Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak

by Tim Sentz Rating:10 Release Date:2008-11-24
Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak

To the uninitiated, Kanye West is just a fool. A blubbering, egotistical instrument of the music industry whose sole purpose is to aggravate the masses at least two to three times a year. His lavish lifestyle, anti-Bush commentary, Taylor Swift-interrupting behavior, and socialite status has caused so much vitriol across the board that the public finds him insufferable.

To the initiated, he’s a musical genius. One who has continuously moved the needle on trends, crafted timeless classics, and literally cannot be topped in the 21st century. He’s reinvented himself and his scene multiple times and is usually the forbearer of the next big thing.

Both are correct, to some extent. For the first part of the 2000s, he released three iconic records, all within the typical wheelhouse of hip-hop. His music was flashy, received heavy radio play, and he became a household name almost instantly after spending years as a creative producer for the likes of Jay-Z, Ludacris, Janet Jackson, and Alicia Keys. In 2008, Kanye made the biggest departure for his sound, and his approach to his music, and changed music for the next decade.

You can have your opinions about Kanye – he’s an absurdist, and his recent meltdowns regarding Donald Trump and the MAGA movement have bewildered his fanbase and caused his most recent album Ye to plummet in critical favor, though it still performed commercially. But opinions aside, there’s no denying his impact on the landscape of not just hip-hop, but indie rock, mainstream pop, and electronic music. 808s & Heartbreak is the pivotal moment that Kanye went from icon to legend.

Written over the course of two months in mid-2008, West assembled 11 cuts of heartache. He starts things out with “Say You Will” – a six-minute intro with indie drum sounds laced with beeps, and his auto-tuned voice crackling over. Auto-tune had felt like the red-headed stepchild of music. It was a fragrant add-on, and today most won’t even know the difference between its presence and it’s lack of presence.  What separates 808s from the rest of Kanye’s discography is that for the first time the personality Kanye started to really shine through. He took this approach to his next album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his most critically acclaimed album, and a cornerstone for the 21st century.

Across 808s we get the realest iteration of Kanye West up to that point. And while Fantasy is considered a landmark, time has been kind to 808s as it showed a transition from the flashy to a more honed and more sensitive individual. 808s is one of the more relatable hip-hop records around because it deals with something everyone knows all too well – heartache. The fact that he was able to meld it so cohesively with wordplay, hummable rhymes, and foot-tapping beats, gets downplayed by the masses – but musical genius was never an easy thing. His mental state aside today, 808s is Kanye West on our level. Often cited as a depressing record, 808s explores the rollercoaster one experiences during a break-up, and is a direct response to his failed engagement to Alexis Phifer, a model he’d been dating since 2002, and on top of that his mother passing in November 2007. 

All these feelings are rolled into 808s, and they soar. “Welcome to Heartbreak” has one of his most direct bars – “Chased the good life my whole life long, Look back on my life and my life gone, Where did I go wrong?” This isn’t meant to be a reflection that can be fixed. West at this point was a celebrity, with nothing to lose, and nothing he chose to lose either. “Heartless” is one of his many responses to Phifer, intertwined with a catchy chorus assuming the future of his self, and how the world reacts. Ten years on, it’s hard to even delineate between the auto-tune and West’s actual voice, as he’s managed to unify them so perfectly.

A week or so ago a question was posited to a group of friends as to which album is more influential: Nirvana’s Nevermind, or The Strokes’ Is This It? Both set the course for the following decade. One introduced grunge to the world – a mixture of alternative rock and punk – while the other helped bring college rock from the 90s, post-punk elements, and brash New York City style to the mainstream. The Strokes aren’t as important anymore, but Nirvana is still felt today and gets plenty of airplay. But 808s & Heartbreak reinvented hip-hop for the next generation. As the internet became available in every household affordably, and streaming music was still a few years away from dominating consumption, the concept of an album being entirely about feeling, and heartache seems ancient now. But Kanye changed history with 808s, whether you want to admit it or not. And while Nirvana and The Strokes are more beloved by the public than Kanye, 808s has aged better than either of those records.

“Love Lockdown” is in the same realm as “Heartless,” another response to Phifer, with its militaristic drums, it works to solidify West’s approach to relationships from here on out. He wouldn’t stay true to this for long obviously, his marriage to Kim Kardashian five years after 808s. But everything about Kanye of 2018 can be traced back to 808s. His bouts with mental health are explicitly detailed on 808s – “Paranoid” is an inward questionnaire to not just his heartbreaker but himself too; it predicts the next decade of Kanye news stories, while also challenging himself with “you worry ‘bout the wrong things, the wrong things.” I know I do. All the time.

One of my personal favorites from the record is “Street Lights,” because of how grounded Kanye sounds. “Do I still got time to grow? Things ain’t always set in stone. That be known, let me know” sounds like a person trying to push forward despite the pain, and “I know my destination, but I’m just not there” is universally the method we take to justify our sadness, and Kanye rarely sounds like the everyman but here he does. Personable, down-to-Earth, relatable. This is why 808s was dismissed upon its release. Fans were clamoring for a continuation of Graduation, with its subtle throwbacks and Daft Punk sampling.  Instead, we got the first major peek into a man’s psyche, and it was met with backlash. “Too much auto-tune” screamed the masses. But it wasn’t like auto-tune was put in place as a selling point, it’s a strategical method. It renders his voice indistinguishable at times, which is kind of how it feels to be in pain and have no one to reach out to.

The album closes with West’s most direct, and probably most depressing, cut of his life “Coldest Winter.” It sails off into the bitterest of night with a song that lays his heart out on the frigid ground “goodbye my friend, will I ever love again?” It may seem sophomoric to some, talking about your feelings, but if the countless mass school shootings are any indication of how America’s youth culture – and male culture for that matter – feels, then a higher acceptance of this openness is paramount for progress. 808s & Heartbreak isn’t just a break-up album, it’s an album about coping. The fragility of West on this record will likely never be replicated by a mainstream icon for quite some time. Our pop world is dominated by themes present on this record, but mostly regurgitated for mass consumption because it worked here so well. 808s & Heartbreak might be the last true statement about emotion for some time, and ten years removed from the Kanye of 2008, it’s a blueprint for what could have been. Much like Radohead’s OK Computer predicted the rise of cellphones, the Trump presidency, and global dissonance, 808s predicted the breakdown of conservative ideologies, and the concept of “man.” If after all of this, you can still listen to 808s & Heartbreak with scrutiny, there’s not much one can help you with. But as it sits right now, 808s stands the test of time.

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