Before we talk about what 808s & Heartbreak represented the beginning of, let’s look at what it marked the ending of. Revisiting Kanye West‘s fourth album ten years after its initial release, it’s remarkable how deliberately paced it sounds, from the metronomic morphine drip that opens “Say You Will” to the stormy, stomping synth-pop of “Coldest Winter.” It’s a record that, musically, takes its time with little regard to who’s listening, with tempos that crawl through muddy electronic textures and extended, gripe-laden outros over chintzy string arrangements. The peppiest-sounding song resembles something Andrew Lloyd Webber — Broadway’s practical king of bloat — would conceive of in his sleep, and the “bonus track” is a poorly-sourced six-minute live recording consisting of free-associative wallowing and unnerving crowd noise.
Previous to 808s, Kanye was no stranger to runtime-testing largesse and patience-testing tempos; his 2004 debut The College Dropout ended with 12 minutes of self-mythologizing rambling over “Last Call,” the following year’s Late Registration was an album-length study in unquestioned sonic opulence, and smack dab in the middle of 2007’s blockbuster Graduation was the trudging, obnoxious “Drunk And Hot Girls,” centered around a decaying sample of Can’s “Sing Swan Song.” Even though Kanye retained some of his bloated tendencies post-808s, chaos increasingly dominated his music: the on-a-dime proggy-ness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus‘ gnarled car-crash music, the glitchy unpredictability of The Life Of Pablo‘s damaged-cassette unpredictability, and Ye‘s tossed-off mercurial miserabilia all came across as loud, bright, and in-your-face—all elements that 808s resolutely does not possess.
A difficult and selfish work of art that digs its heels in with stubbornness at nearly every turn, 808s was a commercial success in spite of itself, which speaks to Kanye’s culture-dominating stature at the time of its release. Its predecessor, Graduation, sold nearly a million copies in its first week and, after a much-hyped release-date face-off between the two, effectively killed 50 Cent’s career; 808s did about half as much sales-wise its first week of release with 450,145 copies pushed, numbers that regardless could be considered very successful in a recession-hobbled economy and a music industry perpetually facing declining fortunes. Of Kanye’s post-808s output, only Twisted Fantasy fared slightly better with 496,000 units sold; this year’s Ye did a paltry 85,000 in pure album sales.
Even as 808s captured Kanye approaching the height of his creative powers, the 808s era also marked the beginning of the end when it came to his pull as a mass-appeal pop figure. His notorious confrontation with Taylor Swift at the following year’s MTV Video Music Awards — a pop-cultural instance so titanically impactful for the following decade that it’s practically the millennial version of the O.J. trial — destroyed his public image permanently, the following decade spent alternately digging himself a deeper hole and shouting to whoever’s still around that the hole’s actually much better than anyone else’s. The moody multitudes that Kanye continues to contain — alternating between self-pity and apologia, misplaced benevolence and unmistakable recalcitrance, or all four at once if the mood strikes him — can all be traced back to 808s, a record that adopts the maxim of living miserably as the best revenge.