Kanye West found himself in a unique place circa 2008. Just four years prior, the now ubiquitous Chicago rapper/producer released his much anticipated studio debut, “The College Dropout” to near universal acclaim and immense commercial success. He immediately followed this with “Late Registration” (establishing a theme that would culminate in a full trilogy) to even greater acclaim and success. West completed his College trilogy in 2007 with “Graduation,” by which point he had long-since become the definition of a cultural mainstay. Arguably, no artist in any genre “owned” the mid-2000s like Kanye West.
While each subsequent album released by West introduced a handful of notable stylistic changes from the previous one, he still maintained a consistent core sound of uniquely soul-infused pop rap. Topics ranged from surprisingly astute socio-political commentary a la “Crack Music” to swaggering braggadocio, but even at its darkest, and even as Kanye himself made no bones about expressing his own personal insecurities from time to time, there was an air of confidence and triumph pervading the College trilogy. Maybe he’d employ moments of self-deprecation (albeit rarely true self-reflection), but Kanye always came out on top, and he had so real reason to alter this paradigm. This makes his album immediately following “Graduation”, 2008’s “808s & Heartbreak”, all the more fascinating an outing.
Kanye West had always been a pop artist in addition to a hip-hop artist, but with “808s” for the first time in his almost half a decade of solo output, the pop began to subsume the hip-hop. West barely raps on “808s & Heartbreak”– instead he substitutes the expected self-assured brag-raps for dark autotune-laden R&B singing, ranging in tone from moody to downright anguished. Kanye had always had a tendency to periodically reference struggle and frustration in between bouts of celebratory self-aggrandizement, but 2008 found West placing his miseries at the center of his musical expression.
This new side of Kanye West was met with mixed reception. While tracks like the endlessly catchy “Heartless” and the triumphant “Amazing” were met with the enthusiastic embrace expected of a mid 2000s Kanye West single, the album as a whole inspired divisiveness, particularly among long-time fans and professional critics of the time.
“808s and Heartbreak’s” sheer departure from what fans had come to expect from West would be seen as a misstep from many fans and critics alike, in particular from a specific class of hip-hop and R&B purist, proselytizing against that omnipresent boogeyman of “autotune” for reasons as alarmist and convict as they were vague and contradictory. Ultimately, however, it would be all of these notable stylistic departures present in 808s that would account for a huge degree of influence in the development of a number of newly burgeoning musical styles that have since become mainstays of contemporary popular music.
Looking back at the legacy of 808s And Heartbreak, its influence cannot be overstated. The current chart-dominating “alternative R&B” movement almost certainly would not exist –or at least not exist in its current form– without the cold melancholy of “Bad News” and “Coldest Winter”; drill music of Chicago would likely not exist as we know it, with artists like Chief Keef and King Louie deriving immense influence from Kanye’s production innovations throughout the record; even the genre cloud rap, while pioneered more by west-coast and southern rap artists, owes much to 808s & Heartbreak. Through this lens, Kanye’s almost equally controversial “Yeezus” from 2013 at times seems like a celebration of the vindication of 808s & Heartbreak as its influence began to grow more apparent; Yeezus incorporates much of the uniquely Chicago drill music that 808s helped beget, with the aforementioned King Louie himself featuring on one of the album’s highlights in “Send It Up”. Even unlikely pop superstar Lorde has covered “Love Lockdown” from 808s.
“808s & Heartbreak” represented a start turning point in the career of West, representing in a moment his desire to experiment beyond his brand such as he has only become more notable for in the years since. “808s & Heartbreak” has finally been receiving a much-deserved critical re-appraisal in recent years, but it has already long since been vindicated by history, by the voices of countless young artists across genres to whom the album is an influence and inspiration.