The Kanye West Hype Train is in full gear, with the much anticipated WAVES and YZYSZN3 releasing next week. Amidst all of the hopes and expectations, I feel it’s appropriate to take a second, look back, and appreciate the past. More specifically, to look back and celebrate Kanye West’s most influential album, 808s and Heartbreak.
As I’ve previously mentioned, Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak ages like wine. The album’s influence worked its way through the music-sphere as a delayed release, because eight years ago, nothing sounded like 808s, and now you’d be hard pressed not to find an artist, song, or style not heavily affected by that album.
808s and Heartbreak traded typical braggadocio with introspection and heartfelt sensitivity. Obviously that is a stark departure from traditional rap music, which at the time – 2008 – highlighted artists and hits like Lil Wayne with Lollipop, TI with Whatever You Like, and even Kanye West with Good Life. Also, you’re welcome for that nostalgia trip.
It was the attitude of rap for that year and most that past decade. Of course, there still existed artists who offered an inside look into their lives with tales of heartbreak, sorrow, and sadness. But, it never got enough momentum to affect rap on larger scale – it was appropriate for those few fleeting moments of sadness and anger in our lives, but people weren’t bumping sad music when they could be popping off to some of T-Pain’s Bartender.
But 808s and Heartbreak wasn’t just sad music. It dug deeper than that. It was music that spoke deeper than “I am mad.” and instead looked into “Why am I mad?”. This was due in large part by the type of the production West used. Gone were the sped up soul samples, the drum beats, and the high-paced vibrant vitality. All of that was replaced by a soul screaming for help, making its way through a maze of metallic technological marvel that resulted in music.
808s and Heartbreak’s production was guttural. It reached past your throat, through your heart, and into your stomach. The slow, measured pounding of its 808 drums forced you to listen and feel. The grinding instrumentation stripped you of your hubris and sunk its teeth into your self-esteem. 808s took you by the hand, held it like a vice, and dragged you through every nook, canal, and alleyway that your soul could bear.
The album held a dichotomy with happiness and despair – the production contained a varying degree of pleasantness, which was then overlaid by its lyrical subjects being dark and morose. There is that contradiction – that paradox – that resonated with so many people because that’s exactly what life is: joy’s symbiotic and cursed existence with pain.
It was within this paradox that birthed the artist we’ve come to know and love. With 808s blowing open doors, artists like Drake, The Weeknd, and Childish Gambino were able to grow, thrive, and eventually succeed in a genre that placed machismo on a pedestal. The album was a bombastic achievement, as it showcased how versatile and flexible a musician could be when it came to self-expression. The resounding effects of 808s and Heartbreak can still be felt today, undoubtedly cementing its position as Kanye West’s most influential album.