How Kanye West’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ Revolutionised Popular Culture Forever

By Eóin Donnelly

If popular culture was a solar system, hip-hop would be the star at the centre that all else orbits around. It’s 2018 and every brand seems desperate to align itself with music’s most dominant musical culture. Nary a product is marketed or sold without the helping hand of hip-hop. For better or for worse, it’s hip-hop that shifts the cultural needle on everything from fashion, film trailers, what drugs we use, Instagram captions, memes, commercials, dance challenges, movie soundtracks and more. ‘Rapper’ used to be construed as a synonym for criminal, but somewhere along the line hip-hop became gentrified, backed to the hilt by corporate dollars from the moment they became hip to the genre’s lucrative potential. When I go to grab a gelato, a smoothie or a white chocolate mocha, it’s the lovely sound of rap music that greets my entrance. Every night in my hostel bar, at Sydney’s renowned backpacker hostel WakeUp, people from every corner of the globe dance to hip-hop old and new all night under a neon-lit sign: “Mix with the world.” Whether I have my headphones with me or not, its hip-hop blaring from somebody else’s boombox every time I go to the park to work out; it doesn’t matter if the clientele are Australian, Tongan, Kiwi, Samoan, British, Asian, American or anything else: hip-hop is the common denominator across all peoples. On the construction site, it’s the very same; and we’ve all seen this very relatable meme:

If the darkening of the night sky had a mating call, the sound of hip-hop would accompany every sunset. All over the world hearts pound with the rhythm of hip-hop, but it’s worth remembering it wasn’t always like this. Not even Biggie Smalls thought hip-hop would take it this far. Enter Kanye West. Now, to give Kanye the sole credit for the ubiquity of a genre that is almost at pensioner age would be remarkably disrespectful to those who paved the way, but it is precisely this kind of acclaim that makes the conversation around the magnitude of his impact on popular culture such a fierce debate. It is also difficult to think of anyone else on the hip-hop scene who has made such gargantuan- and largely successful- efforts to infiltrate as many other cultural spaces as Kanye has. An album that turns 10 today- wow, I’m getting old!- it is 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak that by far represents Kanye’s most significant contribution to popular culture. From the beginning of his music career it was clear that the art-savvy, creatively adventurous and sensitive Kanye wasn’t cut from hip-hop’s traditional hyper-masculine mould, a fact that made gaining a platform in the first place very onerous for him, but it was when Kanye abandoned rapping altogether that his forward-thinking tastes were most keenly felt. Inspired by profound pain, grief and loneliness, the stripped-down, deliberately minimalistic 808s was a new sound for a new Kanye, a man at the height of his fame and popularity stripped bare of what mattered to him most. Even the most casual of Kanye fans knows how beloved his mother Donda West was to him, and it was her sudden death via surgery complications in November 2007 as well as his later break-up with fiancée Alexis Phifer that unleashed a hitherto unseen melancholy in the man and his music. Kanye blamed himself for what happened his mother, a deeply scarring wound that is reflected all over the album’s icy-cold landscape of anguish: “I moved to California, so did my mum. I feel my mum moved to California and did stuff that she wouldn’t have done if she were still in Chicago.” He would later credit these losses as necessary catalysts for his artistic evolution: “If I hadn’t suffered those losses, I might be too scared to fight the war on traditional thinking.” 808s represented the death of Kanye as we knew him, and the birth of a monster hellbent on bending popular culture to his own polychromatic artistic identity. It was a radical artistic u-turn for Yeezy that saw him abandon the breezy, sampling-based and sporadically socially conscious hip-hop of his hugely successful album trilogy: The College Dropout; Late Registration; and Graduation. In its place, he embraced a sparse brand of electropop, full of tribal Ronald TR-808 drum sounds and Kanye outpouring his misery into the abyss with an Auto-Tune vocal processor.

What makes 808s & Heartbreak even more remarkable is where Kanye was in his career prior to its release. With three classic solo albums already under his belt in his rapid, meteoric rise to superstardom, Kanye had already earned the right to be upheld as hip-hop’s eminent tastemaker. He wielded that power like an axe, severing ties with the past and moving into a bold new future where to rap was optional and we bopped to the rhythms of an 808 drum machine. It’s funny how much the world can pivot on one man’s personal crisis. On Graduation, Kanye was finally a superstar, living the ‘Good Life’ under shimmering ‘Flashing Lights’. Unlike 808s, which is best listened to alone in your bedroom with headphones, Graduation was a bombastic album full of larger-than-life anthems designed to fill arenas. When people say they miss the ‘old Kanye’, this is the guy they mean. It was when Kanye’s experimentations with electronic music began; however, on Graduation the electronic rhythms he composed were built to move crowds, not break hearts. Revolutionary in its own way, singles such as chart-topping ‘Stronger’, ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ and ‘Good Life’ preempted the impending rise of EDM, and ‘Homecoming’ with Coldplay’s Chris Martin was indicative of hip-hop’s burgeoning influence on mainstream pop culture. Moreover, West’s decisive victory over 50 Cent’s Curtis in their infamous sales battle signified the end of gangsta rap as hip-hop’s most lucrative cultural export. It could easily have been taken for granted that West would continue down this anthemic path, but art always mattered more to him than popularity. By the time his next album rolled around, the gloss of Graduation had long faded away and the style was completely switched up. A great artist understands the power in simple imagery. The contrast in the cover art of Kanye’s third and fourth studio albums tells you all you need to know: whereas Graduation features the iconic Dropout bear being launched into a technicolour stratosphere, 808s was adorned by the delicate depiction of a deflated balloon heart against a pale-blue background. It seemed that Kanye had came right back down to Earth.

There’s something to be admired on how a vulnerable Kanye scaled things back at the moment of his highest commercial exposure. It is artistic decisions such as this that make the integration between his sacrificial creative persona and his egotistical personal nature so incredibly intriguing. It seems he is forever destined to oscillate between god and monster, genius and imbecile, bruised and bruiser. Jay-Z wrote The Blueprint, and Kanye ripped it into smithereens. 808s & Heartbreak was a tectonic shift in culture, a renaissance album made by a renaissance man. At the time of release, nobody could’ve predicted its impact, with a cultural footprint big enough to have Big Foot quaking in his boots. In fact, at the time of release, the album was too radical a shift to be accepted by many fans and critics alike. The Independent critiqued the “irritating” album’s uncomfortable immersion in personal misery; NPR called for rappers to “know their limitations”; Rolling Stone summarised Kanye’s fourth studio album as a “noble failure”; and Jon Caramanica of the New York Times predicted that Kanye’s weak singing voice would be the “weakness for which this album will be ultimately remembered.” Granted, 808s isn’t Kanye’s greatest album; that honour goes to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the grandiose, maximalist and symphonic hip-hop tour de force that succeeded it. MBDTF synthesised all the prior versions of Kanye into one cohesive, outsized whole, and it was the polar opposite of 808s, an album crafted from the less-is-more mentality that is so mired in sorrow that it seemed Kanye was more so making it for his own cathartic expression than for the enjoyment of his audience. It wouldn’t be the last time, with Kanye’s five-album stretch from the Wyoming sessions earlier this year also apparently produced as a kind of therapy for West. Critics of 808s aren’t totally off the mark. Instrumentally, the album (‘Bad News’) can be too scant for its own good, while Jeezy’s raspy, bellowing and boisterous verse can seem incongruous atop ‘Amazing’s’ mellow synthesisers until you realise the salient fact that the rappers that would sound at home on such progressive production didn’t even exist yet. With hindsight, the album is now in the main assessed far differently, and the most commonly-heard critiques largely miss the point.

For the usually perfectionist Kanye, 808s was more an attempt to evoke feeling than master composition, a feat easily accomplished across what is his most tonally consistent body of work. When the music is good on 808s, it’s really fucking good. For Kanye, or any other artist for that matter, 808s is an unusually heavy album. The album opener, ‘Say You Will’, kicks things off with a glacial, claustrophobic atmosphere that smothers you from the moment you press play. The charismatic flows, comical double entendres and aspirational lyrics we had come to expect from Kanye were conspicuous by their absence. At this point of Kanye’s career, materialistic excesses, too, were just empty vessels that exacerbated his sense of isolation and loneliness. The music videos for 808s reinforced this notion; the animated video for ‘Heartless’ finds Kanye wandering around a city alone at night, while the American Psycho-inspired visual for lead single ‘Love Lockdown’ sees West lamenting the demise of his relationship within the confines of his empty mansion. Lyrically, the album also explores this concept. On ‘Welcome To Heartbreak’, the first of many fruitful collaborations with a Kid Cudi then in the nascency of his own career, backed by mournful baroque instrumentation that sounded more fitting for a Kate Bush album than hip-hop’s then-biggest superstar, Kanye laments the hollow existence of fame without love: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.” Meanwhile, the beautifully simple ‘Street Lights’ remains the most underrated song of Kanye’s career and perhaps the standout cut on the album, an elegiac ballad that vindicates the unheard emotive potential Kanye imagined in the auto-tune technology; the explosively vivid production of ‘Paranoid’ is the kind of soundscape only Kanye could bring to the table; the detached, robotic and pining ‘Love Lockdown’ is a song way ahead of its time and remains one of the greatest songs about failed romance for the Instagram generation; and the deceptively upbeat chug-chugging production on ‘Heartless’ is still mined for inspiration by contemporary rap artists.

As I’ve said previously, all over the world hearts pound with the rhythm of hip-hop, so it is fitting that the opening salvo of this incredibly influential creation (‘Say You Will’) ends with three minutes of nothing but a beating heart carrying on into the lonely night. It was of course a production trick meant to replicate the despondency of Kanye’s pulsing heart, but ten years on it can be construed as hip-hop on life support slowly being coaxed back to vitality. With his eighth studio album in 2006, Nas declared Hip Hop Is Dead, so by the time 808s & Heartbreak rolled round two years later with no real rapping whatsoever, it’s no wonder many hip-hop purists were dubbing it the final nail in the coffin. Little did they know, Kanye had just sparked arguably the most tremendous rejuvenation in the genre’s history. In 2008, the state of hip-hop was incredibly grim: OutKast had parted ways never to be heard from again; a declining Eminem was in the middle of a half-decade long hiatus; Jay-Z’s own return from retirement was lukewarm by his lofty standards; Lil Wayne was about to fall from the mountaintop; and most of mainstream rap seemed to have been curated with the sole intention of capitalising on the irritating trend of ringtone rap. Most of these songs, which only had to be ear-grabbing for 30 seconds to go viral, leaned on gimmicky auto-tune as a crutch. Jay-Z would later release ‘D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)’ in an attempt to rid the genre of this new trend that made rhyming a secondary concern at best. The music offered ephemeral joy for an increasingly attention-deficit and meaning deprived-generation. As much as a guilty pleasure as ‘Kiss Me Thru The Phone’ is, somebody like Soulja Boy would’ve been laughed out of the Def Jam offices in the 90’s; when new technology and the music industry interact, however, curious things happen.

Ever the innovator and ever the open mind, Kanye was paying attention to the growing trend of auto-tune and he was hearing an as-of-yet unexplored potential within its sound. Dismayed that the word ‘pop’ had became such a pejorative term in hip-hop culture, Kanye railed against the army of detractors of auto-tune. It was surely with some delight that Kanye realised the area code of Hawaii, where he was recording the album, was 808. It’s strange moments of ‘coincidence’ like this that embolden you that what you’re doing is right. 808s would not be the last time Kanye embraced a bold and polarising new sound, but unlike with Yeezus, the first time round he had plenty to lose. As a kid, he said in the most Kanye of ways, he thought the colour pink was cool until someone told him “it was gay.” For Kanye, 808s was him at his most maverick and it kickstarted the second phase of his career, where he seemed to move further and further from artistic orthodoxy in his ceaseless efforts to liberate his audience- and indeed himself- from the so-called ‘boundaries’ of expression. Just a couple of weeks before the release of 808s, another Chicago native in Barack Obama was elected as the United States of America’s 44th President. It seemed that America was at last ready to view black men in a different way. Always primed to initiate a paradigm shift, Kanye got the memo ahead of schedule. Without overtly saying so, 808s & Heartbreak was a profoundly important message that made being an emotive black man a commercially viable option in the music industry, and many of your favourite songs and artists wouldn’t exist without it.

