Illustration by Dessie Jackson
Kanye West will appear to be shot on stage later tonight, but for now all I can do is sweat. It’s a Friday night and I’m here with 17,000 other people from all over the world to see West perform his 2008 record 808s & Heartbreak for the first time ever in full at the Hollywood Bowl. What we will witness will be a strange and bizarre theatrical spectacle of a 60-person orchestra, a live band, and roughly 40 dancers that will last just over an hour. Kanye will be dressed in clothes better suited the city of Zion in The Matrix than a live performance. Fireworks will reach for the sky. A massive bulb hanging above the stage will pulse various shades of red and white. Three giant staircases will rotate around the stage before us, and West will climb up, sit on, and jump off of them. An army of shirtless men will march to “Love Lockdown.” Snow will fall and melt in the LA heat during “Coldest Winter.” Gunshots will go off multiple times. Pallbearers will roll out a woman’s body on a slanted bed and perform a funeral.
The whole ordeal will become the definition of an ordeal—a bold attempt to make each person in the crowd understand just what the hell it means to have your heart fucking broken—and why we, as humans, care about that so much. West will be frustrated on stage—dealing with mic issues and then, at one point, yelling at the orchestra and calling the show a “dress rehearsal,” but regardless, he will succeed with his mission to make us feel. Because 808s & Heartbreak is a record about the struggle to understand imperfection—one of its best qualities is that it’s willingly bad.
What we won’t witness tonight is what made this record come to be. In 2008, West was reeling. On top of it being a weird time in America’s history—the bottom had just dropped out of our nation’s economy and thousands of people lost their homes, the youth of the nation had been tricked into thinking they could Change things with a whole ‘lotta Hope, and dudes were really into wearing sweatshirts under blazers—the man who’d eventually rise as Yeezus faced the most difficult time of his life. After coming off the most commercially successful album of his career in Graduation, West’s long-term relationship with his high school sweetheart turned fiancée ended. To complicate matters further, the most devastating thing that could occur happened: His mother, who he’d always been especially close with, passed away after getting plastic surgery. The world he’d built around himself with his first three records of pure pop rap perfection was crumbling. He didn’t know where to turn, and could seemingly on do only one thing: create.
It sounds hyperbolic, but West would go on to create something we’d never heard before. 808s & Heartbreak took his questionable singing voice and manipulated it with Auto-Tune. This style would allow him to use his voice as an instrument—the lane he invented was neither rapping nor singing, but instead, a form of yelping through twisted augmented vocal manipulation. He wasn’t always in tune, and god knows his shamelessly earnest lyrics—just look at the opening to “Welcome to Heartbreak”: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids / and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs”—lacked, uh, any sort of subtlety. But in this strange space that brought together the pureness of a traditional singing voice and the perceived stiffness of the digital world, West created something incredibly human and honest. You maybe didn't understand what he was saying, and at times it didn’t even sound “good,” but the emotion he was trying to display was clear. The mask of Auto-Tune allowed him to feel comfortable enough to dig up and deal with his darkest demons in front of whoever would listen.
As the story goes, 808s & Heartbreak was not received as well as his previous music critically. It was met with confusion from fans. Until this moment Kanye’s music had been perfected to the point where he could rap about social issues—“All Falls Down” or “Family Business,” for example—yet if you put it on a party people would dance. For many, it felt like… goddamnit, where is our “Good Life?” But what we all didn’t realize was—and this has been written about extensively both on this website and others—that 808s & Heartbreak’s sound and punk attitude would go on to be one of the most defining records of the last decade. It very well would shape the music that’s most popular today. Just go ahead and listen to that Drake remix of “Say You Will” from his first mixtape. "People like to compare [So Far Gone] to 808s & Heartbreak," Drake’s primary producer Noah “40” Shebib told XXL back in 2014. "[There's] a real reason for it. He did the ‘What’s Real’ freestyle over [Kanye West’s] ‘Say You Will’ and that shit just connected so much for me. That shit was so impactful to hear him spilling his heart over that kind of production. With that very euphoric space in it. I was like, ‘Yo, fuck it, that shit crazy,’ and I ran with that sound. I always get super defensive when people mention 808s because I’m like, ‘Yo, love 808s, amazing project, but it was one song that had [that] influence.’ I wasn’t listening to 808s & Heartbreak when I was making So Far Gone. I was listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and The Smiths and stuff like that. But I will say that ‘Say What’s Real’ helped me find a place that I really wanted Drake to sit, sonically."
Many people view 808s & Heartbreak as a breakup record. It is that, of course, “how could you be so heartless,” but it’s also a record he made about his mother’s death, something for which I imagine, in many ways, Kanye feels somewhat responsible. “If I had never moved to LA,” he told Q Magazine earlier this year, “she’d be alive.”
A fact that’s often skirted over when discussing the passing of Donda West is that she died after getting elective plastic surgery. She was 58 years old. There was no requirement for her to go under the knife. But she did, and then she died. The fact that West decided to do this special two-night performance in the middle of Hollywood—you literally pass over the Walk of Fame while en route to the venue—speaks volumes to his understanding and processing of what happened and how he views his and his loved ones’ places in the world. For as long as he’s been alive, West’s pounded his chest that he’s the greatest and he deserves to be treated as such, pushing every person he’s encountered, public or private, to recognize his self-proclaimed genius. And before he lost his mother and his fiancée, he really had reached this point—Graduation felt like it had more bangers on it than the Top 40 could handle as he conquered the world with his Glow in the Dark tour—and then his mother chose an optional cosmetic surgery and died while doing so.
