This week, 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye West turns 10, and its legacy is one of widely-debated bewilderment and contentiousness. Dismissed as an archetype by faithful devotees and hip-hop loyalists alike, the record is also a retrospective mainstay on critic’s lists who have re-engaged with the source material, measuring its influence against a continuum of copycat releases ever since.
808s & Heartbreak stands as an anomalous release in the career of one of music’s most prolific innovators. As with any Kanye record, there’s an incubation period where we get to grips and decipher all that he’s just offered up for consumption. With 808s, the journey has been slow and gradual, but it’s impact on music and culture has been impervious. Play the record today and it’s a perfectly synonymous soundtrack to the stark, grim reality we occupy now, “Bad News” in particular, encapsulates our desensitization to a newsreel of death and despair, doom and gloom.
Kanye’s fourth LP was predicated around a philosophy of reinvention, risk, and rebirth – arguably no hip-hop artist had enacted a sharp pivot on this gargantuan level before. He took the biggest gamble of his already eminent career with 808s, throwing caution to the wind and effectively redefining who Kanye was as an artist. He ventured much further down the outré path he was signaling on Graduation, synthesizing his hip-hop DNA with the pulse of pop-punk and electro-infused pop.
From his debut The College Dropout to 2007’s Graduation, West had released a triumvirate of uber-successful records that cemented his role as a progressive rap progenitor. Many expected his winning streak to continue, banking on another instant classic, and when 808s & Heartbreak, released in the fall of 2008, debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 selling just under half a million records, his streak of consecutive hits was lauded. However, this signifier of commercial success in a recession-addled era belied the beginnings of his demise. A victim of his own ascent, the level of infamy that marred the 808s campaign – from pre-production to his vilification during the 2009 Video Music Awards – resembled a pandemonium. In an era that preceded the social media boom, the response to 808s & Heartbreak was vociferous, many listeners averse to the divergence in sound. Some critics berated the album; Rolling Stone described it as a “noble failure,” NME dubbed it “woe-is-me slush” and NPR’s critic called for “Emcees to know their limitations” in the wake of Kanye’s foray into singing. To fans of Kanye’s earlier material, 808s & Heartbreak was too amorphous, shunning aspirational storytelling for a soundscape that luxuriated in a bleak and morose worldview.
To understand 808s & Heartbreak is to acquaint ourselves with why it was conceived in the first place. The record immortalized the emotional turmoil Kanye underwent in the years building up to the release, weaving together a tale of two losses, one being the breakdown of his relationship with designer Alexis Phifer and the other, more profound loss being the gut-wrenching impact the death of his mother, Donda West, had on him. In the years prior, Donda – whom Kanye had venerated in his music several times before – died with complications following cosmetic surgery. Kanye credited his trauma as a catalyst for a change he needed to move his art in a forward trajectory, “If I hadn’t suffered those losses, I might be too scared to fight the war on traditional thinking,” he told VH1 storytellers in 2009.
The resulting record was essentially a very raw, public declaration of grief, elucidating Kanye’s inner monologue in ways few rappers had before him. The emotional centerpiece of the record lies in a rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Memories Fade;” Kanye’s version, titled “Coldest Winter,” served as fervent farewell to the two most important women in his life, the refrain “I will never love again” hitting the quixotic in us right in the chest, the sorrow heightened by swells of strings enrapturing the listener through a sci-fi opera.
A projection of vulnerability in the pursuit of realness reflected the changing tides in mainstream hip-hop. Where Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III – the most commercially successful album of 2008 – was emblematic of the swagger and braggadocio that demarcated the genre, it was also a personal, unconventional and brazen listen. Wayne employed autotune in his vocal delivery, setting the precedent for an eventual untethering of hip-hop from its roots and for its new antecedent, Kanye, to free himself further from tradition, thriving instead as an unruly modernizer. On 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye consciously made the decision to present himself as an all-encompassing force. He’d be somber, soulful, problematic, exasperating and, at times, melodramatic – sometimes all at once. He eschewed bravado and a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” tenet altogether, his focus being the projection of real human emotions – flaws and all.
