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808s and Heartbreak: A Review and Retrospective Look

Written by Alex Kehn


Album art: Virgil Abloh


Background:

Following the release of his smash hit album Graduation, Kanye West's life began to take a very unfortunate turn. If you know Kanye's music at all, you know that his mother, Donda West, was one of his biggest inspirations. Donda was a prevalent force in Kanye's musical career from the very beginning, helping her son to achieve his dreams and aspirations as an artist. Unfortunately, shortly following the release of Graduation, Donda West passed away due to cosmetic surgery complications. Kanye was absolutely crushed upon his mother's passing, and even worse, it was the first of many tragic events that were to come in late 2007 and early 2008 for Kanye West.


Months later, Kanye West and his fiancee at the time, Alexis Phifer, had gone through a separation. Kanye and Alexis had been together since 2002, so when the relationship had come to an end, the pair had been together for nearly six years. Losing both his mother and fiancee within such a short time frame put Kanye into a spiral of hopelessness. Many people would not be able to cope with such immense tragedy, especially within such a short period of time, but Kanye West found a way to push forward and use his trauma as fuel for his upcoming fourth studio album, 808s and Heartbreak.


The third and final aspect of Kanye's upcoming album was his difficulty adapting to stardom. Kanye West had always imagined being a superstar, but he neglected to consider the fact that it is lonely at the top. Once Kanye had reached superstar status, he came to realize that stardom is not quite what he was expecting. Along with the loss of his mother and his fiancee, Kanye felt unbearable loneliness, almost as if he had nobody important left in his life. Once again, however, Kanye West powered through his struggles with loneliness, heartbreak, and loss, using his pain as power for 808s and Heartbreak.


Upon the release of 808s and Heartbreak on November 24th, 2008, Kanye had poured every negative emotion he had into his album, leaving the situation as a new and completely changed person. In an interview post 808s and Heartbreak release, Kanye stated "808s came from suffering multitude losses at the same time—it’s like losing an arm and a leg and having to find a way to keep walking through it". 808s and Heartbreak represents a step away from the traditional Kanye West sound and style, a style that would never return again. 808s and Heartbreak marks a new era for Kanye West.


Review


808s and Heartbreak is Kanye's most unique album by far. Lyrically, the entirety of Kanye's fourth studio album can be summed up into three subsections: loss, heartbreak, and loneliness. Welcome to Heartbreak, the album's second track, focuses on Kanye's existential crisis related to loneliness and feeling lost. The final track on 808s and Heartbreak, entitled Pinocchio Story also mainly focuses on Kanye's inability to adapt to being on top in the music industry, even including Kanye pleading to be "a real boy" again instead of a superstar. Loss is shown on tracks such as Street Lights and Bad News where Kanye is attempting to cope with the losses in his life, although he is struggling to move on. Heartbreak is the most prevalent theme throughout 808s and Heartbreak. Tracks such as Love Lockdown, RoboCop, and Heartless all focus on Kanye's lost relationship with his ex-fiancee Alexis Phifer and how he is reacting to and coping with his heartbreak.


The production on 808s and Heartbreak is unlike anything Kanye has done before or since. It is truly unique. Simplistic synth waves coupled with orchestral choruses and, of course, the Roland TR-808 drum machine that the album is partially named after. The distorted and electronic sound present throughout 808s and Heartbreak evokes emotion through the manipulation of pitch, a concept Kanye West called "heartbreak". The production on Kanye's fourth studio album was intended to demonstrate Kanye's mental state and emotions. The distortions present throughout every beat lets the listener essentially feel what Kanye was going through over the course of 808s and Heartbreak's production and development.


808s and Heartbreak is not without flaws, however. I thoroughly enjoyed this album, but it took me numerous listens to understand what Kanye was trying to do with 808s and Heartbreak. If you are unfamiliar with 808s and Heartbreak and are expecting it to sound like Kanye's previous works, then you will be sorely mistaken. 808s and Heartbreak is a complete anomaly in Kanye's discography, and as a result, the listener might not entirely enjoy the album upon their first few listens, or at all for that matter. The autotune throughout Kanye's fourth LP can come off as abrasive from time to time, but once you train your ear to hear what Kanye is trying to convey on each track, the album is truly fantastic and very easy to listen to. Understandably, however, some people will never get the appeal of 808s and Heartbreak.


Legacy


808s and Heartbreak inspired many modern rappers and trap artists such as Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott, who both have gone on record to state that 808s and Heartbreak is one of their favourite albums of all time, and a hug influence to their modern trap style. Without 808s and Heartbreak, there would be no starting point for trap music, and there also would not be artists like Future, Young Thug, and Travis Scott as a result.


Conclusion


In conclusion, 808s and Heartbreak is an album with a very unique style that Kanye has never persued since. Despite this being one of Kanye West's most polarizing albums, it resonates with me and with many others as one of Kanye's strongest projects to date. Overall, I would rate this album 8/10. Check it out if you haven't heard it yet, it might become one of your personal favourite Kanye projects.

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