Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak has been called many things, from “a fascinating mass of contradictions” to “a dislocating listen” and “a mix of sad-sack indie pop.” It’s been decried as an unfortunate misstep and praised as a crucial masterstroke, but ten years on it’s earned an unlikely place as one of hip hop’s most landmark records.
The album, despite its landmark status in hip hop history, was a sudden and inspired departure from a much larger plan - one Kanye had been ruminating since the beginning of his career. Inspired by a run of tragedies, the introspective 'new wave' record cosigned a growing undercurrent of emotional honesty, taking it from a niche to a norm. Whilst impassioned and remorseful hip hop tracks had been a mainstay of the genre since its early days, 808s' emotionally transparent reflections on internal emotions and failed relationships heralded a new age of rap.
What was it that drove West - onetime purveyor of feel-good chipmunk soul and house-infused dancefloor hits - to move into synth-laden rap meditations? In celebration of 808s and Heartbreak turning 10, we’re casting a retrospective gaze across the era-defining LP.
It’s common knowledge that Kanye’s Dropout trilogy - as it’s come to be known - was initially envisaged as a tetralogy. Whilst Graduation seems a fitting finale, it was originally the penultimate entry to the collection, which was to be capped out with Good Ass Job. The phrase can be traced back to Kanye’s debut album The College Dropout - on “Graduation Day,” John Legend sings:
My momma would kill me but don't tell anybody
She wants me to get a good ass job just like everybody…
During a 2003 interview, a young West laid out a record roadmap. He was to follow his debut, The College Dropout, with Late Registration, which would in turn be followed by Graduation. His fourth album, he claimed, was to be titled Good Ass Job. It’s hardly shocking that this plan didn’t eventuate. It’s more shocking that so much of it did - West managed to outline his artistic vision and stick to it for three studio albums, only diverging from his initial image five years later. This divergence wasn’t spurred by a whim - 2008 was a particularly painful year for West, one which irrevocably changed both his life and his art.
Two major incidents led to Kanye’s rejection of his education-themed tetralogy - his break up with then-fiancee Alexis Phifer, and the sudden death of his mother, Donda West.
Donda West died on 10 November, 2007 from complications sustained during cosmetic surgery. The grief any son would feel was compounded by Kanye’s sense of responsibility: blaming himself for his mother’s untimely death, he spiralled into a well-documented depression. Now a fully fledged celebrity, Kanye's breakdown occurred in the spotlight he'd so tirelessly earned. One video shows him crying on stage just a week after Donda's death.
Kanye’s love for his mother was something legendary - his second album, Late Registration, featured fan-favourite “Hey Mama,” an earnest and loving dedication to his chief driving force. Though he wrote the song in 2000, three years prior to his major label debut, West specifically saved the track for his second album. In 2003, when outlining his Dropout trilogy, he mentioned including the already-written song on his then-upcoming sophomore record.
It was hardly the only track preaching motherly admiration. On “Touch the Sky,” Ye recalls driving a U-Haul van from Chicago to New York with his mother, a true story he’d previously told on College Dropout closer “Last Call”:
"One of my homies that was one of my artists, he got signed. But it was supposed to really go through my production company, but he ended up going straight with the company. So, like I'm just straight holdin' the phone, gettin' the bad news that dude was tryin' to leave my company. And I got evicted at the same time. So I went down and tracked the beats from him, I took that money, came back, packed all my shit up in a U-Haul, maybe about ten days before I had to actually get out so I ain't have to deal with the landlord cause he's a jerk. Me and my mother drove to Newark, New Jersey. I hadn't even seen my apartment. I remember I pulled up. I unpacked all my shit."
On Graduation track "Good Life," Kanye seemingly attributes his drive for success to his mother, with T-Pain singing "I'ma get on the TV momma, I'ma / I'ma put shit down." More recently, Donda has reappeared as the acronym for West’s planned mega-entertainment business. She’s also a recurring subject of West’s recent output, with allusions appearing in late Kanye tracks such as “Only One” and "Clique."
In a 2015 interview, Kanye claimed that "if [he] had never moved to L.A. she'd be alive." Hip hop magazine XXL attributed Kanye's much-publicised 2016 breakdown to, at least in part, feelings brought on by the nine-year anniversary of Donda's death. Whilst Kanye continues to make heartfelt dedications to his late mother, no record was as acutely influenced by the event than the one he was then making.
Kanye's longtime engagement to fashion designer Alexis Phifer ended just months after the death of his mother. The pair first dated just as West dropped The College Dropout, the release which almost instantly enshrined him a major celebrity and hip hop wunderkid. They reunited in the space between Late Registration and Graduation and, by the end of 2008, the pair were set to marry.
After six years of on-again, off-again entanglement, it’s no surprise that the breakup hit West hard.
In this respect, sections of 808s read like a tell-all memoir: feelings of loneliness and isolation collide against moments of self-assured confidence and childish vindication. The actual details of their parting are not explored on the record, a choice which helps keep it from he-said, she-said dramatics and tabloid lyricism. Instead, the focus is placed squarely on West’s own emotions: anger, resentment, regret and longing colliding in a contradictory and unreasonable mess. There’s no central contention to 808s, because it’s without agenda. It opts for depiction over prescription, reflection over recommendation.
It does, however, close with perhaps the most telling sentiment, an irrational and dramatic refrain that nonetheless rings true:
The collision of two heartbreaking personal incidents may have set the scene, but it was Kanye’s commitment to his artistic vision that allowed him to flip that grief into a significant record. In the next instalment, we’re looking at the talent that facilitated the record, from collaborators to sampled artists!