7 years after its release and despite predictions it would be unmemorable, ‘808s & Heartbreak’ stands as one of Kanye West’s most enduring projects.
Seven years ago, in 2008, following the loss of his mother and the end of a six-year relationship with then fiancee Alexis Phifer, Kanye West debuted his fourth studio album titled 808s & Heartbreak. The album, which West described as intentionally minimal, was completed in Hawaii in about three weeks. Upon release, it was met with lukewarm reviews, and many questioned what, if any, point West was trying to make.
Initial reactions ranged from the downright negative:
NPR: “As it stands, 808s is a sketchbook. It is laziness disguised as minimalism and vulnerability. Emcees should know their limitations.”
Slate: “It’s a spiteful breakup album in which he plays the mostly blameless victim, a nasty feast of wound-licking and backbiting, and a claustrophobic pity party that brooks hardly any self-reflection.”
New York Times: “But at the moment, Mr. West can’t sing, and it is that weakness for which this album will ultimately be remembered, some solid songs notwithstanding. For him, using Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction software with the robotic vocal effect, is a true crutch.”
To the slightly more encouraging:
New York Times: “Flaunting pain requires a sort of arrogance, too, so it’s little surprise that Mr. West takes to it so naturally. Every song on the album is rife with anguish, and his lyrics, about the shards of broken relationships, though often tediously written, can carry a fresh sting.”
Rolling Stone: “But Auto-Tune isn’t totally to blame for 808s & Heartbreak. A bold, fascinating, foolhardy, occasionally unlistenable Kanye West record was inevitable, with or without the cyborg-soul software.:”
Slant: “And so this famously unsatisfied, irrepressible and often insufferable temperament, fresh off a trilogy of albums likely to be remembered as some of the most innovative and endearing in the history of hip-hop, has produced 2008’s biggest musical conundrum, the hurried and ill-conceived Auto-Tune experiment 808s & Heartbreak… 808s, despite its myriad flaws, is both a reflection of the hard times West has suffered through and a testament to his artistic fortitude.”
What many of these reviews shared, despite occasionally congratulating West on his artistry and daring, was the conviction that 808s & Heartbreak would more than likely go down as West’s first real failure. Between the blatant flouting of traditional hip-hop conventions, the overzealous use of autotune, and West’s shaky, at times downright off-key warbling, 808s seemed at first glance to be something of an ill-conceived train wreck. However, in the collective rush to dissect how and where West’s experiment went wrong, many reviewers seemed to miss where it went right.
While the album is, as Slate so descriptively put it, “a nasty feast of woundlicking and backbiting,” it is a nasty feast done with truth and conviction, so much so, it almost becomes irrelevant whether West is vocally talented or not. That is why it resonates and that’s why we’re still listening today. West lyrics, though at times bordering on puerile and temper tantrum-esque, are also intentionally set against a sterile, metallic soundscape that is devoid of all warmth, and seemingly all intention to make you feel good or even want to empathize with him. He strips away every piece of pageantry and every ounce of auditory bling that would have turned 808s into an experience meant to impress or pleasure the listener. In fact, almost everything about 808s suggests it wasn’t made to make anyone happy. Rather it seems to be an audio record of West’s personal catharsis and in the process the rest of us get treated to a raw sampling of woe is me.
“Mr. West can’t sing, and it is that weakness for which this album will ultimately be remembered.”
But let’s be honest, who hasn’t had those moments? So while in the beginning it was easy to criticize West for throwing what amounts to an album-length pity party, to do so would also be to forget that we’ve all gorged on self-pity. We’ve all been the victim and we’ve all had those moments in which what looks like the height of melodrama to others is a genuine outpouring of anger, pain and sadness.
West, who even back then was best known for his egoism, happened to produce 808s at a time where emotive hip-hop really didn’t exist in the mainstream. The language of popular hip-hop was, and still is, often marked by materialism, braggadocio and projecting a sense of invincibility. In his three prior albums, West himself, although often critical of his own pursuit of material possessions, ultimately conscripted to this kind of rampant swaggering consumerism.
However, with 808s he changed the dialogue. Rather than being a celebration of life’s excesses, the album was built off of projecting a sense of loss, despair and vulnerability. Some of West’s emotions are relatable, yet others paint him as a finger-pointing, emotionally scarred man who would rather assign blame then take it. But once again, who hasn’t been that person? The beauty of human emotion is that it often doesn’t make sense and it isn’t supposed to. West’s album is full of contradictions: A temper tantrum followed up by a startling confession of insecurity, then quickly covered up by false bravado. It’s utterly human, even when his use of autotune or twangy, futuristic melodies makes him sound more like a depressed robot than a person. West also heightened the album’s sense of despondency with visual storytelling. Back in 2008, he tapped artist Vanessa Beecroft to collaborate on a performance piece that was ultimately unveiled at the album’s Los Angeles listening party. Recently, to mark the 10-year anniversary of the release of his second studio album Late Registration, the two again collaborated on a special performance.
This full-circle moment proves that despite the many predictions of failure, West in fact managed something singular and very special with 808s & Heartbreak. And in doing so, he paved the way for new kinds of experimentation in hip-hop. Not only did he blur the lines of the genre, he engaged autotune as a tool for creation rather than a mere corrective device. Most of all, he projected every messy, petty, unkind, ugly and objectionable emotion he was feeling with no care to whether it made him “soft” or not.
Today, wildly successful artists like Drake and The Weeknd rely on a similar ability to project universal emotions. And while it seems 808s & Heartbreak wasn’t necessarily made to be relatable, it ultimately became so simply because we encounter the same feelings in our own lives. The only difference is that most of us aren’t famous musicians, so we have to have our tantrums in private.