The only thing I wanted for Christmas 2008 was the piano sheet music for Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.” I was 11 and had been taking piano lessons religiously at that time, and I think my parents were secretly hoping I was going to come out of this a child prodigy. I begged my mom for the sheet music, and that was exactly what I found in my stocking that year. The image of Kanye in the “Love Lockdown” music video helplessly singing in that all-white house and the African tribal dancers with their bodies painted beautifully haunted me and touched me so poignantly even though the biggest heartbreak I had experienced at that ripe age was Lil Saint dying in U Got Served.
Fast forward seven years later and my biggest heartbreak is now my mother’s death. At her funeral, as a way to explain the hurt that was to come, someone said to me, “In the wraps of the universe nothing is stronger than a mother and son relationship.” She died seven months ago, and in the midst of Mr. West’s two recent landmark concerts of the entire 808s and Heartbreak album, I grew a newfound sense of respect and a complex understanding for the album that birthed “Love Lockdown.”
When people think of 808s and Heartbreak, they credit the “heartbreak” in the title to Kanye's relationship with his then-fiancé ending, which is why it has been called one of the best breakup albums. The truth is that his mom died first, and then the engagement was broken off, which was then followed by the 808s album, six months later. Relistening to it now, it is clear that the loss of his mother, not his relationship, is essentially the main theme throughout.
808s and Heartbreak isn’t just an album that says “my mom’s dead and my engagement is over so let me just steal T-Pain’s thing and people are going to ride with it just because I’m Kanye-Motherfucking-West.” It’s an album full of emotional vulnerability in a time when you’re going through something and everyone knows how you feel but insists on asking you how you are and constantly telling you how great of a person your mother was, as if you weren’t aware of how great your best friend was.
Not to get too Rap Genius with it, but within 808s is Kanye’s duality of losing his mom to the same beautification industry he had spent his first three albums critiquing while he’s simultaneously accepting the end of his 18-month engagement and six-year relationship with the woman his mom last saw him with.
Throughout the sequence of the 12 songs on the album there is a sense of hindsight and clarity that typically comes when a loved one or someone really important in your life dies. When my own mom died I instantly started to look at things differently and began to have an appreciation for the things that matter and less for the things that didn’t. Your own mortality becomes 10-times more real to you when someone who was supposed to be there for you for a lot longer all of a sudden isn’t.
It’s that idea of having all these material things that you chase and then not being happy when you experience a loss but still having those things (“Welcome to Heartbreak”); or the idea of realizing you used to worry about and put too much effort into the wrong things and then trying to warn others of the same fate (“Paranoid”); or the idea of experiencing loss and wondering if there is always going to be the sense of regret that you live with forever (“Robocop”).
Just eight months prior to 808s being released, Kanye sang a rendition of Late Registration’s “Hey Mama” at that year’s Grammys telecast. In this live version, he changed up the lyrics to honor his late mom.
“Last night I saw you in my dreams. Now I can’t wait to go to sleep. And this life, this Grammys is all a dream, and my real life starts when I go to sleep.”
The words of that rendition tie to the 11th track and final ode on 808s to his mom, “Coldest Winter.” The song was recorded just half a year after that Grammy performance and is a haunting track about not being able to sleep while wondering if there will ever be a love equivalent to the one he felt for his mom.
Those two ideas of not being able to sleep due to the depression caused by grief and wanting to go to sleep for comfort and closure in the midst of grief set the tone for what is arguably one of Kanye’s best, and most shocking, works. Not for the usage of the 808 beat machine or the unprecedented singing, but for Kanye’s ability and willingness to be emotionally vulnerable and strip the truths at a time in his life where it would never be more difficult.
Because at the end of the day, nothing will ever shock you to your core like losing your mother.