Millennial Masterpieces #8: Kanye West – [808s & Heartbreak]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Eighth in the series is Kanye West‘s intensely personal album of auto-tuned confessionals, 808s & Heartbreak.

Released: November 24, 2008

No Kanye purist, much less a hip-hop purist, likes to acknowledge this record as a vital part of West’s oeuvre. It was a detour, borne of tragedy and not a plotted point on his career map. 808s was a circumstantial piece of work, a personal project for West to channel his grief into after a dramatic break-up and the unexpected death of his mother. Yet it derailed those plans permanently. After all, Graduation was supposed to lead to a Good Ass Job, which it didn’t. Instead Kanye developed a Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which stands as his mightiest work to date.

808s helped mold not only that album, but the albums and careers of dozens of artists who came after. With its threefold influence it:

  • allowed for the proliferation of new wave synthesizers in rap music
  • bridged indie pop and hip-hop beats
  • most importantly, acted as the catalyst for the “sensitive rapper” to emerge.

This record’s sound is directly responsible for the careers of Drake and Kid Cudi, and more tangentially responsible for The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. Travel further down that tangent and you’ll find that indie based acts Active Child, How to Dress Well, and Autre Ne Veut also sprung from it. Let’s not forget folk star Bon Iver, who after collaborating with Kanye on MBDTF‘s “Lost in the Woods” ended up overhauling his sound on his 2011 record.

As instrumentally influential as it was, it’s that third point that really defines 808s‘ legacy. The blips and bloops and digital drums weren’t there for show, they were an extension of Kanye’s broken spirit, an audible representation of his sadness. This was the record where Kanye shed his swaggering persona (for a bit) and let everything out. He was no longer the braggadocio on the past three multi-platinum records, he was a hurting, vulnerable human being. It’s this bareness that revolutionized what rap and hip-hop could be about. It allowed for a tangible darkness to creep into the genre, and suddenly introspection became a hot topic. Simply put, this was rap’s Nevermind.

And just like that record, 808s is endlessly listenable. It’s a front-to-back spin, every track a songwriting victory. Kanye stretches his melodic muscles and drops tunes for days. Although many critics decried the heavy use of auto-tune, it’s that effect that allows Kanye to go for broke. He sings each part the way he intends, and it’s all the more powerful because the sentiments are coming straight from him. Kanye’s perfectionist nature ensured that every song did exactly what he wanted it to do. The dreamlike “Streetlights” instantly evokes…streetlights. “RoboCop” presents romantic conflict through a lighthearted string sample dueling a mechanical beat. “Coldest Winter”, as difficult as it can be to listen to, is appropriately bleak. “Welcome to Heartbreak” uses nostalgic synth pads as a backdrop for Kanye’s ruminations on his (then) lack of a family and the empty nature of success and fame.

“Love Lockdown”, the single that started it all, stands perhaps as the truest representation of the album’s message. Less reliant on an established genre, it exists as one of the most unique songs Kanye has ever created. It’s simultaneously minimalist and cathartic, using its sparse parts to carve out emotion from empty space. 808s did more with less, using honesty as the main driving force rather than any instrument. It effectively ended up changing the face of a genre.

Top Three Tracks: “Paranoid“, “Streetlights“, “Love Lockdown

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