Classic Album Review: Kanye West Redefined Himself and Hip-Hop with 808s & Heartbreak

In 2008 — before the Kardashians, before the Twitter tirades, before the #MAGA bullshit — there was Kanye West, producer extraordinaire, brash Chicagoan, Back to the Future superfan. With his first three albums, Kanye rose to the top of the world, flaunting his fame with a critical eye over bouncy soul samples and synth-heavy arena rock. Between each bar, he quietly teased an inner vulnerability that was rare among his peers, meditating on his faith, his family, and his racial consciousness. When his mother Donda died in 2007, everything changed.

However, all of that loneliness and guilt, further amplified by West’s separation from his fiancee, Alexis Phifer, manifested into 808s & Heartbreak, which debuted 10 years ago today. Gone was the bombast of 2007’s Graduation, the majesty of 2005’s Late Registration, and the jaunt of his 2004 debut, College Dropout. Instead, we pushed back a half-open door to a multi-million-dollar Chicago high rise apartment, only to find an Auto-Tuned Yeezy, singing glum poetry over minimalist beats as a neon light flickered aimlessly in the corner.

It was weird, it was cold, and it was incredibly divisive.

Both critics and fans were mixed on the new Kanye, but they were especially critical of his rough vocal delivery. Yet, those Auto-Tuned vocals are what’s fueled 808s’ enduring relevance over the past decade. By funneling his angst through the computer, Kanye ironically made himself sound even more human, going from a god on the mic to a mortal in the machine. Whether it’s the arching melancholia of “Street Lights” or the pained wails of “Coldest Winter”, Kanye’s robotic detachment mirrors one’s futility in holding back raw emotion.

This seemingly uncanny valley of humanity created a formula that has since opened the door for hordes of introspective young rappers. One particular name is Drake, who’s gone on to perfect the blend through dozens of chart-topping singles that have more or less turned the “808s sound” into the epicenter of the pop music zeitgeist: catchy melodies; crisp, methodical production; and lyrics that either bleed sadness from an open wound or extol the hedonistic pursuits that cover up said bruises. It all goes back to Kanye’s torn-up love letters.

“Heartless”, in particular, exemplifies the way that 808s and its progeny can simultaneously inhabit the realms of club bangers and lonely bedroom anthems. The lyrics are a bit on-the-nose, even measured against Kanye’s usual blunt style, but this icy, whirlwind anti-tribute to Phifer laid the groundwork for rap’s emotional opening. Look no further than hits like Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llife”, XXXTentacion’s “Sad!”, or Drake’s “In My Feelings”, which spent a whopping 10 weeks atop the Billboard charts earlier this year.

In short, we’re still living in West-world.

But that world is also exhausted. Today, even Kanye’s most staunch defenders can’t deny that his support for President Donald Trump was, at best, shamefully ignorant and selfish. Adding to that frustration is his running list of associations with objectively terrible people, the likes of which include and is absolutely not limited to Bill Cosby, Louis CK, 6ix9ine, XXXTentacion, and Chris Brown. Strangely enough, these polarizing misgivings were teased by the pain and alienation embedded within 808s.

Take the brooding “Amazing”, for example, whose second verse encapsulates the past decade of Kanye:

I’m a monster, I’m a killer, I know I’m wrong
I’m a problem that’ll never ever be solved
And no matter what, you’ll never take that from me
My reign is as far as your eyes can see

When Yeezy wrote these words, antiheroes were ascendant in pop culture, from the “Difficult Men” of Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad to the award-winning villains in Christopher Nolan’s gritty reimagining of Batman. Ten years later, we have enough hindsight, particularly in the age of Trump, to now hold these antiheroes accountable for their flaws. So, if we’re to see 808s as Kanye’s original mea culpa, a recognition of his inner emptiness and arrogance, we now have to ask, “To what end?”

Does the album lose its sincerity if West has been recycling the same old excuses for his bad behavior over the past decade? Well, perhaps if 808s was Kanye’s sole personal manifesto, but that narrative has changed in the interim, be it through 2010’s grand follow-up, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or this year’s seemingly forgotten ye. Even so, that question seems moot, if only because the feelings and moods of 808s aren’t bound to any particular context. They’re raw and universal enough to be affecting to everyone, even those who’ve been following all along on Twitter.

Whether he can ever do that again is certainly up for debate.

Essential Tracks: “Heartless”, “Amazing”, “Street Lights”, and “Coldest Winter”

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