendous heartbreak.
Mama Donda moved out west, in part because baby boy was out of control—in the way that man-childs often are: pouty and petulant. With his mother no longer present to embody the obligatory hand-slap and the eerie suspicion that it was West's celebrity that led his mother from her Midwest comforts, 808s and Heartbreak represents his self-punishment. Is 808s and Heartbreak great music? That is almost besides the point. The eliciting of compassion for West is perhaps the most brilliant move of his career. Yet West could have never pulled that off straight—he needed the quivers, cackles, static and "system overloads" that the technology produced in order for us to take him seriously.
Mark Anthony Neal is professor of black popular culture at Duke University and visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books, including "Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation" (2002).
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.