November 24th marks the ten-year anniversary of an album that plays a central role in my life and my debut novel.
808s came before most of us were ready. Until then, Kanye was (believe it or not) the pinnacle of stability in hip hop. His first three albums were each critically acclaimed and fit a neat and tidy theme. The expectation was for that trend to continue with Good Ass Job.
Then this happened (sadly, the original performance from 2008 VMAs has been taken down):
Of course, a lot happened in the man’s life leading to that moment. You know the story by now. His mom/manager/best friend died. His engagement ended. Good Ass Job didn’t make sense for him anymore.
But what came didn’t make sense for a lot of us in the hip hop community. I hated 808s from the moment I saw that performance of Love Lockdown. I wasn’t interested in that level of introspection from a rapper. I wasn’t interested in that level of emphasis on the drums and instrumentation. And I really wasn’t interested in the autotune.
That’s where Alex, the protagonist of To Laugh Well, is when the novel begins. His rejection of Kanye’s turn toward introspection is matched only by his rejection of any introspection of his own.
He manages to suppress his trauma in high school, but when he starts college, something changes. The new world forces a turn inward, toward the pain he’d escaped. The drums of 808s serve as the backdrop for the anxiety that came with the slow turn toward introspection.
That shift brings him some of his first real friendships. Yet along with his new laughter comes a rise of night terrors and panic attacks. No amount of beer or weed or pills can help.
Like Kanye’s journey post-808s, this shift in Alex begins a spiral he is unable or unwilling to control.
As if it’s not already apparent, I came around on 808s. I’ll leave it for you to see where Alex eventually falls on it. But I realize that the influence of Kanye and 808s on Alex and To Laugh Well is more problematic this year that it would have been if the book was released in the summer of 2017, when I finished writing it.
I wish I didn’t have to add this caveat, but it’s necessary: there’s no excusing what Kanye has said and supported this year. I don’t forgive it and don’t expect you to. At minimum, my desperate hope is that his recent rejection of the “Blexit” movement is the beginning of the end of his aligning with ideas and political figures that are contrary to everything he’s stood for from The College Dropout to Yeezus. But that might be an unrealistic expectation.
Despite that, none of this can take 808s from me. The drums, piano, and vocals of tracks like “Street Lights” color my book as they continue to color my life.
So I’ll leave you with an instance where that track is most prominent in this book, as narrated by Josh Horowitz, producer and narrator of To Laugh Well on audiobook: