A Winter’s Tale: Ten Years of 808s & Heartbreak

Dean Van Nguyen explores Kanye West's genre-shifting fourth album on the occasion of its ten-year anniversary.
By    November 27, 2018

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They like, “Oh god, why Dean Van Nguyen go so hard?”

It begins with the devastating sounds of a life support machine. The fragile, ping-ponging beeps that underpin opening track “Say You Will” resemble the hollowed-out audio signals that ring from the machinery used to prolong human life—sounds that once they cease, typically signal death. In 2008, devastation stalked Kanye West. His response was a work of desperation and catharsis, the attempted exorcism of a cracked soul. As it turned out, heartbreak was the sound of a Roland TR-808 drum machine.

Album origins are often mythologized. In the cast of 808s & Heartbreak, they’re unambiguous. The story of the record is destined to be immortalized in the history of pop music, casting back to November 2007, when Kanye’s mother, Donda West, died following complications arising from cosmetic surgery. Compounding this harrowing period of his life, West and fiancée Alexis Phifer permanently dissolved their engagement and on-again, off-again relationship, which had begun in 2002.

Wrestling with his grief, West decamped to the greenhouse heat of Honolulu to record the coldest story ever told. 808s & Heartbreak, his fourth album, was the distillation of pain and confusion. Deeming straight hip-hop as insufficient in channeling his emotions, Ye was visited by the spirits of Pet Shop Boys, Ultravox, and Gary Numan. The one-time chop-up-the-soul beatmaker tinkered with synth-pop and new wave, adding his own sense of architectural minimalism and a sterile, high-art gloss.

He’d later ditch the garish threads and shutter shades of his Graduation era, re-emerging in a pale grey suit, buttoned-up shirt, dark glasses, and with a bright red broken heart strapped to his aching chest.

The project bewildered audiences, but a decade on from its release, serves as a reminder that the best pop music is often formed when stars follow their strangest tendencies. 808s & Heartbreak spoke to two of art’s eternal truth: that raw emotion powers the most captivating work, and that such sentiment is often in its most affecting form when alchemized into the margins of a pop song.

West’s ascent had been as close to a perfect arc as a star can rise. The flashing lights and stadium power of previous album Graduation was a show military strength—with the heavy shelling particularly aimed at Curtis Jackson. With The College Dropout and Late Registration already in the rearview, next album A Good Ass Job would complete the cycle of education-themed records long plotted. But as most of us can attest, life has a way of destroying best-laid plans.

Enter Scott Mescudi, the rapper who’d inspire some of 808s & Heartbreak’s ruined tunefulness. Legend has it that Kid Cudi slid West his demo at the Bape store. Whatever the case, Kanye immediately gravitated towards Cudi’s chilly sonics and cutting depictions of mental health. Just look at “Day ‘N’ Nite”: a kid flowing over tweaked-out soundscapes, writing verses that drew inspiration from Geto Boys’ paranoid classic “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” Cudi was a rising star bumping stylistic shoulders with nobody.

No I.D. and Jeff Bhasker were among West’s chief lieutenants, the former once claiming that 808s & Heartbreak’s birth occurred during sessions for Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3: “When we did ‘Heartless,’ [West] 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.’” In Hawaii, Yeezy and the crew would vibe out with movies like Close Encounters With The Third Kind and E.T. silently playing on loop as inspiration.

If there was one element that colored public perception of 808s & Heartbreak in 2008, it was that audio processing technique that will polarize audiences until the final copy of Lil Wayne’s Rebirth finally degrades in a landfill. I’m talking, of course, about auto-tune. History writes West as a pioneer of the form but the instrument was one of pop music’s most dominant sounds before he ever picked it up. At a Los Angeles listening party for the album, Ye expressed his admiration for his auto-tune sensei, T-Pain. “His light was so bright,” West beamed.

The most basic analysis of West’s use of auto-tune is that without a natural singing voice, the process allowed him to hold a melody. (“It was just what was in my heart,” he told MTV Europe when quizzed about his transition from spitter to crooner. “The type of ideas that it was coming up with, the melodies that were in me—what was in me I couldn’t stop.”) But auto-tune isn’t just some video game hack. It offers a unique sound that proved vital in 808s & Heartbreak’s savage expression.

Ye’s digitized voice suggests the erosion of his humanity. As warm and comforting as the best soul singers can sound, West’s robotic vocals are bitter and brutal. Air-locked into the synthetic instrumentation, it adds up a listening experience that feels like trying to breath at high altitude. Put it this way: it’s impossible to picture John Legend singing these songs with the same bruising effectiveness.

I once believed that grief starts at a peak before slowly but surely descending over time—that things get a little bit easier every day. But such straight lines rarely define a life. West, in the first stages of his own grief, does not sound like a wreck of a man on 808s & Heartbreak, hobbling hour-to-hour, paralyzed with anguish. Instead he runs a full gamut of emotions, sounding confused, panicked, wistful, and sad, sometimes all on the same track.

