Kanye West’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ Was As Much An Ending As It Was A Beginning

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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.

Much hay is often made about how influential 808s was on the ensuing decade of R&B, pop, and hip-hop — and deservedly so. Drake, whose global popularity continues to reach unbelievable heights a decade into his career, arguably wouldn’t be the record-smashing star he is today without the 808s-lite of his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone; nearly every proceeding album in his catalog thus far has similarly borrowed from 808s‘ dark, rippling melodies and petty airing of grievances. Same goes for The Weeknd, as well as every other post-Drake rapper and crooner effectively turning out a copy of a copy and presenting it as aesthetic.

But these canny facsimiles have often provided a reflecting pool-level depth of reflection, their emotional palettes consisting of petty purples, bitter post-breakup grays, and not much else. Even Post Malone — an astronomically successful young person who is also the only other artist besides Drake who seems capable of selling records in 2018 — elicits echoes of 808s with every pop-fogged cloud of ennui he expels. A decade on, all this wallowing comes across as little more than, well, wallowing, and if Kanye’s own emotional conveyances on 808s came across as curious revelations upon release, not all of them have aged well since.

For every deliciously sad slice of melancholia — the wavering “Street Lights” or the punchy “Paranoid” — there are bitter diatribes verging on total overkill. On the histrionic and ridiculous “Robocop,” Kanye preens and seethes through thickets of Autotune and Disney strings, presumably addressing ex-fiancé Alexis Phifer (the breakup of said relationship acting as one of a few 808s catalysts) as “just a stupid LA girl.” Then there’s the penultimate track “See You In My Nightmares,” an airless duet between Kanye and Lil Wayne soundtracked by MIDI-sounding horns that eventually congeals into an ouroboros of resentment. “In the end, it’s still so lonely,” Kanye croaks over the morose bounce of “Heartless,” a moment of reflection shattered when he later sneers, “You’ll never find nobody better than me.”

But the poisonous lashing-out that consumes so much of 808s is occasionally undercut by different shades of vulnerability, too. The swirling “Welcome To Heartbreak” finds Kanye evoking Click-in-miniature-form, rhapsodizing about missed family gatherings before revealing nakedly, “Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?” “I just wanna be a real boy,” he moans over the barely-there piano and squeals of screams on “Pinocchio Story,” unintentionally evoking the perpetual childhood and similarly fame-ravaged life of the late Michael Jackson (who, at the time, was a huge fan of 808s). Then there’s “Coldest Winter” — a towering epic of grief delivered through an interpolation of Tears For Fears’ 1983 song “Memories Fade,” concerning the passing of West’s mother Donda the year previous. “Goodbye my friend / I will never love again,” he yells into the void, directly addressing his pain with startling finality and decisiveness.

A few months prior to 808s‘ release, Kanye embarked on the Glow In The Dark tour, a massive spectacle involving talking spaceships and a gargantuan setlist; when I caught the New York City tour stop, he concluded a brief run-through of Late Registration‘s “Hey Mama” by turning the house lights up and sitting on the edge of the stage with his head in his hands, while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blared through Madison Square Garden. During the Yeezus show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, he laid out on his back while belting out “Coldest Winter.” In the controversy-drenched years since these public events, Kanye’s been branded by many as someone who’s definitely lost some greater battle — but bookended by these displays of body language, the public grief of 808s simply comes across as defeated, as well as possibly the last time that being able to understand where Kanye was coming from seemed within reach.