When 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye West’s fourth album, came out, critics and fans alike were puzzled. It was a major departure from the maximalist rap of his previous three albums. In fact, the album featured no rapping by Kanye at all. Instead, he sang all his lyrics through a haze of mournful AutoTune.
People were confused, and rightfully so. It was a total stylistic overhaul. But was it a good one? Critics were divided, and the album received mixed reviews. Particularly irksome to Kanye, it was the first of his albums not to be nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year.
The overall consensus was that it was the weakest album of his career.
Released in 2008 following the fallout of West’s relationship with Alexis Phifer and the death of his mother due to complications following elective surgery, 808s and Heartbreak is a mournful affair.
All – repeat: all – the lyrics concern heartache and betrayal, loss and hurt, at times bordering on monotony. It’s an album’s worth of Kanye wallowing, with little of his trademark boasting and witty wordplay.
And some of his champagne problems are grating. Lines like “My friend show me pictures of his kids/All I could show him was pictures of my cribs” come across as melodramatic and often corny.
Lyrically, it’s probably the weakest Kanye West album. The jokes are few and far between, often falling flat, and the constant sorrow gets old rather quickly – at times, to the point of being nearly unlistenable.
But what’s really interesting about the album isn’t its themes of heartbreak or it’s lyrical content, but its sound. AutoTune turns Kanye’s voice into a robotic croon. The sound of a man rendered less than human by loss.
The beats are minimalist and spare. The album predominantly features 808 drum sounds, but makes them seem hollow, depressive and spooky. The album sounds like a frozen wasteland of broken relationships.
And the sound is cavernous.
That strange, Auto-Tuned opening chord on Say You Will? That was the sound of musical ground being broken.
The starkly emotional soundscapes of 808s and Heartbreak were so confusing and alienating to fans because they were arguably ahead of their time.
in 2008, AutoTune was just a novelty trick, a party gag that drew a lot of scorn from music audiences – relegated to a couple of tunes form T-Pain, but not much in the way of artistic merit.
But now, seven years later, AutoTune has proven not just to be a passing fad but a permanent fixture in modern music. From Bon Iver to Frank Ocean, Vanpire Weekend to The actual Weeknd, AutoTune is everywhere – and more than that, a respected tool, a way of making emotions more urgent by making them the focus of the vocals.
All of these artists owe massive portions of their sound to 808s and Heartbreak. In the case of Drake and the Weeknd, they explicitly refer to it as a major blueprint for their entire careers.
And despite being his least well-written album, 808s and Heartbreak‘s emotional and introspective lyrics were a major leap forward in what rap could be. It was in many ways the opposite of the lyrical content of the then-dominant gangsta rap genre. And the trend ever since has been toward more introspective rap, at least on the pop charts, with artists like Drake, Future, Childish Gambino and Kid Cudi following in the footsteps of 808s and Heartbreak.
808s and Heartbreak is arguably the most influential body of pop music of the last 10 years. It’s DNA lives on in some of the new decade’s best albums: For Emma, Forever Ago; Channel Orange; Take Care; Beauty Behind the Madness; and others.
And influence is one of the few relatively objective ways of gauging an album’s worth. How influential a work is shows how it resonated with the really important audience: the next generation of creators.
And on that count, it’s easily Kanye’s most imitated work. A primary source.
It may have been a problematic album, and imperfect one, but it was groundbreaking. We just didn’t see it at the time.
How could we have been so heartless?