Ten Years Later, Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak Beats Stronger Than Ever
Ten years ago, the world was a very different place, and Kanye West was a very different man. At the height of promoting his stadium anthem packed 2007 album Graduation, his life took an unexpected turn when his mother died suddenly due to complications following cosmetic surgery. This sudden loss coupled with the disillusion of his long-term relationship and you get 808s & Heartbreak. The album utilized the Roland TR-808 drum machine, as well as the heartbreak West had experienced to create a masterpiece that would change the face of hip-hop forever.
West literally announces that he has reached “stadium status” on “Big Brother, the final track of Graduation and he was not wrong. After touring with U2, West wanted to create more anthemic rap songs that would operate efficiently in stadiums. The result was heavy hitters like “Stronger” and “Good Life”.
If the stadium-filling bombast of Graduation needed a proverbial yang to its yin, 808s & Heartbreak is just that. If tracks like “I Wonder” and “The Glory” were meant for an audience in the thousands, songs like “Say You Will” and “Welcome To Heartbreak” were meant to be performed while you lay on your bedroom floor in the dark wallowing in self-pity. The juxtaposition between the two albums is almost as dizzying as the lead single from 808’s, “Love Lockdown”.
808s & Heartbreak is the ultimate breakup album for nerds and sadbois alike. West’s usage of the Roland TR-808 machine evokes epic and eerie sounds that are reminiscent of old school video games. Imagine trying to get through that haunted castle to save the princess and “See You In My Nightmares” featuring Lil Wayne serving as the soundtrack. It is not clear if West meant the album to sound like this, but it would not come as too much of a surprise given West has admitted to experiencing “super nerd vibes” over the years. Like any good nerd, West uses sprinkles pop cultural references throughout 808s calling his ex both Dr. Evil and Robocop while the animated video for “Heartless” features the Jetsons as paintings in the background.
At the listening party for 808s, West told the audience never to lose their childhood. He wanted to get back to the carefree nature he felt as a child and the use of auto-tune allowed him to do that. West is so carefree on the album that he bares his soul and admits that he won’t ever be “in the streets” like his rapper peers on “Street Lights”, and laments the loss of his mother and expresses his cold emptiness on “Coldest Winter”.
West used auto-tune as a shield so that he could express his heartbreak the way people use SnapChat and Instagram filters to shield the “real them” today. How many times have you been scrolling through social media stories to find friends’ faces distorted and looking “beautiful” or hearing them express sadness or disappointed while puppy ears and a tongue cover their face?
Despite the sadness, doom and gloom (The lyrics, “Bad enough that I showed up late/I had to leave 'fore they even cut the cake/Welcome to Heartbreak…” on “Welcome To Heartbreak” are simple yet heart wrenching).
I always thought 808s & Heartbreak would make for a great musical given the almost operatic feel of most of the tracks. Songs like “Robocop” and “Paranoid” featuring Mr. Hudson stand out on the album as fun and over the top and would suit a Broadway production, and are nestled in the middle of the album to provide listeners with a breath of fresh air between amongst the sadness.
The night he unveiled 808s, West told the audience, “[There’s] no stuntin’ no flashin’ [on the album], just real things.” Even songs that should sound anthemic are muted and muffled, “It's amazing/I'm the reason/Everybody fired up this evening,” he slurs on “Amazing”. Even Young Jeezy raps about trying to limit his sodium intake due to his high blood pressure. You’d have to believe this song would have sounded different on Graduation.
808s & Heartbreak was a critical and commercial success despite the fact that many thought the album would flop because West was a rapper who was sad and talking about his feelings. It lead to a shift in hip-hop and made way for many contemporary artists like Drake, Kid Cudi, B.o.B., Childish Gambino, Frank Ocean, and Lil Uzi Vert.
In 2012, Rolling Stone said that 808’s & Heartbreak was ahead of its time stating, “"[n]ow that popular music has finally caught up to it, 808s & Heartbreak has revealed itself to be Kanye’s most vulnerable work, and perhaps his most brilliant.” Perhaps 808s was never ahead of its time, it was simply just timeless. We all have experienced the pain of heartbreak and often can’t find ways to express grief and sadness. West decided to use the sound of 808s and auto-tune to express the things that he needed to get off his chest, and that is why ten years later, 808s & Heartbreak beats (harder, better, faster,) stronger.