808s & Heartbreak and the Children of Kanye West

Disclaimer: this blog contains a sickening amount of praise for Kanye West

808s and Heartbreak is one of the most and influential albums of the last 10 years. Since its 2008 release, the echoes have reverberated throughout hip-hop. Consider how many rappers currently use Auto-Tune as evidence of this.

808s and heartbreak artwork

It is an established fact that Kanye West is a musical genius; the problem is, he’s very aware of this. He also likes to tell people about it. I could fill this post with arrogant things he has said, instead, I have created a quiz called “Guess the Ego”.

Can you match up the egotistical quote to the correct ego, Kanye West, Jose Mourinho or Zlatan Ibrahimović?

Kanye certainly isn’t the first rapper to say something stupid…

A$AP Ferg forthcoming

Kanye West first entered the mainstream music scene in the early 2000s as a hip-hop producer; his talent was immediately obvious. He produced half of Jay-Z’s 2001 album, The Blueprint, arguably Hov’s best work.

Pre-College Dropout Kanye West was one of the most successful producers of his time, here’s a partial list of his biggest hits:

2000 – It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop – Dead Prez – One of the most recognisable hip-hop beats of the era.

2001 – Izzo [H.O.V.A] – Jay-Z – peaked at #8 on US Billboard Chart.

2002 – ’03 Bonnie & Clyde – Jay-Z – Certified Gold in the USA and Silver in the UK.

2003 – You Don’t Know My Name – Alicia Keys – Peaked at #3 on the Billboard Chart. In the video, Alicia Keys is too shy to ask Mos Def on a date… Mos Fucking Def.

alicia keys mos def - you don't know my name video
Pictured: The high point of Mos Def’s life

2004 – I Want You – Janet Jackson – Certified Platinum in the USA.

Kanye’s production style was built on a foundation of soul samples. His trademark style featured sped up vocals which made the voices high pitched. 2004’s “Slow Jamz” typifies this. The vocals from Luther Vandross’ “This House is Not a Home” are sped up to the degree most people think a woman sings the chorus.

People weren’t receptive to letting Kanye rap until around 2003.

Last year shoppin my demo, I was tryin’ to shine<br> Every motherfucker told me that I couldn’t rhyme
― Kanye West – Last Call

Initially he was confined to performing hooks. It wasn’t until his debut album that people realised that Kanye could rap and carry an album on his own.

College Dropout is an undeniable classic, he produced the whole album as well as delivering rhymes that showcased a humble, down to Earth character. West seemed removed from the dominant rappers at the time, 50 Cent, Eminem and Nelly. College Dropout was a complete contrast.

This album kicked off an unprecedented run of quality albums. Best Ever Albums is a website that gauges the quality of musician’s discographies. It aggregates album appearances on over 24,000 “Greatest Ever” lists or year-end charts. Out of 55,000 artists, The Beatles are #1, for all-time greatest albums.

Kanye West is #35, the highest position for a hip-hop, R&B or soul artist of an era. Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis are the only black artists to appear higher in the chart.

Kanye West - Best Ever Albums

His most critically acclaimed album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is ranked at 58 on their list of all-time greatest albums, one below Led Zeppelin I. A great album, but I want to focus on what preceeded it, 808s and Heartbreak: the sore thumb of Kanye’s discography.

kanye west dance

To add context, shortly after the massive success of Kanye West’s third studio album Graduation, he suffered two profound life shocks. In late 2007, his mother, Donda West died after complication from routine plastic surgery, which Kanye bought her as a gift. Months later, he announced the split from fiancé Alexis Phifer, having been with her since 2002.

Amid this turmoil West announced that he would not rap on his next album. To fully express what he was dealing with emotionally he needed to sing.

Kanye had always addressed personal subjects on songs like “Roses”, but this would be the first album dedicated to his emotional wellbeing.

West is not a great singer, he sang on the hooks on “Spaceship” and “Hey Mamma”. An entire album of singing appeared rash. In 2008, the only other credible rapper experimenting with Auto-Tune was Lil Wayne.

During 2008 Auto-Tune was in vogue and was heavily utilised by Rappa Ternt Sanga, T-Pain. He was recruited to teach Kanye to use the tool, consequently, T-Pain has a writing credit on “Robocop”.

Kanye dipped his toes in the Auto-Tune waters on a couple of songs in 2008. The biggest hint of his new direction was a featured on Young Jeezy’s “Put On”.

I feel like this but niggas don’t know he’s stressed<br> I lost the only girl in the world that know me best
― Jeezy (Ft. Kanye West) – Put On

The sombre lyrics are amplified by Auto-Tune, adding a haunting quality. Interestingly Jay-Z uses the effect on the remix.

