15 Years of 808s and Heartbreak: A Love Letter
Written by Hemma Daddral Edited by Eve Moat
Kanye may be controversial or maybe even “cancelled”, but Hemma Daddral shows how he was perceived 15 years ago and how the art can definitely be separated from the artist.
I might be slightly biased, as a Kanye fan since earliest childhood memory, but I can never get bored of this album. ‘Love Lockdown’ was one of the first songs on my iPod Shuffle and little did I know that I would be just as enamoured with it to this day. The album is timeless, and always in my rotation one way or another – which may be a slight red flag I admit. But despite the woeful subject matter, 808s & Heartbreak is undeniably important to Kanye’s entire discography, his growth as a multi-faceted artist, and the trajectory of his career. One of my favourite albums of all time, by one of my favourite artists of all time, let’s look back at a brief history of its creation and celebrate its genius.
West was fresh off the career defining run of The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation. Critical acclaim and numerous accolades were finally being given to the artist after years of being shunned as a producer to the stars of Def Jam. In 2007, he was arguably the biggest rapper in the world. The album that intended to follow the trilogy was to be entitled Good Ass Job, but a series of misfortunes led to the creation of the very album we are commemorating today. 2007 saw the tragic passing of Donda West, Kanye’s mother, and the end of his 18-month long engagement with Alexis Phifer. West was at the height of his career but more alone than ever. Thus, 808s & Heartbreak takes a completely different turn from the energetic, witty West that we had become accustomed to. Instead, we are given 12 songs, driven by 808 heavy beats, and you guessed it, heart-breaking lyrics. With a widely divisive reception upon release, fans and critics alike were introduced to a whole new side of Kanye, rid of the ego, glamour, and vanity that he was generally known for.
Dark, electronic instrumentation, melancholic soundscapes, and a hell of a lot of autotune fills the entirety of 808s. Autotune was perceived as a crutch for mainstream pop stars and was generally dismissed as a cheat code. Kanye, though not renowned for his vocal abilities, utilised the vocoder effect to parallel the inner distortion and despair that he was experiencing personally. And the payoff is extraordinary – we hear a detached, tortured artist we cannot fully comprehend spilling out with vulnerability and unafraid to show the world. Kanye uses this creative tool later in his career famously in ‘Runaway’, as the listener experiences how he is perceived by the public, incoherent and muffled. From the moment we are introduced to ‘Say You Will’, it is clear that we have departed from the joys of Graduation’s ‘Good Morning’, or Late Registration’s ‘Touch the Sky’. The beat is dense, and the lyrics are just as heavy, as West attempts to provide us with a glimpse of his mental state at the time. An autotuned Kanye West is in turn longing for answers and clarity amidst the juxtaposition of a modern mechanical beeping and the sweeping background of a choir. The introductory track is vast and there’s even a whole 3 minutes in the outro to navigate your own melancholy as West does in the opening two.
As you progress through 808s, you are met with star-studded features, as Kid Cudi ‘Welcome [s you] to Heartbreak’, and Lil Wayne menacingly dares to ‘See You In [his] Nightmares’. Despite the heaviness of tracks such as ‘Coldest Winter’, the album resulted in two of Kanye’s most mainstream tracks in his career. ‘Heartless’ still navigates the tortures of a break-up, but we can somehow dance along to it and belt “how could you be so heartless” without overthinking the context too much. Similarly, ‘Love Lockdown’ is still just as infectious to this day, as the 808 heart-mimicking beat is instantly recognisable. Though the reoccurring themes of despair and darkness cloud over the album, we are given glimmers of the Kanye we know and love. “It’s amazing, I’m the reason everybody fired up this evening” perfectly captures the larger than life, braggadocio he has presented to the world. ‘Amazing’, is one of my S-tier Kanye songs – it encapsulates who he is at his core and uses the strength of the pounding 808s to enforce this. On the topic of my S-tier, ‘Street Lights’ is another standout track, and is at the top of my gloom and doom playlist.
You don’t need me to tell you that 808s & Heartbreak influenced a generation of musicians – it’s a rhetoric that has been stated time and time again. But that doesn’t discount its relevancy and poignancy, and the evidence looms in the works of the top charting rappers and singers of today. From Drake’s ‘Take Care’ to Travis Scott’s entire 808 heavy soundscape, many of the mainstream rappers today accredit their sound to this album. Isolation and vulnerability were rarely found in mainstream rap music, but Kanye West trailblazed with 808s & Heartbreak – the influence being monumental upon release and still now 15 years later.