For now though, on the first night of West’s two-night performance, I can’t stop thinking about the couple sitting behind me eating hot dogs. The dude is telling his girlfriend about some fact he saw on John Oliver’s show about Americans wasting food. It’s well intentioned, but her annoyance is apparent, like, can we just eat dinner at this fuckin’ Kanye West concert without talking about politics? I think about how it’s the little moments like these that make up our relationships, and I smile, remembering how a certain ex of mine would get annoyed with my choice of Instagram filters.
Joan Didion once wrote how it’s easy to see the beginnings, and harder to see the ends. This is a cliché and it’s something I like to quote almost every day of my life, but really, it’s also what 808s & Heartbreak is about. West spends 52 minutes ruminating on the ever-complicated process of trying to find closure in something that your brain refuses to let go. The beginning is… understandable. It’s something tangible, something you can grab, something you can identify. The beginning is filled with those moments. That day you moved to New York. That first kiss in an Uber. That first beer with a friend. But the end—the end is what sucks. It’s messy and complicated and confusing. Sometimes you’ll sit down on her bed after a night out and she’ll tell you she doesn’t love you anymore. Sometimes you’ll spend six months trying to make something work that clearly doesn’t because you share an apartment. Sometimes she’ll just vanish, never to be heard from again, and you’ll be there twiddling your thumbs wondering if you’ll ever hear from her again. Sometimes you’ll get a call and be told that she died while you were driving to class.
There’s no timeline for grief of any sort. There’s no special recipe for dealing with the complicated emotions it always brings. 808s & Heartbreak is West’s most focused record—and that laser approach is what makes it so successful in displaying the deepest and darkest areas of human emotion. And it makes sense he would process his demons before us, because it’s the only thing West has ever known how to do.
West’s 808s show would feel like a Greek tragedy of sorts. Even in the show’s most turned up moment, when he brings Kid Cudi out on stage to bounce around and do “Heartless,” it’s still reserved and introspective, attempting to explore the human condition and why West, really, hates himself—or at least hated himself when he recorded the album. He’ll perform the record almost verbatim, featuring all of its guests—the aforementioned Cudi, Young Jeezy, and Mr. Hudson—except for Lil Wayne (although there’s a rumor there was a microphone setup for Weezy, he just didn’t show). It was around this record’s release that the narrative that West was an arrogant asshole and talentless hack started to emerge. Less than a year after its release, he’ll be running on stage and interrupting Taylor Swift. But the catch, and this is what he put on display with 808s, is that West knew he was an arrogant asshole and he felt like talentless hack (why else would someone resort to using Auto-Tune in this manner?). He spends the entire record blaming his quest for fame and success as the reason everything in his world fell apart. 808s is perhaps the most Kanye West moment of his career, because he looked at all of these perceptions and frustrations he felt from the general public and reclaimed them as his own. “Of course I’m an asshole,” he seemed to say. “Look at all this shit I’m going through.”
The best part of the show is when West performs “Pinocchio Story,” the strange rambling live freestyle recording from Singapore (and maybe even the original “Kanye rant”) he tossed on at the end of 808s as a bonus track. On stage, he marches out, wearing a mask and dressed like a faceless scarecrow, stomping firmly with each step while wearing a mask, his emotions just tumbling out of him. Throughout the concert, it’s evident that 2015 Kanye West is not the same as 2008 Kanye West—after all this is a guy who talks about how being a dad and looking normal is cool these days. But in this moment, when he’s hidden behind the mask, West is transported to the time of his life full of immense distraught and frustration with the simple fact that he has to wake up everyday. “And the fame will be got caught, and the day I moved to LA, maybe that was all my fault, all my fault to be a real boy,” he screams. “Chasing the American Dream, chasing everything we seen up on the TV screen.”
On “Robocop,” West ends the song with the repeating phrase over rolling strings and synths: “You spoiled little LA girl,” he cries, rambling further: “Oh you’re kidding me, you must be joking, or you are smoking, oh oh you’re kidding me, ha ha that was a good one, your first good one in awhile.” For the longest time, I imagined this was some sort of way a petty West was blaming others, whether it was screaming about the girl who broke his heart or the mother who he felt abandoned him. But now, after witnessing him bare his soul with these lyrics on stage with thousands of Angelenos singing along, it’s obvious this song—like the rest of 808s—is about blaming one person: Kanye West.
The performance ends and West brings every person involved in the production out on stage to bow. Afterwards, I find myself walking, staring at the ground silently, and wondering about all the shameless big questions about life that are circling my thoughts, imagining myself apologizing to people I’ve hurt over the years. I’m sorry for saying that dumb thing to your brother. I’m sorry for being late. I’m sorry for not calling more. At this point, I’m down the hill and in Hollywood meeting a few friends, noticing briefly that we’re passing over Robin Williams’s star as we head to the Hard Rock Café. It feels poetic, really, ruminating on personal regret and what the quest for fame can do to you and your loved ones as we walk over the star of a man who killed himself. Or, maybe, in true Hollywood fashion, I’m just making this too much about myself.
Eric Sundermann is the managing editor of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.
Dessie Jackson is a visual artist based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram.