On November 12 2007, Dr. Donda West died. She was a professor of English literature, published author, and the chairwoman of a national literacy foundation targeted at black youth. She was also Kanye West’s mum.
Kanye loved his mother. A lot. He rapped about her more than once, writing “Hey Mama” for her. He premiered it on Oprah, pulling his mother onstage while he rapped “Come on mommy just dance with me, let the whole world see your dancing feet”.
He was not ready for her to go.
Kanye responded by doing what he did best – making music. The album he created was 808s and Heartbreak, and it changed popular music forever.
The album was barely hip-hop. Kanye sang – his voice sometimes distorted, sometimes clear, always pained. Synths and drum machines to create an impersonal bleakness, above which he nominally wailed about a recent break up.
Opener “Say You Will” flickers into existence. Kanye pleads with an ex-lover to stay, then disappears, letting the song’s cold electronica continue unabated. But the album really begins with the second track – “Welcome to Heartbreak”. A droning, unvarying melody is sung above a lamenting cello, while an 808 drum machine pounds away relentlessly, never letting Kanye breathe. And what is he not-breathing about? “Chased the good life my whole life long. Look back on my life and my life gone – where did I go wrong?”
The album basically continues in this vein, except that from here on in, Kanye proves his true genius as a pop songwriter. The melodies on “Heartless” and “Robocop” swerve up and down like Paul McCartney writing synthpop, “Love Lockdown” and “Amazing” use rhythm and texture to evoke what Kanye called “Thom Yorke in the strip club”.
The album is a great demonstration of Kanye’s true musical gift – layering. As a child he used video game programmes to layer sounds on top of each other, thus creating music. Normally this means grandiosity, but on 808s his layering is sparse – a synth, an 808, his voice, and then maybe some strings or a brief piano. Nothing more. But it works, because every instrument plays a complete and total earworm.
But hooks and layering are not new. What 808s introduced was a downbeat, introspective type of hip-hop – it made it okay for rappers to talk about their feelings. Simultaneously, West revolutionised autotune, distorting and dehumanising his voice to blend with the cold electronica surrounding him. The emotional effect was devastating. The cultural effect, revolutionary.
808s paved the way for Drake, Lorde, and the (hugely popular) genre of trap-soul. Its somber introspection still infests present pop hits.
But influence does not equate to quality. So, does 808s and Heartbreak actually hold up? In short, yes. It’s not perfect – the opener and closer are both lacklustre, providing little sense of overture or climax. Several lyrics are deeply silly, and Kanye’s heavy autotune – revolutionary as it was – sounds somewhat dated to a 2018 ear.
But for track after track the album grips and grieves – this is dance music to cry to. It’s clearly a deeply personal work – paying tribute to the 80s pop of Kanye’s youth while providing an emotional bloodletting amidst terrible loss. But while Kanye West makes music for himself, he always makes music he would want to listen to. 808s is never a chore. It is sometimes joyous, sometimes mournful, always captivating.
Aziz Anzari tells of visiting Kanye’s house – finding him blaring 808s on his own hifi system. Stunned by the man playing his own music for himself, Aziz asked why. Kanye replied “these beats are dope”.
That about says it all.