West’s process was centered around fellowship, and because he eliminated samples from his repertoire during the recording of 808s, he roped in pioneers of the field who’d assist in fleshing out his desired sound. Produced alongside Jeff Bhasker and NO I.D. – and galvanized by his protégé Kid Cudi’s woozy musings on A Kid Named Cudi – Kanye succeeded in creating an unrelenting subterranean dystopia with little to no respite for the listener. Soul loops and hip-hop breakbeats were replaced by warbles, metallic synths, and a frenetic bassline. West replaced organic percussion with mechanical drum patterns from the Roland TR-808 drum machine – the titular 808. And with the help of indie artist and long-time collaborator Jon Brion, Kanye was able to extract emotion through synthetic means, most notably on the schizoid, radioactive opener “Say You Will.”
Kanye’s awareness of ’80s synthpop auteurs like Gary Numan and New Order, and their ability to convey the rhapsody of feeling through austere minimalism, drove much of the album. He wasn’t a rapper anymore but a cyborg possessed, taking on a more autonomous persona, and one way of evoking the void was to sing through it. While André 3000 popularized the duality of the rapper/singer hybrid, Kanye engaged with the art of singing with a fortitude that made up for his lack of technique. Calling on autotune forerunner T-Pain to help him study the contours of vocal manipulation, Kanye was driven by an unwavering desire to sing every utterance, removing the stigma surrounding autotune as a superfluous device and validating its use as a genuine instrument.
Today, the monolithic presence of auto-tuned emotion among the new generation of rap stars is undeniable. They incorporate the melodic, emotive rap that characterized Kanye’s earnest woe-is-me version. In the programmed baritone slurs of “Love Lockdown,” you can hear the new breed of downbeat mumble rappers dominating airwaves today. Yes, Ye is partially to blame for that. Still, 808s & Heartbreak is an undeniable benefaction to music today. For example, expletive-laden hyper masculinity – a marquee of rap since its inception – is here replaced by dejection and despondency.
Emotive rapper No. 1 – Drake – plucked his anguished grievances from Kanye’s assiduousness and spun them into earworm, post-heartbreak anthems, enhancing his juggernaut status. Whether he likes to it admit or not, Champagne Papi owes much of his carefully concocted sound to Ye. His debut mixtape So Far Gone was peppered with 808s-era leftovers, “Find Your Love” being the most Kanye-defined cut carrying his hallmark of bruised, unrequited love. Additionally, The Weeknd’s Starboy is a direct descendent of the lamenting, heartbreak-pop that defined Kanye’s release a decade ago; Abel’s brand of lovelorn melancholia over a lattice of Daft Punk synthwork vividly recalls the glacial R&B of 808s. Point being, Kanye took the risk of humanizing hip-hop, making it easier for the next generation to exploit the depths of inner-most emotion in their songs, tailor-made for mass consumption.
Kanye West never cared about making himself palatable to the masses. What ignited him was repelling the complacency plaguing an artist when success is all but guaranteed, understanding a metamorphosis had to occur in order for him to evolve. No album in his discography comes close to 808s & Heartbreak in the way it rejuvenated his career and foretold the off-kilter experimentation that would occur in its wake – take the loud, brash protestations of Yeezus or the glitch-effect distortions of The Life of Pablo. Arguably, 808s is the last album where us mere mortals felt closest to Kanye. For all the convergence of emotion on display, we related because it was borne from events that felt universal. Now, the assemblies of Kanye the inconsistent avant-gardist, the self-aggrandizer the pseudo-philosophical preacher, or the munificent do-gooder renders him indecipherable and well, distant. With 808s & Heartbreak, the noise was lucid, and the perception of him was for once, glaringly opaque.
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- Words: Shahzaib Hussain