The ghost of 808s & Heartbreak looms over everything that has followed in its wake. It’s impossible to fully countenance the impact of 808s on how hip-hop sounds today: even if it doesn’t sound like 808s- and there is plenty of hip-hop that does- there surely must be much, much more that is influenced by its ethos. Its descendants are so numerous that it’s impossible to quantify. It’s not all positive, as the unfortunate side note of 808’s legacy is that its rudimentary aesthetic and relegation of rhyming to the margins has opened the floodgates to an endless stream of untalented imitators chasing the bounty of a now in-trend sound they can’t pull off. To focus on the bad misses the forest for the trees, however. The most obvious example of 808s‘ influence is Drake, whose longtime producer Noah ’40’ Shebib paid tribute to 808s as the album which inspired the sound of Drake’s breakout mixtape, So Far Gone. “I’d even go as far as to say he’s the most influential person as far as a musician that is ever had in my life”, reiterated Drake. The homage is hardly subtle; one of its tracks, ‘Say What’s Real’, even samples ‘ Say You Will.’ ‘Find Your Love’, the biggest single from Drake’s debut album Thank Me Later, was not only produced by Chicago’s finest beatsmith but its distorted percussion and bouncy piano riff was also derivative from the very ground Kanye courageously broke on 808s. To trace the full impact of 808s on Drake would take an entire article; practically his entire brand of solipsistic, lovelorn and egotistical melody-driven pop rap-singing over gloomy beats is an expansion of the versatile template Kanye invented. Moreover, it heavily inspired The Weeknd, who praised it as “one of the most important bodies of work of my generation”, as well as everyone from Lorde, Post Malone, James Blake, Childish Gambino, Travis Scott, Brockhampton, 6LACK, Future, Bon Iver, Joji, Kid Cudi, Frank Ocean and many more within hip-hop and afar. 808s is Lil Yachty’s favourite Kanye album, Juice WRLD’s favourite album of all-time, and a humorous exchange on Ebro Darden’s Hot 97 radio show saw Lil Uzi Vert refusing to freestyle over a 1990’s style DJ Premier beat: “You want me to rap on that?”, he exclaimed with disgust. What he chose to rap over instead? 808s & Heartbreak’s ‘Robocop’ of course.

Influence aside, 808s is more than just slice of history. It is an outstanding piece of musical art in its own right. 808s & Heartbreak is not subversive for subversion’s sake. As is the case for most of his discography, the intent is matched by the execution. To Kanye, artistic boundaries are merely barriers to be broken down. What Kanye understands better than anyone is that hip-hop is not as constrained by sounds, moods and textures as other genres are. It is the malleability of hip-hop that has allowed it to be such a vibrant, dynamic and exciting culture for so long. An artist as authentic as any, sometimes to his detriment, Kanye has always beat to the sound of his own 808, finding frequencies people didn’t even know they wanted, consequently changing the moods, textures and aesthetics of music and culture at large forever. 808s is where Kanye’s perspectives on art, music, architecture and fashion coalesced into one unapologetically honest, minimalist portrait that exposed the tortured psyche behind his rampant, restless ego. Do not confuse minimalism for lack of adventure. After all, to try hard is to die hard. A topsy-turvy 2018 has seen Kanye only sporadically capturing his old genius, producing legitimate album-of-the-year contenders in Pusha T’s Daytona and his collaborative effort with Kid Cudi (Kids See Ghosts) while underwhelming on his own solo output (ye), and putting his foot in his mouth in more damaging ways than ever during a frankly bizarre acquaintance with President Donald Trump. When hip-hop reached its midlife crisis, it came out of the slump with an unlikely hero in 808s & Heartbreak. It remains to be seen if Kanye will bounce back from his own, and how. Regardless, his legacy as the 21st century’s most influential musical mind will remain intact. With a few simple strokes, Kanye broadened the sonic and emotional palette of hip-hop forever, and with it the genre’s potential as a vehicle for self-expression and ability to infiltrate foreign cultural spaces exploded tenfold. Ten years on, it is worth celebrating 808s & Heartbreak as a truly special album that has stood the test of time. A decade of 808s sitting on every sadboy rapper and trap music producer’s bedside table as hip-hop’s new Bible has led the genre into quite stale territory once again, just like in 2008. In the flawed but brilliant brain of Kanye, hopefully another masterpiece is brewing. The next revolution in hip-hop may well depend on it.