Welcome to Heartbreak: THE LEGACY OF KANYE WEST’S “808S & HEARTBREAK”
Stefano Mariano Rebuli
(808’s & Heartbreak album artwork)
When Kanye West first dropped 808s & Heartbreak in November 2008, it was an unexpected change of pace in his discography. Whereas The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation are bright albums characterized by soul samples, orchestral production, and glamorous synths, respectively, their successor takes on a moodier tone.
808s was released following the death of Kanye's mother, Donda West, in November 2007, and his subsequent breakup with long-time girlfriend and fiancée Alexis Phifer. These two events left him with a burden of emotional pain. This period of turmoil explains the album's central themes of grief, heartbreak, and alienation, which motivated Kanye to sing instead of rapping, a daring stylistic leap for a rapper in 2008. Kanye's technical approach is also different, with his heavy use of Auto-Tune vocals and a minimalistic production style characterized by digital synthesizers and the Roland TR-808 drum machine. 808s & Heartbreak is a robotic, moody, and melancholic record that stands in stark contrast to Kanye's previous releases at the time. However, the experimentation pays off—the album inspired an entire generation of artists and continues to dominate the current musical landscape.
The influence of 808s' heartfelt and melodic nature can be seen in one artist more than any other: Drake. The Canadian rapper is known for a mix of singing and rapping that has characterized most of his work to date. The self-proclaimed "Certified Lover Boy" is no stranger to showing his softer side on his records and crafting emotional ballads, two of his most recognizable traits as an artist. Both 808s and Kanye himself can be seen as instrumental in Drake's work, some ways being rather direct. "Say What's Real", a track on Drake's breakout mixtape So Far Gone, utilizes the instrumental to 808s' opener "Say You Will". Kanye also produced Drake's hit 2010 love song "Find Your Love". Otherwise, Kanye's transition into singing can be seen as the catalyst for Drake's crossover style: his album Take Care contains rap bangers like "Under Ground Kings" and emotional singing performances such as the iconic, drunken heartbreak anthem "Marvins Room". Drake famously called Kanye the "most influential rapper" to his sound in a 2009 MTV interview.
808s & Heartbreak has significantly influenced more recent acts too. A key example is Juice WRLD, who wore his heart on his sleeve and cites the album as his favourite album ever. Its impact is as clear as day on his debut Goodbye & Good Riddance, a breakup record filled with melodies, passionate singing, and lyrics about heartbreak. Juice was candid about his emotional struggles and poured his feelings into his music, a characteristic carried over from Kanye's record. For example, Juice's smash hit "Lucid Dreams'' is a poignant ballad about being unable to recover from a breakup. Baby Keem is another artist who credits 808s as a pivotal inspiration to his sound. He called the album his most significant musical influence and his favourite in Kanye's discography. Keem has also shown it: this past September, he sampled the drums from "Love Lockdown" and "Coldest Winter" on 808s in "scars'' and "issues", respectively, two tracks on his debut album The Melodic Blue. More than a decade after its release, the album's impact is demonstrated by the artists it influenced.
Kanye's technical choices have also been carried on by the new generation. Whilst T-Pain helped bring the effect to mainstream heights, 808s can be credited for furthering the presence of Auto-Tune in the hip-hop sphere. Kanye's use of the effect can easily be seen as having inspired someone like Travis Scott, known for his "auto-crooner" style and general use of the effect. The 808 drum itself has become extremely popular since the album's release, now serving as a foundational element in a myriad of hip-hop hits' instrumentals (e.g., Bad & Boujee, Mask Off, ORANGE SODA, INDUSTRY BABY). Hip-hop production has even transcended the limits of its own genre, allowing the 808 to be found in production for pop artists like Ariana Grande.
On 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye defied the then-current hip-hop landscape and created a new one that he would pioneer over the next decade, along with a new crop of artists. Kanye encapsulated his emotional pain and sorrow into the album by using robotic, minimalistic production and icy, auto-tuned vocals. The album showcased Kanye's emotional alienation while simultaneously opening the door for feelings within the hip-hop sphere. Amid inspiring artists like Drake and Juice, 808s built itself a timeless legacy that continues to play out even today, thirteen years after it was released to the masses.