As a vanguard for his new sound, “Say You Will” washes away everything West once stood for. With an ex-girlfriend’s late-night call for sex playing on his mind, the song captures the distance that can exist between two people who were once intimate. Immediately ratcheting up the sense of confusion, 808s & Heartbreak begins with a question: “Why would she make calls out the blue?” Kanye asks. The second line is indecipherable—even the vinyl booklet can’t decide what he is saying, with the lyric sheet reading: “Now I’m awake, sleep (less in June) or (missing you). West mumbles his words under a haze of auto-tune and echo, sounding like a man who is collapsing in on himself.

It’s one of the great depictions on how much inner pain it’s possible to inflict on another human.

“Coldest Winter” captures the immediacy of grief. Borrowing a riff, chorus, and thematic influence from Tears For Fears’ “Memories Fade,” the song sees West self-examine the loss of these two significant women in his life. “If spring can take the snow away,” Ye asks, “can it melt away all of our mistakes?” But there is no going backwards. Donda West’s death at the hands of a plastic surgeon is a tragedy impossible to disentangle from the attention she received due to her son’s celebrity. The pressure that must put on a child’s soul is almost too terrible to grapple with.

It would be a mistake to assume that in his sorrow, West’s mind protected itself from his usual proclivities. A line like, “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs,” from “Welcome to Heartbreak,” has an enjoyable, to-the-point silliness that’s punctuated by producer Jon Brion’s serious strings. And let’s not pretend that 808s & Heartbreak doesn’t have singles. Built on a techno-style piano loop, thumping baseline, tribal drums, and almost nothing else, “Love Lockdown” is one of the fattest minimalist tracks in the 2000s chart-pop canon.

Contrary to some imperfect memories of the music, 808s & Heartbreak isn’t always a sad album. “Paranoid” rides a muscular, rubbery synth line that sounds like it would snap back into place if you tried to bend it with a grapheme rod. West raps here, a 808s & Heartbreak rarity. Young Jeezy, one of the greatest guest spot spitters of all time, sounds like an advanced Terminator on the sci-fi sounds of “Amazing.”

Graduation Bear was nowhere to be seen in 2008, but if you’re looking for an album mascot, consider RoboCop. The song named after the movie is one of 808s & Heartbreak’s most triumphant—all swooning strings, rumbling drums, and an enthused performance as West accuses his distrusting partner, presumably Phifer, of surveying him like the relentless cyborg law enforcer. But hold up a mirror to the album’s remit and you’ll see Alex Murphy, violently killed and reborn as something other, something more powerful. This was West’s reckoning. The moment his life was shook off course and recast into a form nobody saw approaching.

The legacy of 808s & Heartbreak is wrapped up in its influence on contemporary sounds. It imbued Lil Wayne with the courage to make an auto-tune drenched guitar record, and presented Drake with his whole aesthetic on a silver platter. Artists like the Weeknd and How To Dress Well rebuilt R&B in West’s chilly image, while rappers like fellow Chi-Town star Lil Durk garble their lyrics through similar vocal effects for maximum poignancy.

West himself never threw out his auto-tune software.

It’s the armchair psychiatrists’ theory that the roots of the apparent evils that have plagued West, from the Taylor Swift mic-grab, to his recent courting of America’s sinister forces, stem back to the death of his mother. Such uninformed diagnoses seem classless to me. What is for certain is that 808s & Heartbreak represented a moment when his life skewered into an alternate timeline that he never could have envisioned. 808s & Heartbreak is the strangest of beasts: a cultural oddity that became the most influential album of its time; an expensive experiment that still sounds like it was recorded from the consumption of precisely one person.

Like pop’s greatest auteurs, there is no one single image of Kanye West likely to be remembered over all others. But undeniably, 808s & Heartbreak represented one of his greatest pop performances. The iconography was the most striking of his career. From the KAWS-designed deflated heart album cover, to West’s bled-dry fashion choices, the whole package recast 1980s pop nostalgia with a distinct contemporary sensibility. Here was an album that bewildering so many yet inspired loads of Halloween outfits.

In a 2008 interview with Fader, West extracted joy from his shutter glasses of the Graduation era being compared to a certain pop deity’s white glove. “Michael Jackson is the god of all pop music of all time. And it’s blasphemous to compare yourself to god, but that was very Michael Jackson-esque.”

Inextricably linked to death is rebirth. Like Balder in Norse mythology, or Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs, gods must be destroyed on Earth to take their place in new realms. A few years after speaking to Fader, Kanye West would crystallize his self-deification. “I am a god,” he bellowed on Yeezus. 808s & Heartbreak was orphic fire that torched his soul—an album about death that birthed infinite creativity. What rose from the firestorm was something of which the earth has never seen, but the crackle and hum of the flames were never too loud to cover the pain.

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