Trigger Warning: Mention of suicide
Hip-hop in the early to mid-2000s was… interesting. With few exceptions, hip-hop fans were becoming increasingly sceptical of the genre’s ability to last into the 21st century, as the gritty nature of 90s hip-hop was left behind by the untimely deaths of many top stars and the genre tried to become more agreeable to radio, driven by new material interests (due to producers like Puff Daddy becoming rap stars themselves – the business and art mindsets became one, and the art suffered for it).
Jay-Z and, effectively his producing apprentice at first, Kanye West represented something of a shift from this – Jay-Z stuck to his gangster rap style (even if he rapped over samples from Annie in the late ‘90s) and West entered hip-hop with a clear vision for change, starting with his Christian links, then the orchestral edge of Late Registration, and finally the techno and disco influences that popularised Daft Punk on Graduation.
Another shift occurred in 2007-2008. The death of West’s mother, Donda West, after complications in plastic surgery (that she only got due to West being in the limelight, prompting insecurity from the press coverage) and, shortly afterwards, a breakup with fiancé and fashion designer Alexis Phifer evidently shook West’s emotional foundations, and suddenly his music moved to fit this emotional pain. 808s and Heartbreak remain West’s most depressive record – unless you include his unreleased 10-minute rant over a piano loop in the leaked track ‘Never See Me Again’, which was allegedly a planned suicide note that even used samples from the Japanese pop star Yukiko Okada, who also tragically committed suicide at age 18.
808s ushered in a new generation for hip-hop almost single-handedly. Whilst it would really be Drake (and to an extent, Kid Cudi) who would put the nail in the coffin of really popularising the emotional RnB style of hip-hop, it was certainly West who pioneered it with the record which, at the time of release, was seen as a misfire in an otherwise spotless career. Opening with a heart monitor, undoubtedly a reference to the passing of his mother, West’s record sets its tone and holds onto it throughout, with the poppiest tracks (‘Paranoid’, with that impossibly great techno keyboard riff, and ‘Robocop’ with its beautiful sample from the score for Alfonso Cuaron’s Great Expectations film adaptation) still succumbing to West’s moodiness in a way that services the record a great deal. Much like Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’, these tracks have a pop sound that is displaced by grim lyricism.
“808s ushered in a new generation for hip-hop almost single handedly.”
The spaciness of the sparse drums make the record feel simultaneously overwhelmingly large and familiar: there is a certain harshness to them – they have a digitalisation that sounds extremely 2000s but ages surprisingly well. It’s easy to argue that West may have perfected his romantic blues hip-hop two years after 808s with ‘Runaway’, but the latter doesn’t exist without this progression beforehand. Tracks like ‘Street Lights’ (my personal favourite from the record, it is intensely moving – the choir is stunning) and ‘Coldest Winter’ are seminal hip-hop songs, and even the initially deleted bonus ‘Pinocchio Story’ is a heart-wrenching account of life in the spotlight and how much more difficult it has made, and still makes, West’s mental health issues.
808s is a crucial album to hip-hop evolution, inspiring the emo-rap that would become huge and move the genre away from the pop appeal that had been crippling it towards a more open and emotive style.
808s and Heartbreak is owned by Roc-A-Fella Records. Listen to ‘Street Lights’ below: