In the PBS series The Power of Myth, mythologist Joseph Campbell explained the Buddhist concept of the bodhisattva (illuminated being) as one who says "yes" to everything in the world, including brutality and vulgarity.
"?‘All life is sorrowful' is the first Buddhist saying," says Campbell. "It wouldn't be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow. Loss, loss, loss. You have to say ‘yes' to it."
Kanye West, if nothing else, has always been the "yes" rapper. When he gained popularity many years ago as Jay-Z's production-wunderkind discovery, the accolades were accompanied by a certain puzzlement in the hip-hop community. This was a firmly middle-class gent who dressed in polo shirts and wore a backpack — the trademark, at that time, of the college indie community. His creations for Jigga, Nas and many others sampled artists like the Doors, Pat Benatar, Wings and Buffy Sainte-Marie. When he took his suburban-gangsta act solo, he rapped self-knowingly about mocha lattes and shoplifting khakis from the Gap. Like the Steven Spielberg of hip-hop, West's dispatches from the subdivisions, lightly sprinkled with magic adventure and sincere yet ham-handed black-struggle messages, proved to be populist lightning in a bottle. Never was that more evident than his post-Katrina-rant ride to the next level of stardom. West said "yes" to sociopolitical rebellion and reaped the benefits.
His skyrocketing success, however, "changed his metaphor," as Campbell would say, from one-of-us Everyman to pop-culture tastemaker. Just look at last year's uneven Graduation: His beats were no longer built from Chi-Lites soul but the Euro-disco stylings of Daft Punk and Krautrockers Can, and his yarn-spinning devolved from the insecure college girl detailed on his debut album ("All Falls Down") to king-of-the-world "Good Life" flossing.
But Campbell's "Hero's Journey" theory caught up with Kanye. Within a couple of months last year, the artist lost his mother to complications from cosmetic surgery (a cruel irony, considering West's prior condemnation of aesthetic alterations on College Dropout) and broke up with his longtime girlfriend. (Campbell would call this phase the "Road of Trials.") West now faced the decision to burrow away in hiding, a la Eminem after his best friend's murder, or to record an album and risk self-indulgent pathos.
808s & Heartbreak — featuring absolutely no rapping and sung in full, through voice-altering software that keeps his emotions at a robotic distance — is Kanye's apotheosis on a grand scale, his Auto-Tuned "yes" in the face of mortality. From opening track "Say You Will"?'s heart-monitor-aping beeps to industrial closer "Coldest Winter," the MC rips his chest open and unleashes a crimson tide of anger, retreat and, finally, the crossing of his pain threshold: "After tonight, there will be no return," he growls on "See You in My Nightmares." In the face of taunts from macho colleagues like 50 Cent, who laughed at West publicly after the shaky single "Love Lockdown" premiered, he's taken the premise he first laid out on Young Jeezy's "Put On" (in which he also sang — again through Auto-Tune — about his loneliness at the top) and allowed it to blossom into a bodhisattva manifesto on the beauty of loss and acceptance.
Is 808s & Heartbreak self-indulgent?
Some parts are wholly unlistenable — the Casio joke of "Paranoid" features a giggly Kanye, and "Robocop" is easily the most unimaginative metaphor West has ever dropped — but the new-wave minimalism of the keyboards and arena-sized concept ambitions found here prove there's no life event that Mr. "Through the Wire" can't spin into artistic and commercial gold.
As bizarre as the album seems, just say "yes."firstname.lastname@example.org