Two devastating personal events – the death of his mother and the end of his six-year relationship with fiancée Alexis Phifer – fueled a dramatic change of direction for Kanye West on his fourth studio album, 808s & Heartbreak. Already known as a groundbreaking artist, his decision to dispense entirely with rapping was to prove his boldest move yet. A self-confessed “bad singer”, Kanye compensated for any vocal failings by heavily processing his voice with Auto-Tune, channeling his acute pain into a new form of glacial pop-soul.
Opener “Coldest Winter” deals harrowingly with the loss of his mother, who’d passed away due to complications with cosmetic surgery: “Goodbye my friend, I won’t ever love again/Never again,” he sings, while the bitter aftermath of his break-up with Phifer is addressed on the likes of “Robocop” and “Heartless.” “Welcome To Heartbreak,” meanwhile, was a distraught missive from a man coming to terms with the shallowness of his life, his dreams of success beginning to turn into a nightmare: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs/… Look back on my life and my life gone/Where did I go wrong?”
West chose to pair these raw, uncompromising and bleak lyrics with a production characterized by minimalist, harrowing synths offset with stark brutalist beats (generated by the titular Roland TR-808 drum machine, a mainstay of early 80s hip-hop and synth-pop) alongside various offbeat additions such as taiko drums and monk choirs. The desolate contents of the album were perfectly encapsulated by its minimal artwork, which depicted a deflated and broken heart on a spare grey background.
Recorded in California and Hawaii in a mere three weeks, 808s & Heartbreak was the first of Kanye’s albums to feature his “creative CEO” style of recording, boasting over five co-writers on nearly every song. The album met with mixed reviews when released, on November 24, 2008, with critics initially scornful of the perceived over-reliance on Auto-Tune and the apparent self-pitying nature of the lyrics. The album proved to be another big hit for Kanye West, though, as it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 450,145 copies in its first week.
Greater still was 808s & Heartbreak’s lasting influence on contemporary music. Its astute blend of R&B and hip-hop tropes, paired with heartfelt, emotionally vulnerable lyrics, reshaped the rap and R&B landscapes, profoundly influencing a slew of musicians such as Drake, Young Thug, The Weeknd, and Frank Ocean in its wake. The emotionally raw album may not be the easiest listen among Kanye West’s work, but it is arguably the most innovative and influential album of his career.