Posted by on
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better modern-day parallel to the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore than Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak. West and Corgan were both, in their days, pop music’s most notorious egomaniacs. They were both coming off career-defining albums (Graduation and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, respectively) that pushed their popularity to even greater heights than ever before (no small feat in either case). Both of them had fallings-out with one of the most important people in their lives: West broke up with his fiancée, Alexis Phifer; Corgan fired founding Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain after Chamberlain and the band’s touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, overdosed on heroin together—in Melvoin’s case, fatally. Shortly thereafter, both West and Corgan tragically lost their mothers. The similarities in the back-stories behind these two albums are scary.
The thing at which both Kanye and the Pumpkins excelled in their peak years was bridging their respective genres’ mainstream and underground sensibilities. In “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” a track from his debut album, 2004’s The College Dropout, ‘Ye described himself as “the first nigga with a Benz and a backpack,” while Corgan freely admitted that Van Halen was just crucial in shaping his band’s sound as the Pixies and My Bloody Valentine. And although 808s & Heartbreak is, as of now, the last new Kanye music and we don’t yet know whether he will plunge off the deep end in quite the same spectacular fashion that Corgan has since around 2005 (this is going to get its own column at some point), his public image is at an all-time low right now thanks to his upstaging of Taylor Swift at the VMAs and the cancellation of his planned tour with Lady GaGa.
But for all their many flaws, these are two of my favorite musicians of the last 20 years. And in both cases, I believe that the weird fourth album was born out of a moment of personal crisis is the defining moment of their careers. I know that this is a fairly unpopular opinion to hold (particularly in the case of 808s), and so I am going to attempt to defend it here.
The Smashing Pumpkins have always been the Billy Corgan show to some extent—even when they seemed the most like a real band, on their most widely acclaimed album, 1993’s alt-rock touchstone Siamese Dream, rumors abounded (though they have never been proven) that Corgan erased the parts of guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and replaced them with his own. But even under his iron fist, one of the most distinct pillars of the Pumpkins sound was Jimmy Chamberlain’s drum work. If Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl was grunge’s John Bonham, Chamberlain was its Bill Bruford. His powerful but precise attack lent itself equally well to Corgan’s prog-rock fixation and stadium-sized ambitions. So when Chamberlain’s heroin and alcohol addictions forced him out of the band in 1996 (he would get clean a few years later and rejoin the Pumpkins for 2000’s uneven but unfairly maligned Machina: The Machines of God), Corgan was left with a fairly big hole to fill. So big, in fact, that he didn’t even try. Three different drummers, including Matt Cameron of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam fame, are used on Adore, and none of them attempt to replicate Chamberlain’s approach.
While Adore didn’t completely eliminate guitars from the band’s sound, it doesn’t “rock” in any conventional sense of the word. Adore is a cold, insular record, full of arrangements that enhance each other rather than beating you over the head with an obvious guitar lead. Its melodies aren’t made for radio, choosing instead to slowly work their way into your subconscious.
There could not be a better vehicle for Corgan’s airy voice than the lush electronic folk of Adore, which is another reason why the album works so well. Corgan’s singing has long been the most polarizing aspect of the band, and it’s completely understandable for one to think him too whiny delivering lines like “despite all my rage/I’m still just a rat in a cage” over high-octane guitars. But on Adore, his voice cracks in all the right places for all the right reasons. The idea of Billy Corgan’s lyrics becoming “more personal” sounds terrible on paper, but there’s something about writing about the death of a mother versus writing about high-school angst that makes this stuff more believable. Corgan opts for a less-is-more approach that perfectly compliments the subtleties of the music. “Life’s a bummer/when you’re a hummer” is replaced by “Love is good and love is kind/love is drunk and love is blind.”
The only obvious single is “Ava Adore,” a top 10-level Pumpkins song that layers rare electric guitars over a mechanical, NIN-like beat. The rest of the songs blend together in the best possible sense, forming an extended mood piece that makes Corgan infinitely more relatable than any of his previous work would have suggested.
Replace Corgan’s name with Kanye West’s in that sentence, and that’s as accurate a description as any of 808s & Heartbreak. The terrific “Heartless” is the album’s “Ava Adore,” the lone song that can pass as a pop song the way Kanye is accustomed to making pop music. There aren’t any of the sped-up soul samples that were previously his signature, and, of course, there’s no rapping. ‘Ye’s songs have long focused on his internal moral struggles concerning his materialistic lifestyle, but for the first time ever on 808s, as with Corgan’s introspection, it feels real.
The album’s reception has effectively made it the quintessential Kanye album. Ever since his infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” outburst, he’s been the kind of celebrity that people love or hate, but almost none of that divisiveness comes from his music. He’s a world-class producer, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan of pop music that would disagree with that. As an MC, nobody has ever accused him of being a technical virtuoso, but his first three solo albums were both resounding successes both critically and commercially. I’d estimate that probably 80 or 90 percent of anti-Kanye sentiment comes from stunts like the Passion of the Christ-aping Rolling Stone cover shoot and the yearly award-show crashing.
Which is why 808s and Heartbreak, and not the more widely liked College Dropout or Late Registration, is the album I would throw in the time capsule for kids in 2109 who wondered who Kanye West was. It is the only album in his catalog that is as polarizing musically as he is as a person. Every single person I know who is tuned into popular culture has an opinion about 808s, and I’ve never met one person who would say it’s an “okay” album. Hip-hop purists hate it because there is no rapping to be found outside of Young Jeezy’s guest spot in “Amazing.” People who are completely missing the point slam him for using AutoTune (more on this in a minute). Who likes it? Basically just people like me.
I totally get all of the backlash this album received. This is a guy who’s best known for making smart, sophisticated mainstream hip-hop, who is at the height of his popularity, releasing an album of dark, moody electronic pop with only a couple “singles.” It’s as weird an album as anybody with his level of fame has released in my lifetime. Radiohead’s Kid A is the classic “defiant weird album by a huge band” example, but even they have never had the kind of global notoriety that he had (and still has) when 808s was released. The only thing I can think of that comes close to comparing is U2’s oft-overlooked Achtung Baby follow-up Zooropa. I couldn’t exactly blame people for being weirded out by something like “Robocop” if they heard it on the radio between Miley Cyrus and John Mayer. The only thing most of 808s has in common with the rest of the Top 40 landscape is the AutoTune.
Jay-Z’s recent Blueprint 3 featured a track called “Death of AutoTune.” I’m skeptical, especially considering that other tracks on that album used it. But if and when the popular vocal device falls out of favor, 808s & Heartbreak will be the era’s Appetite for Destruction. Nirvana is often credited with killing hair metal, but I’ve always contended that Guns N’ Roses were more responsible, as their work made the rest of the genre basically irrelevant. It is very possible that in the future, that will be 808s & Heartbreak’s legacy. At this point, it is highly unlikely that anybody will ever do with the vocal software what Kanye did here. As it stands, this is probably the strangest album released in the past two decades by one of the ten most famous people in the world. And like Billy Corgan, Kanye reveals the most about who he is when he works the farthest outside of himself.