Album released this week in… 2008: Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak
And so, we reach the end of this years retrospective reviews. Activity will resume as usual come January, while December will be reserved for the dreaded… I mean, adored end of year lists! Thanks for reading, and I’ll leave you with Joe, and Kanye West…
WHEN I FIRST heard a song from 808s & Heartbreak way back in 2008, ‘Heartless’ I think, my immediate reaction was “what the fuck is this?” followed by the typical 16 year old ‘Real Music Fan’ comment of “Autotune is the death of music.” Fast forward to now and I have had a complete change of heart. 808s & Heartbreak is an utterly fantastic album whose influence can still be felt in music today.
808s & Heartbreak came into existence when two things happened to Kanye West almost simultaneously. His long term fiancé dumped him because of his work ethic and his mother died due to a complication with plastic surgery, something that he blamed on himself (and probably still does to this day). So how does Kanye West try to come to terms with all of this? Well when your entire style is rapping about your opinions and your life, more-so than most other rappers, then there is only one thing to do: make an album. Why this album was actually released instead of kept in some kind of vault along with other unreleased music is something we will never know.
It is such a strange album when you put in the context of 2008. Young Jeezy, T.I., Lil’ Wayne, Flo Rida and Game were ruling the airwaves with braggadocio over produced club bangers. Whilst 808s went in a completely different direction. There is almost no rapping, for one, Kanye West sings in autotune for 95% of the album, and the production is sparse and minimalist; lots of keyboard and modulated 808 drums. The entire album is very cold; paradoxically unemotional yet overflowing with pathos. It is perhaps the most ‘Kanye West’ album there has ever been and ever will be.
Just look at the first song, ‘Say You Will’. The beat sounds like a dying robot with its strange bleeps, bloops and a demonic choir underneath it all. Kanye himself sounds angry, but not in a traditionally ‘cool’ way. He bitterly laments, as he does for almost the entire album, about his fiancé leaving him and declares that “when I grab your neck, I touch your soul.” He then immediately retracts the anger by saying “I admit I still fantasize about you…about you” This brutal honesty is some you did not see in 2008 and Kanye West doesn’t let up for the entire album. In fact, he just gets more honest and more depressed the longer it goes on.
There are some absolutely fantastic songs on 808s & Heartbreak. Right after ‘Say You Will’ there is a good seven or so songs, with ‘Amazing’ being a bit weaker than the others, that are seriously good. My personal favorites are ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’, ‘Paranoid’, ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Streetlights’. They are the most successful in conveying different aspects of ‘heartbreak.’ ‘Robocop’ and ‘Paranoid’ are accusatory in tone. They declare the woman to be, well, paranoid. The latter is Kanye defending himself whilst in the former song, Kanye begins by moaning about his girl being “up late night on patrol” but then he switches tone (along with the beat, which transforms into a string section) and goes on the offensive, calling her a “spoiled little L.A. Girl.” He belittles her but it just sounds like impotent anger. And even then, much like Say You Will, he mostly retracts the anger by sardonically singing that she is joking. Joking about it what, it isn’t made clear but one can assume that it is either leaving him or saying that he is cheating on her.
There are problems with the album, however. Although they are fairly minor. ‘Bad News’ outro feels redundant. The deflating beat was much more successful on ‘Say You Will’. ‘See You In My Nightmare’ is just a crap song with an even worse Lil’ Wayne verse. It is the only song where the Autotune and the beat grates on the listener, in my opinion. But that is pretty much it. Once you get to the final song and the album ends with Kanye repeatedly singing “Good bye my friend, will I ever love again” you can’t help but feel like the album cover and Kanye West himself: deflated and empty.
So, sure it is a great album. But what makes it influential? I mean, the self-loathing/self-deprecating rapper isn’t a new concept as Eminem exists. And rappers have been singing for years, hell Andre 3000 made an album where he sings for almost the entire thing! Also, as previously mention, autotuned singing in rap songs was T-Pain’s entire schtick. So all these things existed before 808s & Heartbreak was made, but is the fact that Kanye West combines them all together along with his chilly seemingly basic beats that made it change the face of rap music forever (also, the fact that it went Platinum and ‘Heartless’ went 5x Platinum helps of course). Here is a list of people who are clearly influenced by the album: Future, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, How To Dress Well, Kid Cudi (and vice versa in this case), The-Dream and…Drake. Each of these R&B singers/rappers have taken on the cold, emotional yet emotionless “lets moan about our love life” aesthetic and ran with it. Future literally did that in 2014 when he had a messy break up with Ciara where he released 3 mixtapes about breaking up with her. And Drake…well Drake has based his career off of doing exactly that – just listen to ‘Marvin’s Room’ or ‘Own It’ and tell me otherwise. It has reached the point where when a rapper is affected by something emotional in their life, I almost expect them to do some autotuned…moaning to express how they feel.
In the end, 808s & Heartbreak is fantastic album that still feels fresh to this day, if a bit basic. If/when you break up with someone you can’t do any better than this album.