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How Kanye West channeled his heartache into a masterpiece with '808s & Heartbreak'

Preezy Brown

 // Nov 26, 2018

Google // Free use

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At the beginning of fall 2007, Kanye West appeared to be on top of the world. Weeks prior, the Louis Vuitton Don pulled off one of the greatest upsets in rap history when his third studio album, Graduation, outsold gangster rap overlord 50 Cent's own third solo set, Curtis, effectively dethroning the G-Unit general as the genre's most captivating figure. The moment was a triumphant and celebratory one with Kanye basking in the glory of climbing the mountaintop in the face of doubt, rejection and scrutiny, while adding to his legacy with another body of work both fans and critics deemed as an instant classic. That elation would quickly be replaced by grief and despair on November 10, 2007 when it was announced that Dr. Donda West, Kanye's mother, had passed away due to complications from cosmetic surgery. The death of Donda, who Kanye had famously honored with his Late Registration cut "Hey Mama," and the fallout from his split with fiancee Alexis Phifer, would leave the rapper emotionally unhinged and unsure of how to convey and channel his feelings creatively.

While Kanye had previously shared plans to cap off his college-themed series with a fourth studio album, tentatively titled Good Ass Job, the tragedy and turmoil engulfing his life would cause him to change course with the rapper deciding to instead record 808s & Heartbreak, an album that would change the rap landscape forever. Unable to emote effectively through rapping, Kanye took a page out of the book of T-Pain and others, singing the entire album using autotune, a move that was met with a mixed reception. Announcing the release of the album at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye performed "Love Lockdown," a single from 808s & Heartbreak that showcased his newfound style. Co-produced by himself and Jeff Bhasker, "Lock Lockdown" was the most polarizing record of Kanye's career, and an acquired taste for longtime fans and other members of the rap community. In spite of the tepid critical reception, "Love Lockdown" furthered Kanye's streak of hit singles, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and setting the stage for 808s & Heartbreak's arrival.



Released on November 24, 2008, 808s & Heartbreak debuted atop the charts, giving Kanye his fourth consecutive No. 1 album. Similar to previous efforts, the creation of 808s & Heartbreak consisted of multiple moving parts with collaborators new and old lending their talents to what would be the final product. The most integral piece to helping Kanye realize his vision was Jeff Bhasker; an Indian-American producer, songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, whom Kanye met while Bhasker filled in as a keyboardist on his "Glow In The Dark Tour." A creative kinship was quickly struck between the two with Kanye tapping Bhasker, who manned the keyboards for the entirety of 808s & Heartbreak, to help write and produce material for the album. In addition to co-producing five songs, including the singles "Love Lockdown," "Amazing," and "Paranoid," Bhasker also contributed backing vocals to "Welcome to Heartbreak" and "RoboCop," making him an unsung, yet essential star in the making of the album. Bhasker's partnership with Kanye would span four albums with Bhasker's name popping up in the credits for the subsequent _Ye releases such as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, and the GOOD Music compilation, Cruel Summer.

Another invaluable piece to the puzzle that is 808s & Heartbreak was Kid Cudi, who made the leap from the blogs to the majors through his work on the album. Making a name for himself among tastemakers and hipsters with his 2008 mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, the Ohio native and NYC transplant was summoned to Hawaii by Kanye, who was introduced to Cudi's music through then-manager Plain Pat. From there, they worked on 808s & Heartbreak. Co-writing several songs on the album, including the breakout single, "Heartless," Cudi was billed as the unofficial costar of the album. With standout appearances on the tracks "Welcome to Heartbreak" and "Paranoid," 808s and Heartbreak launched Kid Cudi's name and voice into the public's consciousness and led to him inking a record deal with GOOD Music. He would release his double-platinum certified debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, the following year. Much of the acclaim and fanfare surrounding 808s & Heartbreak may have initially been attributed to Kanye's genius as a producer and curator. But, it has since been noted that Cudi was ultimately the straw that helped stir the drink, as his style is believed to be a direct influence on the making of the album. This notion has even been voiced by Kanye himself.



