My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a hot mess, certainly. Well, right? I mean, Nick Southall — noted and voluminious writer on audio fidelity, and no slouch at criticism either — said so. And one of my primary beefs with 808s and Heartbreak is that it sounds terrible. Now, if I want to argue that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is better, then doesn’t that argument meet with the same swift and obvious rebuke? I thought so, but you know what, now I don’t think so.
It’s certainly one of the big party lines: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the hottest (as in mixed loudest) albums. But, come on, look at how loud 808s and Heartbreak is. Virtually every song hits the ceiling. Somehow, though, even the songs that don’t always hit peak loudness still clip. Clipping is that crackling sound you hear all over 808s and Heartbreak, like someone wadding up an empty bag of chips. Every drum hit on “Amazing” clips. Just about every moment of “RoboCop” clips. Parts of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy clip, too. On the first track, when Nicki Minaj says, “Zip it. Listen.”, the “z” is accompanied by clipping. There are other instances of clipping, too, but — and this might be mere opinion, but it’s incontrovertible to me — the clipping isn’t as consistent or distracting as it is on 808s and Heartbreak.
Clipping sucks. It’s distracting, sometimes it hurts your ears. Albums these days clip all the time. But you know what other album clips? Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Even though it is mixed significantly quieter, parts of it definitely clip. You notice this because, since it’s quieter, you turn it up. And then the loud parts are, yes, loud.
Illmatic, a year after the Wu’s debut, does not really clip. It’s a very pretty album. Spotless. You hear everything. I feel like these two albums represent two modes of rap production. There’s the eternally spotless Illmatic, which showcases beautiful productions, and then there’s 36 Chambers, which also has beautiful production — but it’s engineered to sound gritty. My main argument for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and against 808s and Heartbreak is that the former is an album in the 36 Chambers vein — it’s supposed to be gritty, for the most part. 808s and Heartbreak should not be gritty. It should be spotless and clear. You can spotlessly and clearly present close conditions and claustrophobia, certainly. Again, look no further than “N.Y. State Of Mind”: one of the classic beats of all-time. Very dark, very claustrophobic. That’s how 808s and Heartbreak should have sounded.