Put a lil’ T-Pain on my shit too
― Jeezy (Ft. Jay Z) – Put On (Remix)

Taking the title from the Roland TR-808 drum machine, which was heavily employed in old school hip-hop; 808s and Heartbreak was released in November 2008. It saw immediate strong sales, with 450,145 units shifted in the first week. To date it has sold over 1.7 million copies in the United States.

808s and Heartbreak is a marked departure from West’s previous three albums, with a style closer to electro and R&B than hip-hop.

There are portions of “Robocop” that have no drum pattern. Removing the instrument most associated with hip-hop is a bold move, akin to Prince removing the bassline from “When Doves Cry”. The album features a few verses with the fast-paced rap/sung delivery that is utilised by many of this generation’s rappers.

The biggest inspiration on 808s is 1980’s synthpop. Kanye lists Gary Numan and T J Swan as his biggest influences. There is also a heavy debt to Phil Collin’s Face Value, an album also inspired by a bitter breakup. The spare instrumentation and accusatory lyrics of “In the Air Tonight” are the most obvious example of this style.

phil collins face value 2016 & 1981

808s and Heartbreak is an R&B album performed by a hip-hop artist. The impact it has had on both genres is staggering. It can be observed in the output of four of the biggest artists of the moment, Future, Travi$ Scott, Drake and The Weeknd. Let’s take a look at the songs from the album that had the biggest influence on their respective styles.

It is important to note that these guys all use Auto-Tune to varying degrees and for different purposes.

“Paranoid” – Future

Future and Kanye West in the Studio

“Paranoid” is the name of an emotion. In recent times we have seen a greater degree of emotional nudity in rap; “Paranoid” is the closest 808s comes to rap song. It deals with Kanye remembering his frustration about his paranoid ex.

Future named his second album Honest [2014], another emotion. Soon after its release he split from his wife, Ciara, and the album bombed.

Shortly afterwards Future released a three mixtape series that served as an emotional catharsis, his own 808s. Among these was the Ciara-inspired “Throw Away”. Fewtch has never been shy about his emotions, a hallmark of many post-Kanye rappers.

“Throw Away” is in two parts, the first where Future boasts about how great he is doing after the breakup. In typically debauched fashion.

future throw away lyrics - chorus

The second half is more melancholy, he reveals his paranoia and sadness.

future throw away lyrics - monster too

“Throw Away” also features my all-time favourite breakup song line:

future throw away lyrics

Behind his crude veneer, Future reveals his true feelings about the breakup and laments on his shallow existence.

But I ain’t worried ’bout no fucking I ain’t worried ’bout no fucking<br> Does sexing on the late night mean that much to ya<br> My love don’t mean that much to ya<br> Fucking these hoes mean too damn much to you
― Future – Throw Away

Despite harsh lyrics Future displays a range of emotion, making it a surprisingly nuanced track.

The blueprint of Future’s style was laid on “Paranoid” in particular.

“When I first used Auto-Tune, I never used it to sing. I wasn’t using it the way T-Pain was. I used it to rap because it makes my voice sound grittier.” – Future

The effect adds texture to his voice. “Codeine Crazy” deals with Future’s addiction to the drug. His voice is high-pitched and full of emotion as he sings the hooks and raps the verses. However, on the machismo street single, “My Savages” the subject necessitates to use a lower tone on the Auto-Tune.

Future isn’t a good enough singer to have added it to his music, it without Auto-Tune. Without 808s and Heartbreak he would likely have stuck to rapping.

808s demonstrated that emotion that can be channelled through vocals in hip-hop. With Auto-Tune adding depth to the delivery.

“Welcome to Heartbreak” – Travi$ Scott

travis scott kanye west

“Welcome to Heartbreak” is one of the rawest songs on 808s and Heartbreak. Kanye talks about how he has all the money and success he wanted but his life is hollow.

welcome to heartbreak lyrics - kanye west

The beat is minimal as fuck, featuring a few piano notes and a drum loop for the most part.

Then-newly signed GOOD Music artist Kid Cudi sings the hook and co-writes the track. Cudder was signed to Kanye’s label after the breakout success of his stellar debut mixtape A Kid Named Cudi, which came out four months prior to 808s.

a kid named cudi - kid cudi

Cudi’s mixtape was a major influence on the sonic direction of 808s. It featured dark atmospheric production and tracks addressing depression and loneliness. This melancholy atmosphere is sharply felt in “Welcome to Heartbreak”.

Quick aside: 808s and Heartbreak was the first album to see Kanye act in his role of “Creative CEO” of song-creation.

He would gather a team of producers and writers and manage the creative process for the tracks. Pitchfork showed that Late Registration boasted four co-producers total for the album, 808s featured at least five co-writers for every track.

