Five Years Ago, I Crashed My Car to '808s & Heartbreak'
The most divisive Kanye West record is also his most important.
November 2008 was weird. We’d just elected the first black president, a campaign that was founded upon “hope,” aka tricking young liberals in college like myself into believing that America could be solved by abstract concepts. The economy’s bottom had just dropped out. Thousands of Americans had lost their homes. As the separation of wealth revealed itself further, the future of the country and our culture were actually in question. On November 24, 2008, five years ago, Kanye West released his fourth record, 808s & Heartbreak. And on December 1, 2008, I crashed a 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass into a brand-new Mercedes while listening to Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreak.
I didn’t realize it was a Mercedes until after it happened. And to be honest, I don’t really remember much of it actually happening because I had pretty much blacked out. I was traveling back to school after Thanksgiving break. That day, I’d left early, hoping to make my mid-morning class. It lightly snowed overnight, and it was still snowy that morning. It was the kind of weather that you don’t drive in, because the when the snow is fresh, it turns concrete into basically an ice hockey rink. But I was a 21-year-old, so I decided to be a 21-year-old and jump in my Cutlass and take the two-hour drive.
What I do remember is that I was running late. The sky was grey. I was going too fast. “Street Lights” was playing. I was singing along. The traffic on Interstate 80 had stopped. I hadn’t. There was a car in front of me, but I didn’t see it. And then I did. I slammed my brakes. I tried to take the ditch. It was too late. I clipped the car. The car crashed into the truck in front of it. I ended up in the ditch anyway. My airbag went off. If you’ve never had one deploy on you, it’s like getting punched in the face. Everything was still, except for the car’s beeping and the stereo. Kanye sang: “I’m just not there in the streets / I’m just not there / life’s just not fair / life’s just not fair.”
My love for Kanye West runs pretty deep, and 808s & Heartbreak—despite not carrying the “perfection” of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or the inventiveness of Yeezus, or the unbelievable pop-rap perfection of his first three records—is my favorite Kanye album. I still remember buying it. A week before I crashed my car, I’d gone to Wal-Mart and purchased a hard copy CD of the record for $12.99. I tore the plastic packaging off in the parking lot—the single, pure, recognizable heart standing alone on its cover among a cloudy grey background—and opened it. To this day, I’m certain that 808s & Heartbreak is still the most recent CD I’ve purchased from a store. I had read nothing about the album. I’d heard, from a few people, that it was “different,” and they “didn’t like it,” but that’s it. At that moment, the slowed down, creepy, hallowing beat of “Say You Will” leaked through the speakers of my shitty car. Beep. Boop. Beep. Boop. Kanye’s voice, fully auto-tuned, crept in: “Why would she make calls out the blue? Now I’m awake, sleep isn’t new.” I realized immediately that this, well, this was some other shit.
I let the record ride out, driving around my small town in Western Iowa, listening closely to each track. 808s moves dramatically, shifting in tone from over-the-top, aggressive lyrics—“I’m a monster, I’m a killer, I’m a problem that’ll never be stopped” from “Amazing”—to lines full of resigned, depression-laced self-pity—“all the streets, glowin’, happen to be just like moments, passin’ in front of me” from “Street Lights.” I drove with the music. I thought about my life. I thought about a girl. What he was saying made sense, even if it didn’t.
Somehow, Kanye took the most non-human thing in the world—auto-tune, heretofore the purview of partying goofballs like T-Pain—and humanized it through isolation. On 808s, he presents his voice in a way in which it feels distant and removed. You don’t hear Kanye, but you hear something. The sound is cluttered and sidesteps any sort of rules singers abide by when laying down a track; Kanye tells you he hates himself, hates his ego, hates the way he acts. But do you believe him? You don’t know, because he’s both there and he’s not. He walks the line of corny, asking you how you could be so heartless, but instead of shaking your head, you think that Kanye’s probably right. He puts the loneliness in you.
In retrospect, 808s was the perfect record to usher in Obama’s presidency. It might not have been an overtly political record, but it encapsulated the climate of the culture, full of uncertainty and despair, masked by hope and confidence. And if there’s one artist who knows how to project a certain feeling onto listeners, it’s Kanye West—whether you agree with what he’s saying or not. Because this is what he does. He connects with you. He gives his own feelings and emotions such urgency that you can help but feel what the dude is going through, even if it’s a ridiculous rant about French silk or whatever the hell else is on his mind at that time. He’s constantly explaining and justifying himself, his actions, and why he thinks the way that he thinks. He creates a world in which he forces you to understand how he feels. It’s both his greatest strength and weakness as a performer.
With 808s, Kanye made it okay to show blatant emotion in rap. He made self-deprecation cool. He made it okay for one of the world's biggest rappers, Drake, to be known for rapping about passive aggressive texting. It’s now okay for the narcissist to be narcissistic, and for the narcissist to talk about how hard it is to be narcissistic. 808s & Heartbreak is the lynchpin of Kanye’s career. It’s the bridge that connects the rapper in a pink polo and backpack who brought real rap back to the guy who now on stage wears a disco ball on his head and fistbumps with Jesus Christ. Is that good? No one knows. But regardless, there’s something weirdly punk, revolutionary, and fascinating about this record, so much that it made me crash into a Mercedes.
Eric Sundermann recognizes that he's not the world's greatest driver. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy