Reachin' or Preachin'?: "808s & Heartbreak" Is the Most Important Album in Kanye's Discography
It's been over a decade since Kanye West released 808s & Heartbreak, and it still remains the most left-field musical move of his career. Despite becoming generally more accepted and acclaimed over the years, it is one of the most polarizing pieces of Kanye's discography, distinctively dividing his core fan base into two separate sides. Those two sides being the ones that love it and the ones that hate it, of course. Back in 2008, the general public consensus leaned more towards the latter, and it's not hard to understand why.
This was arguably the biggest rapper on the planet at the time dropping an entirely left-field project that pretty much abandoned every single conventional method of hip-hop. It was a self-proclaimed “pop” album. “Hip-hop is over for me now,” Kanye stated dismissively during the promotion period for the album. Aside from a vintage Young Jeezy feature, there was no one verse on 808s that could be considered “rap” in the traditional sense, drastically swaying away from the direction of ‘Ye’s three previous LPs. Instead, he relied heavily on autotuned crooning and spacy, electronic instrumentals carried by the infamous Roland TR-808 drum machine. Veering so sharply from the norm resulted in confusion from those that had learned to love Kanye’s soulful style.
808s notoriously came during a critical time period of Kanye’s life. Shortly after fter Graduation, his world basically came crashing down. His mother had just passed away due to surgery complications. His engagement with long-time girlfriend Alexis Phifher had just abruptly ended. He found himself dealing with an overwhelming amount of negative backlash and public scrutiny. This was ‘Ye in his most emotionally vulnerable state for the whole world to see, and it was the beginning of a sonic reinvention. Kanye is an artist that constantly reinvents himself, even in the present day he has morphed into a devout Christian rapper. No change was as drastic as 808s, though.
I remember watching the colorfully animated video for "Heartless" as a kid and being mesmerized by it. As a young listener who had first been introduced to Kanye's music through Graduation, I was intrigued by this shift of tone. Where as Graduation had been triumphant and celebratory, 808s made me feel something different. The striking piano instrumental. The broken, autotuned vocals. The bleak subject matter. "The coldest story ever told" was something that immediately caught my attention, even though I couldn't fully relate to what he was talking about at the time. As I revisit the album with more mature ears and years of life experience, I totally understand the circumstances that inspired Kanye to create this album.
With assistance from collaborators like Kid Cudi and T-Pain, 808s & Heartbreak paved the way for the current landscape of hip-hop to thrive. It’s hard to even imagine artists like Drake and Travis Scott being as big as they are without 808s. Even singers like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean took inspiration from 808s for their early mixtape work. Lil Uzi Vert and the late Juice WRLD cited 808s as a creative catalyst for their own careers. It made the wave of artists drowning in the sound of their own autotuned voice and being "emo" normal.
Although a few albums by rappers before had attempted to blur the lines between genres, like Andre 3000’s The Love Below and Common’s Electric Circus, none had such an immediate and widespread impact. Outside of influencing the style of some of the biggest names in music today, 808s & Heartbreak ultimately changed the course of mainstream hip-hop by allowing artists to be more vulnerable and experimental. It was years ahead of its time, and people are still trying to catch up. That’s why, even though it might not be the best album, it deserves its merit as the most important album from Kanye's discography.