Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak is the sound of a man coming undone and piecing himself together again; a complete and raw chronicle of facing immeasurable loss with brutal introspection. It marks a key moment in late-2000s hip hop, one which would posit a new vision of hip hop. In dedicating an entire record to exploring his emotional turmoil, West broke one of the genre’s taboos, taking earnest expressions of mental strife mainstream and paving the way for a score of artists still popular today.
Still, 808s was more than just a philosophy: it was also a distinctive sound, a blueprint which would also prove popular in the ensuing decade. The greyscale palette used throughout the artistic era mirrors the dull thud of the Roland TR-808, an early drum machine. Though the 808 - criticised on release for unrealistic drum sounds - was discontinued as early as 1983, it has since become a staple of hip hop production, sought out largely because of the unconventional bass hits within. It was this reverence that led to Ye’s interest in the machine: it equipped him with a sound he called "heartbreak," one he achieved by manipulating the 808's analog beats. Hence, 808s and Heartbreak: the two most essential sonic elements of West’s fourth studio album.
Kanye furnished this narrative by surrounding himself with inspired and unorthodox collaborators, including producers Jeff Bhasker and No I.D.. A small team of ambitious newcomers helped carve out one of hip hop's most significant stylistic pivots, including Cleveland-born rapper Kid Cudi and British singer-songwriter Mr. Hudson.
A Kid Named Cudi
Kid Cudi released his debut mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, in July 2008. Though this debut fell a mere four months before 808s, Cudi was one of the most instrumental figures in crafting the record's sound. This was possible due to the record's fast turnaround: 808s and Heartbreak was released a mere fourteen months after Graduation, the fastest turnaround in Kanye's catalogue. Were this Ye's default pace, he'd have released twelve studio albums between February 2004 and November 2018.
Their first meeting was serendipitous: whilst working at BAPE New York, Cudi had forgotten to remove a tag from a jacket Kanye had purchased. This run in remained their only interaction until after the release of A Kid Named Cudi, when Ye signed him to GOOD Music after having been introduced to his art by frequent collaborator Plain Pat.
Once signed, Cudi's first assignment was helping craft hooks for Jay Z's then-upcoming Blueprint 3. During those sessions, Kanye and Cudi built a rapport that led into sessions for Kanye's own record. Genius notes that the hook on "Welcome To Heartbreak," Cudi's sole credited feature on 808s, was written for Jay during the Blueprint 3 sessions. As Complex notes, some believe that Cudi's melodic stylings inspired Kanye to abandon work on his then-upcoming LP Good Ass Job in favour of a new project. Comments made by Ye mentor No I.D. support this claim:
“The 808 records came out of doing The Blueprint 3 records. As a matter of fact, when we did “Heartless,” [Kanye] just stopped and said, ‘No.’ I was like, ‘No what?’ He was like, ‘No way. This is my record.’ I was like, ‘Come on man. Can we just finish the guy’s album man?’ He was like, ‘Nope. I’m doing an album.‘”
Whether or not Cudi steered West towards melancholy pop, he indisputably helped shape the ensuing record: he earned four writing credits ("Welcome To Heartbreak," "Heartless," "Paranoid" and "Robocop") and a high-profile feature on "Welcome To Heartbreak."
Observing the time-honoured tradition of reciprocation, Kanye acted as executive producer of Cudi's debut album, Man On The Moon: The End Of Day, released in September 2009. Kanye also featured alongside G.O.O.D. Music signee Common on Cudi's second single, "Make Her Say," which remains one of his most instantly recognisable hits. At the time, Cudi fielded questions from an eager press on frequent comparisons between him and fellow up-and-coming emcee, Drake. Drake would go on to craft an image directly descended from 808s and Heartbreak, typified by his mega-successful "Say You Will" remix, "Say What's Real." His multi-platinum sophomore record, Take Care, is amongst the most clearly indebted post-808s releases.
Whilst recording Graduation, Kanye elected to shun rap features. The idea was in keeping with his arena rock sensibilities: as the album was sonically influenced by arena spectacle, Ye felt the record needed to emulate the stylistic hallmarks of rock n' roll. In a 2007 interview with Reuters, Kanye explained:
“When I hear the records of my favorite bands -- the Killers or Coldplay -- you only hear one voice from start to finish."