808s & Heartbreak may feature Kanye as the centerpiece. But, it also includes guest spots from a few of his favorite collaborators, resulting in some of the most memorable moments on the album. After Kanye dropped a guest verse on Jeezy's 2008 single "Put On," the trap star returned the favor with an appearance on "Amazing." This was the first song recorded for the album, according to an interview with Bhasker. "That was actually the first song [we did for the album.] I brought the beat and the music. I started the idea and [West] was like, 'That's hot.' [...] So I brought that music and he brought his editorial to it and then wrote the melody, and said we're gonna get Jeezy on it. We were searching for sort of a tribal-ish drum sounds and that just came out. It's a very simple and dark sounding piano figure." On "See You in My Nightmares," Lil Wayne makes his second consecutive appearance on a Kanye album, tackling the hook and tacking on a verse to anchor the track, while English vocalist and musician Mr. Hudson pops up on "Paranoid," his first feature performance as a member of the GOOD family.

However, even with the additional firepower on 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye is the unquestioned star of the show. The producer-turned-rapper delivered a string of impassioned performances atop an array of soundscapes powered by drums from the Roland TR-808, hence the title of the album. From the outset of 808s & Heartbreak's introductory cut, "Say You Will," Kanye sheds his creative inhibitions in a manner rarely seen from a bonafide rap star, crooning lyrics fueled by heartache on top of a minimalist production that's complimented by keys, violins and strings. The track would inspire Drake to tackle the composition for his iconic "Say You Will" freestyle on his 2009 mixtape, So Far Gone. 808s & Heartbreak truly hits its stride with "Welcome to Heartbreak," on which Kanye touches on the emptiness that fame and success can bring. "My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs," Kanye croons, a lyric that proves prophetic given that in the decade since the song's release, he's become both a husband and a father himself, and points to a space in time where that lack of a family unit made his achievements feel futile in comparison.



One of the constant themes on 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye's dealings with the opposite sex, which are documented on "Heartless," an up-tempo cut that's one of the few tracks on the album that captures Kanye rapping the verses in his traditional vocal tone, as opposed to singing the entirety of the track. Peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, "Heartless," which revolves around a man-eating woman, was the biggest hit released from 808s & Heartbreak and remains one of Kanye's most popular singles to date. "Paranoid" and "RoboCop" find Kanye penning open letters to an obsessive and distrustful lover. These songs are among the more enticing grooves on the album, whereas "Bad News" tackles the topic of being on the wrong side of infidelity. Tumbling tribal drums and distortion set the template for "Street Light," an introspective offering that finds Kanye reflecting on his current station in life and where the journey will take him. "Let me know, do I still got time to grow?" Yeezy ponders, delivering a selection with a sentiment that resonates universally. "Coldest Winter," an impassioned number that doubles as a farewell ode to his mother and ex-fiancee, finds Kanye closing the curtains in epic fashion. It stands as one of the more heartfelt moments on 808s & Heartbreak and an appropriate climax to the album.

In comparison to Kanye's previous three albums, 808s & Heartbreak was a moderate success. It moved 1.7 million albums in the U.S., Kanye's lowest sales tally at that time. The album also put a pause on Yeezy's dominance at the Grammy Awards. West's sole nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group was for "Amazing." This made 808s & Heartbreak Kanye's first album to fail at taking home an award for Best Rap Album. However, with the passage of time, it can be argued that 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye's most impactful body of work to date. The album helped kick open the door for more emotional-based content to be accepted in rap. College Dropout may have made it cool to rock your pink polo with pride, and Graduation's overwhelming success put gangster rap on the brink of being obsolete. But, 808s & Heartbreak helped spawn an entire generation of rap artists that are equally comfortable belting out melodies, as they are spitting a sick verse. Without Kanye breaking the mold with 808s & Heartbreak; the likes of Drake, Future, Childish Gambino, Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, XXXTentacion, Lil Peep, Trippie Redd, GoldLink, Gunna and many others wouldn't have the free range to spill their inner-most thoughts with the level of vulnerability they're afforded without sacrificing both their artistic and street cred.

Ten years after its release, 808s & Heartbreak is deemed as one of the most important albums in 21st century music. It solidified Kanye as not only a dope rap artist and producer, but a true maverick and visionary.


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