Let me elaborate on my plans for this article. By no means am I claiming this was the best album of 2008, Vampire Weekend would win that. Nor am I suggesting this is the best Kanye album; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, as far as I’m concerned, the masterpiece within his repertoire. This article also will not be simply another manifestation of my Kanye obsession. My point is simply that this album is the most influential of that year. Time has been exceptionally kind to it and has even caused many to change their minds regarding the album. We’ll start with the Rolling Stone’s review in 2008: “This noble failure of an album might easily have been a noble success if he had tweaked the Fun-o-Meter just a bit”. Oh, how they changed their tone by 2014. Their revisit of this album in 2014 was littered with phrases like “emotionally naked”, “exposed-soul”, “feelings enumerated in detail”. It seems as though the publication began to appreciate the decision to keep the ‘Fun-o-Meter” firmly off.
The album was greeted with mixed reviews at the time. Often this is the way for art created ahead of its time. But the thing here is 808s and Heartbreak wasn’t ahead of its time. It instead changed the path that the scene had been heading towards. We must remember the environment into which the album was unleashed. Lil Wayne was at the peak of his fame with The Carter III and its hilarious innuendo and bravado, T.I. was making movements through the charts with his hustler with a heart bars, and Chris Brown had blown up in the scene as the crown prince of RnB. The Hip Hop and RnB scene was not prepared for this swerve from convention, especially from the ‘jackass’ who’d hurt America’s darling.
Listening back to the album now, its sounds less like the departure from urban music than it may have done at the time. ‘Say You Will’ is desperate. Kanye’s vocals are sparse between the minimal beat made to resemble a heart rate monitor. The track ends with 3 minutes of the beats on loop. This is time to reflect on inevitability despite our pleading. At the time, those eager to hear from Kanye wouldn’t leave time to appreciate the thoughtful gesture by Kanye. This is a thoughtful album. Kanye is always allowing the listener to keep up with his narrative. ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’ is describing his emptiness in ways salient to everyone. The tribal drums introduced in ‘Amazing’ are there to exaggerate his point. He is a savage ‘monster’. He isn’t civilised.
If we skip the uncomfortable ‘Robocop’, we come to ‘Street Lights’. Scrolling through the comments on YouTube will give some indication as to where people believe Drake may have originated. The repetition of the hook is a depiction of his struggle to escape the circular, repetitive monotony of the path to achieving his destiny. Towards the end he unleashes the ghoulish ickiness of Lil Wayne to complement ‘See You In My Nightmares’. ‘Coldest Winter’ is the depth of Kanye’s despair. It’s him accepting his loss and coming to terms with the pain in his life, the polar opposite of Drake’s ‘Find Your Love’. We can see this as closure to his depression and the annihilation of his self along with his woes.
Not many artists would attempt an album conveying such raw emotion, let alone a rapper. This was audacious, whilst blurring the distinctions between song and rap. Though it had been done before, Kanye is widely seen as the instigator of the contemporary convergence of two urban sub-genres, and this was the album that achieved this. If we look at the popularity of Drake, we see a hugely successful artist within RnB, Rap, and Pop. His ability to sing as well as rap is clearly envied by Kanye, but then without Kanye it is questionable as to whether Drake would, firstly attempt to make a career out of both, and secondly delve into the array of emotions he may feel to inspire his songs.
We can even extend the influence of this album to the vanguards of post-RnB, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. This new wave has been empowered to display the sincerity of their emotion through the musical medium. Pain has always created some of history’s greatest works of art. Some of the greatest works of art are exceptional to the extent that they alter the course of their art form. 808s and Heartbreak was not on this level of greatness, but what cannot be denied are the ideas, and styles used have altered the musical landscape for good.
808s & Heartbreak was released on November 24, 2008.