The writing credits for Kanye’s latest single “Fade” show that he has taken this method to absurd new heights.

fade kanye west writing credits
Yet Drake is the one who gets shit for using ghost-writers

“Welcome to Heartbreak” impacted the career of Travi$ Scott in an indirect manner. For those who don’t know, Travi$ Scott is a rapper/producer and Kanye West protégé, who is heavily flirting with entering the public consciousness. He was one of many producers who contributed to the 2012 GOOD Music album, Cruel Summer.

Travi$ fucking loves Kid Cudi. To the point where it’s almost weird. One day he got to meet his idol, and it literally brought him to tears.

“He talked to me about everything. I felt like my life was complete.”

Naturally, the music of Travi$ Scott owes a heavy debt to Kid Cudi. Travi$’ debut mixtape Owl Pharaoh wears this influence on its sleeve. The track “Dance on the Moon” feels like a contest between him and Theophilus London for who can do the best impression.

“Welcome to Heartbreak” represents the first meeting between the two largest contributors to Travi$ Scott’s style.

kanye west kid cudi travis scott
Proud parents

Kanye West always seems to get the best out of Kid Cudi. Fresh off Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven, one of the worst albums of 2015; Kid Cudi provided two of the best songs on Kanye’s latest album, The Life of Pablo.

“Street Lights” – Drake

drake kanye west grammy
That weird time when Kanye wore white gloves to the Grammy Awards

Drake owes his career to Kanye West. Without 808s and Heartbreak, he would never have married R&B and rap in the manner he chose.

“I had the utmost respect for Kanye West. I’d even go as far as to say he’s the most influential person as far as a musician that I’d ever had in my life.” – Drake [2009]

“Street Lights” is Drake’s most obvious inspiration. Kanye laments his life over a stripped back, sombre beat; where he vows to make a change for the better. This R&B/electro song features no rapping. It forms the spine of a lot of Drake’s earlier material.

Drake’s breakout mixtape So Far Gone [2009] featured a freestyle over “Say You Will”, the first track from 808s and Heartbreak. Drake spills his emotions about his current career over the sparse production.

So Far Gone features many songs with similar sparse, R&B-like production. These beats compliment the sung-rapped verses about Drake’s emotional turmoil.

He was the first rapper to take the 808s style and use it to launch a successful career.

“Heartless” – The Weeknd

kanye west Weeknd coachella

“Heartless” is the lead single from 808s; Kanye uses it as a soapbox to criticise the cold nature of his ex. This track adheres to the format of a hip-hop track; Kanye raps 2 verses around a sung hook. As we’ve seen with Future, his use of Auto-Tune here adds texture and emotion to the delivery.

The Weeknd employs a similar delivery on many of his tracks, displaying a clear preference for dark atmospheric beats. A former rapper, many of Weeknd’s songs are performed like a rapper who sings; in that style we hear throughout 808s, particularly on “Heartless”.

Of course, Kanye West didn’t invent this concept of singing and rapping. However, Weeknd’s particular version was significantly affected by 808s, an album he described as ‘one of the most important bodies of work of my generation’.

The influence is felt strongest on Weeknd’s debut mixtape, House of Balloons [2011], which sounds like 808s and Heartbreak mixed with The-xx.

Drake’s cover of “Practice” was produced by Weeknd for House of Balloons. Like many songs from Take Care, the track was commandeered by Drake.

Weeknd’s idea to cover a hip-hop party song in the style of sombre R&B comes right from 808s and Heartbreak. The beat is slow and trippy, allowing Drake to harmonise as he flows through the track.

808s and Heartbreak was truly ahead of its time. I was there, I remember how different it sounded to what everyone else was doing I didn’t enjoy it at first, but it grew on me when I realised how ground-breaking it was.

An example of the overall influence the album has played is the prevalence of Auto-Tune and singing in 2016’s hip-hop. Here’s a freestyle featuring 5 of the members of XXL Magazine’s 2016 Freshman Class, which showcases the best up and comers in the genre, plus Lil Uzi Vert.

Four of these guys regularly make use of Auto-Tune and sing and rap their way through various tales of sex and drugs. The effect has become a trademark of the genre and this is largely due to the success of 808s and Heartbreak. It is a genre-defining album and will continue to affect the landscape.

Lil Uzi Vert - XXL Freshman Freestyle
Lil Uzi Vert is not talented enough to pull off a handbag

Not bad for an album that most people wouldn’t even consider a top 3 Kanye West project.

Host of Culture Hash, writer of music, TV and film opinions

13 Responses

  1. Woww, i always loved this album and clearly knew how different it was to anything released at the time. but i never realised how much of an affect it had on the industry!
    This review articulates how ground breaking this album really was so WELL. Finally someone appreciates the Genius, period, of Yeezy. Ive always struggled to explain to people that he is indeed a musical genius, now i can simply refer them to this fantastic review. 10/10

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