Though he didn't apply the same principle to 808s, it's still a largely featureless fare. A handful of appearances from Cudi, Young Jeezy, Mr. Hudson and Lil Wayne run through the record, with eight of the twelve tracks entirely without assists.
Lil Wayne's appearance on "See You In My Nightmares" follows his Kanye debut on Graduation track "Barry Bonds," though the pair had a long and prosperous relationship by 2008. Kanye wrote and produced two tracks ("Comfortable" and "Let The Beat Build") off Lil Wayne's 2008 classic, Tha Carter III, as well as the title track from Wayne's much-acclaimed 2006 mixtape, Dedication 2.
Young Jeezy's verse on "Amazing" is similarly reciprocal: Ye featured on his The Recession single "Put On," released five months before 808s. The pair, initially Def Jam labelmates, first collaborated on 2007's "Can't Tell Me Nothing (Remix)."
One of the most oddball contributors was English electro-pop artist Mr Hudson. A quiet achiever, Hudson formed a rapport with Kanye after supporting him on the European leg of his mid-2008 Glow In The Dark Tour. Soon after, Kanye offered to produce the singer-songwriter's debut solo album. Kanye took a shining to McIldowie, saying that "Mr. Hudson has the potential to be bigger than me, to be one of the most important artists of his generation." Kanye subsequently brought him into the 808s sessions.
Hudson ultimately received a credited feature on the records fourth single, "Paranoid." He also co-produced melancholy standout "Street Lights" as well as providing vocals to both "Say You Will" and "Amazing." He signed to Ye's newly-formed label, G.O.O.D. Music, in the days before 808s was released. Kanye's affinity for Hudson's electronic singer-songwriter niche presages future collaborations with Justin Vernon and Sampha, and fits with Kanye's fondness of similar artists such as James Blake and 2017 G.O.O.D. Music signee Francis Starlite.
Though the sample-heavy styles of his first three albums were individualistic and varied, 808s moved away from the practice altogether.
Despite Simone's legendary status, 808s was Kanye's first time sampling from her much-pilfered catalogue. He would go on to use her rendition of "Strange Fruit" on Yeezus track "Blood On The Leaves," and later samples her B-side "Do What You Gotta Do" on The Life Of Pablo's "Famous."
Elsewhere, West interpolates and emulates with ease. "Robocop" contains portions of Patrick Doyle's 1998 Great Expectations OST, the soundtrack to Alfonso Cuarón's critically lukewarm adaptation.
"Kissing In The Rain" bears obvious resemblance to the second half of the tune. Doyle is oft sampled in hip hop through his work in Carlito’s Way: this is the only sample of any of his other scores.
"Coldest Winter" is credited to West, No I.D. and Roland Orzabal, one half of famed new wave outfit Tears for Fears. Kanye's hook is interpolated from the group's 1983 track, "Memories Fade," included on their platinum-selling debut, The Hurting.
As the title suggests, The Hurting is a uniquely raw ‘80s pop record: the group’s name, Tears for Fears, was inspired by Arthur Janov’s primal therapy, a practice which also informed the hit album.
This signified Kanye's first foray into progressive rock sampling, having focused primarily on soul (The College Dropout/Late Registration), indie rock and house (Graduation). Ye would go on to sample APP forebears King Crimson on "Power," the lead single from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
West's stylistic pivot is mirrored by the artists from whom he borrowed. The most telling is "Memories Fade," taken from one of the world's foremost New Wave outfits - West would later call 808s the first "black New Wave album," a claim consistent with critics who deemed it a bold experiment in electro-pop. The sample was actually unearthed by producer and mentor No I.D., who’s known for his fondness of ‘80s records:
“I played him the whole section, and Ye said ‘I would just change one word.’ I had no idea he’d keep it as is. I knew it was something as soon as I heard the song. I knew it was special.”
Furthermore, West’s use of The Alan Parsons Project's instrumental also exhibits his growing appreciation of rock music, first explored on Graduation. Whilst that record was influenced by arena rock legends U2 and The Rolling Stones, it also included a sample from seminal avant-garde Krautrock outfit Can. This growing appreciation helped Ye push beyond the confines of hip hop and branch into rock territory.
