Album Analysis | Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
Kanye West’s fourth studio record, 808s and Heartbreak, showed his potent abilities as both a musical artist and a producer, whilst single handedly crafting mainstream emotive rap.
Kanye’s fourth studio record, 808s and Heartbreak, deals mostly with what the title implies. West was in the midst of emotional turmoil after the death of his mother in December of 2007 alongside the collapse of his long term relationship with Alexis Phifer. Kanye’s expressions through this dismal time in his life show up all over in the lyrics and themes of 808s. The album perfectly displays the contrast in Kanye’s life, with some tracks, like the braggadocious Amazing, have Kanye expressing the victories and the sacrifices he’s made to create the life he lives, whereas others, like the sorrowful Coldest Winter, show a new side of Kanye - a emotive, vulnerable artist, a perspective that has grown to encourage new artists to bear all in their songwriting.
After the incredible commercial success of 2007’s Graduation, Kanye was at a creative crossroads. He had shown the world his incredible production abilities through the sampling and modifying of soul and R&B throughout his previous records, but now he wanted to try something new. Many interviews can be seen where Kanye exclaims his desire to change his sound and push himself creatively as well as lyrically.
Things weren’t great for Kanye at this time - despite commercial success and millions of records sold, the ending of his relationship with his fiancee Alexis Phifer and the untimely death of his mother caused him great distress. Kanye has been known to feel guilt about the death of Donda West, his mother, commenting in an interview that “If I never took her to L.A., she would still be alive. I don’t want to get too far into it because it will bring me to tears". Donda died of complications arising from liposuction and a breast reduction surgery. This destructive way of thinking is expressed throughout the record, most notably in Coldest Winter, where he describes her love as being a thousand miles away, and begging for the spring to melt away his mistakes as it melts away the snow. These lines could easily be meant towards to the end of his relationship with Phifer, but the desire to cleanse himself from mistakes could very well be directed towards the guilt of his mother's passing.
Heart-wrenching lyrics litter this record, and quickly become the main focus. The production is blunt, focused, and minimalist in a lot of tracks, allowing the listener to become enticed by Kanye’s autotuned cries of anguish. Perhaps the most captivating of these tracks, Welcome to Heartbreak starts with Kanye confessing the life he’s created for himself may not be as wonderful as he portrays it to be. In the second verse, Kanye confesses to feeling lost in the bliss that he’s created for himself, rapping:
Chased a good life my whole life long
Look back on my life and my life gone
Where did I go wrong?
It’s a bold comment from a man who prides himself on being the greatest of all time. For Kanye, it seems the possessions and the fame in his life are meaningless without the support and love from those closest to him. You can hear this sentiment echoing throughout Kanye's discography, from his feature on Put On by Jeezy to newer songs of his, such as the potent Real Friends off of 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Kanye continues to dive into these feelings of hopelessness as he the album continues. Songs like Heartless continue to push these states, with Kanye expressing:
So you walk around like you don't know me
You got a new friend – well, I got homies
But in the end, it's still so lonely
Kanye’s loneliness and heartbreak reach a climax as he continues to express his torment through tracks like Coldest Winter, Pinocchio Story, Street Lights, and Love Lockdown. These incredibly moving tracks have inspired a new era of artists that pronounce their love and admiration for the willingness of Kanye to allow rap to take a new direction. Emotive expression is nothing new in rap - older artists such as Nas and Tupac easily come to mind - but Kanye was seemingly the first to create a record based on negative emotions and have it become accessible to mainstream audiences. Modern rappers such as Drake, JUICE WRLD and Kid Cudi have all named Kanye as one of their most influential mentors and a huge catalyst for allowing them to display their emotions through their songs. Most notable of these artists in relation to this record are Kid Cudi, as he is featured in Welcome to Heartbreak and has writing credits in three of the other tracks on the album. Those tracks include Robocop, Heartless, and Paranoid. Kid Cudi released Man on the Moon shortly after 808s and was propelled to the mainstream artist we know him as today. Cudi continued the trend of emotive rapping with his astronomically huge hit Day N’ Nite, a song that has influenced countless other artists to follow in his footsteps. Drake has been on record to say that Kanye West has been his number one inspiration in the music he creates, while emerging artists like Lil Uzi Vert have exclaimed similar sentiments.
"Emotive expression is nothing new in rap, older artists such as Nas and Tupac easily come to mind, but Kanye was seemingly the first to create a record based on negative emotions and have it become accessible to mainstream audiences."
This record was yet another example of Kanye’s potent abilities as both a musical artist and a producer. His use of the Roland 808, a piece of old technology even by 2008’s standards, was pinnacle to the overall sound of the drums and the backbone of most of the tracks in the record, most notably Say You Will, Heartless, and Love Lockdown, along with the incredible percussion of Coldest Winter. His obvious passion for this drum machine permeates through the record, and sonically allows 808s to be praised as one of Kanye’s best examples of forward-thinking production. Although, eleven years after its release, it's hard not to focus on the great flow and songwriting on the album, instead of production, especially when held up to West's most recent release Kids See Ghosts (2018).
West obviously expresses disdain towards the life he’s created, but that’s juxtaposed with self affirming lyricism on Amazing and seemingly unemotional complaints of his relationship on Paranoid, Robocop, and See You in My Nightmares. Looking back at this, many questions are raised - what was Kanye’s vision for this record? Was it his desire to express his emotive states in bits and pieces? Was it to showcase his talents of production and due to the instances of his life, he leaned towards more emotive ballads due to the events taking place in his life? Does anyone really have the authority to demand answers to questions that can never be answered?
Today, 808s proves as a stepping stone towards bigger and better things within mainstream emotive rap - even to some of Kanye's more recent releases. Many hip-hop enthusiasts and creators would place West's contributions as the king of hip-hop's true mainstream success. In 2019, 808s continues to be a fan favourite (perhaps until Yandhi finally comes out) and manages to hold a privitol place in 2000s music.