808s & Heartbreak
Roc-A-Fella Records · November 2008
Look, it’s difficult to talk about Kanye nowadays. Even as a card-carrying Kanye apologist I have to admit that he’s said and done things that are unforgivable. But this isn’t the time and place to hash those issues out. This isn’t a political think-piece. This is a look back on one of the most important and influential hip hop albums of the 2000s, which would shape the genre as well as the future of popular music for the next decade: 808s & Heartbreak.
Every once in while, an artist hits their audience with a curveball that is at first not so well received but later turns out to be a seminal piece of work in their discography. Radiohead traded out guitars for synths on Kid A, Bob Dylan opted for electric over acoustic on Blonde on Blonde, and Kanye did something unheard of for rappers on 808s & Heartbreak. He stopped rapping, and started singing. After Graduation somewhat departed from the soulful style Kanye made his name on, many hip hop purists feared Kanye was going to abandon the sound entirely, and their fears came true. Thus 808s & Heartbreak shares a similar divisive status as Kid A or Blonde on Blonde, while also innovating just as much. The melancholy, vulnerable, and digitally synthetic sound that 808s brought to the table is arguably the blueprint for the modern day convergence of hip hop, R&B, and pop that now dominates the charts. Drake, Post Malone, Young Thug, Juice WRLD, Future, the Weeknd: the list goes on and on. All these artists and many more are indebted to what Kanye did on 808s.
The album was made during a turbulent time for Kanye (at least by 2008 standards). Following the death of his mother and his separation from his fiance, Kanye was not happy. This is reflected right from the get go with ‘Say You Will,’ which sees Ye reflecting on fragile past relations over a minimal, almost hallow instrumental that mostly consists of simple back and forth synth beeps and low toms. But the most striking feature is West’s use of autotune, which he reinvented throughout 808sat a time when it was still mainly associated with silly T-Pain shit. Kanye is no singer, and he leans heavily onto autotune and filters for this reason, which provides most of the fodder for the critiques of 808s. Yet the style proved to have commercial legs with hit singles like ‘Heartless’ and ‘Love Lockdown.’ Though the tracks stand in contrast regarding their moods, they share sticky choruses perfect for the radio, and many younger Kanye fans were introduced to his music through these cuts.
But Kanye doesn’t just stick to the new tone he develops for himself on the album. There are traces of the grand arrangements and instrumentation yet to come on his next project, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with songs like ‘Amazing’ and ‘Robocop.’ There’s also remnants of Graduation’s more upbeat, dancey vibe on ‘Paranoid,’ demonstrating that 808s isn’t a one trick pony of emotional ballads. Even still, the emotional ballads are some of the strongest points of the album, my personal favorites being ‘Coldest Winter’ and ‘Street Lights.’ While ‘Street Lights’ is a bleak look into how lonely and monotonous life can be, ‘Coldest Winter’ returns to West’s struggle with losing both his mother and his fiance (in different ways of course). Not only does Kanye see the death of his mother as one of the causes of his separation from Alexis Phifer, but he also blames himself in part for his mother’s death, making the loss cut even deeper.
In 2004, people clowned Kanye just for wearing pink polos and backpacks. If that alone was enough to cut against the norm of hyper-masculinity that dominated hip hop at the time, then four years later the raw, intimate, and vulnerable tone of 808s & Heartbreak undermined those norms entirely. In fact, it created the foundation for a new norm in the genre that artists still try to replicate today, sometimes without even knowing that they’re invoking 808s. It’s the perfect album for aimlessly walking around and reflecting on one’s own life. Perhaps one day we’ll return to a point where the most controversial choices Kanye makes are his musical ones.