808s is a significant album for Kanye himself. It featured a number of stylistic quirks he'd incorporate into his sound going forward, and for this reason is often seen as the demarcation between 'Old Kanye' and 'New Kanye.' Whilst he'd pushed boundaries with his early work, Ye's post-2008 output is undoubtedly more sonically challenging: MBDTF's overindulgent grandeur, Yeezus' alienating palette and The Life Of Pablo's disjointed sound immediately come to mind.
2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can rightfully be seen as the culmination of Kanye's preceding efforts: it contains facets from each of his four albums. It doubles down on the arena-based maximalism of Graduation whilst returning to Ye's verbose lyricism, found in both Late Registration and The College Dropout. 808s' tribal percussion ("Love Lockdown") reappears on MBDTF ("Lost In The World"), as does emotionally-steeped use of autotune ("Street Lights," "Runaway") and the use of painfully personal narratives ("Welcome To Heartbreak," "Blame Game"). The use of autotune has become an especially enduring feature of Kanye's post-808s output, appearing on tracks such as 2010's "Lost In The World," 2013's "Blood On The Leaves" and 2016's "Highlights."
Ye’s collaborations with Kid Cudi are amongst his most revered. In June 2018 - nearly a decade on from 808s - the duo reunited under the banner of Kids See Ghosts. Their long-awaited collaborative LP was a far cry from the understated melancholy of the past, offering a psychedelic vision of emotional fortitude and spiritual redemption. Though it wasn’t what fans had clamoured for, it seems fitting that, a decade on, the minds behind one of the era’s most emotionally potent records reunite for a life-affirming celebration.
In the ten years since the release of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks, music has changed. Whilst much of our current musical climate was influenced by other significant records and trends, many of hip hop’s new superstars have been directly influenced and inspired by that trailblazing 2008 release.
The impact of 808s is often framed in black-and-white terms, ones which are sometimes easy to dismiss as outright exaggerations. It’s hardly the first album to introduce introspection and emotion into hip hop: that’s been a mainstay of the genre since the days of BDP and Public Enemy, and acts such as Tupac, 50 and Jay had explored the heartfelt trials and tribulations of street life. Despite this, the extent to which they explored these ideas left only a mild impact, and the times at which they did so failed to align with greater paradigm shifts in the genre.
What West’s fourth album did do was take advantage of the void left by the success of 2008’s Graduation. After popularly usurping bling-era gangsterism with his house-infused backpack rap, West left a large stylistic void in mainstream hip hop. That’s not to say there weren’t trends during the 18 months between the two records: it was the lack of dominance amongst these strains that allowed for a strong musical contention. The question that needed to be answered was simple: where is hip hop heading?
Enshrining a sound takes more than just initiative: it takes a certain level of cultural ubiquity, which provides the reach necessary to inform fans and peers alike. With this in mind, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t even West who provided the blueprint: that credit belongs to Kid Cudi, whose debut mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, earned him a place in the studio. Whilst his ideas would be workshopped and refined by the greater team, the thematic essence of 808s - the most enduring aspect of the tape - was originally his. Though the general sound was developing prior, Cudi couldn’t have ushered in the era alone, as his success, whilst moderate, wasn’t the kind that could be adequately mobilised. In this way, it was a truly collaborative effort: Cudi brought his intrepid vision, whilst West brought his fame, influence and noted ability to wrangle the best from his collaborators.
The fact that hip hop’s biggest star - as West assuredly was at the time - would release a project so unprecedented and daring was a testament to his vision. The fact that he pulled it off? That’s testament to his talents. Artists such as Drake, Chance, Gambino, Frank Ocean, James Blake, Travis Scott, Trippie Redd, KYLE and Jaden Smith have all taken cues from the record, ones which have helped inform both their thematic and sonic palettes. The reach is so extensive that it’s hard to envisage a rap scene without West’s groundbreaking effort: what would a 2018 without Scorpion and Astroworld look like? What would fill that void? How would things have played out without Nothing Was The Same, or Because The Internet, or Blonde?
I guess we’ll never know, and that’s fine by me.