808s & Heartbreak

The Background

Today we will be discussing Kanye West’s sometimes forgotten and sometimes most influential Kanye West album: 808s & Heartbreak. Kanye released 808s, his fourth studio album, in November of 2008, rather appropriately. The first part of the album receives its name from the Roland TR-808 drum machine used to produce the majority of its tracks, and the second can be attributed to the mental state he found himself in during the come-down of what would be his toughest year, both in losing his mother to cosmetic surgery and his break-up with fiance Alexis Phifer. Although it was was generally well-received by music critics at the time of its release, 808s received backlash from both fans of Kanye West and music fans in general, who were taken aback by the uncharacteristic production style and who criticized the album for being too “pop-y”.

The Music

Musically, 808s served as a vast departure from Kanye’s previous work as an artist. In fact, it most assuredly served as a vast departure from just about what every other rapper was doing at the time. I never understood how people were so shocked by the release of Yeezus, as if you pay attention, it is the natural culmination of a style pioneered with 808s and decorated during My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Runaway” might as well be off 808s, however, by that time rap fans were already so accustomed to that style of “rap” that no one batted an eyelash.

The production on 808s is perhaps Kanye’s most musical throughout his career as a producer. Heavy on synth and auto-tune and tom-toms, Kanye created a soundscape that complements his heavily melodic singing, so drowned in auto-tune his vocals might as well be the notes of a piano. While the beat on “Love Lockdown” is good, it’s his vocals overtop that fill the sound so completely, something that he could never have achieved by straight rapping. At several points on the album he distorts his already auto-tuned voice with an effect that Kanye refers to as “heartbreak”. Distortion on vocals is something that even now is found only sparingly in heavy metal and hard rock, but Kanye West, a rapper, had no problem applying it overtop his singing. Musical highlights on 808s can be found in “Welcome to Heartbreak”, “Robocop” and “Streetlights”. “Paranoid” is the closest thing to rapping found on the album, and the track with the most longevity and listenability today.

The Influence

808s & Heartbreak is a monster of influence both lyrically and musically. One may argue that A Kid Named Cudi was the first album to start the movement, and if that’s true, 808s & Heartbreak certainly brought it to the mainstream. 808s was really the first time a rapper showed his softer side. While Eminem previously changed the game by rapping about “homosexuals and vicodin” instead of  “big screen TVs, blunts, 40s, and bitches”, then Kanye West rapping about loss, depression, and heartbreak certainly pushed things in a new direction as well.

And then there’s the influence of a rapper choosing to sing, not just on a chorus, but entire songs. Kanye felt that rapping, although a great form of expression, held limitations to the way he was feeling at the time. “melodies that were in me – what was in me I couldn’t stop.”. It was the album that launched a thousand rap careers. Drake cites Kanye West as his biggest influence, and if you listen to the progression of his style throughout his career, its obvious from where he derived (and perfected) his style.

808s & Heartbreak is a really cool album and when it came out I remember hating it, but now I really enjoy it, and maybe if you haven’t given it a chance in a while you should check it out too.


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