808s & Heartbreak
Perhaps the best comparison for 808s & Heartbreak is when Bob Dylan went electric in 1965. Like Dylan, Kanye didn’t need the fame or credibility: His third (and third multiplatinum) album, 2007’s Graduation, had come out only a year earlier, and he’d already established himself as the kind of visionary who could steer the conversation while hovering somewhere above it. Like Dylan, the new direction made him a genius to some and a traitor to others—a split that highlighted both the divisiveness of his art and the conservative streak in a scene where the imperative to keep it real can be as stifling as it is comforting. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, Dylan sang—a line, incidentally, from the first electric song of his that most people would have heard (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”). But you’d have to have a pretty good internal compass to bet your future on where that wind’s gonna take you.
It isn’t hip-hop in the conventional sense. At least, it certainly wasn’t when it came out in 2008. But in the intervening years, the album has become a blueprint for an entirely new wave of rap: introverted, melodic, melancholy, confessional—the sound of Drake and The Weeknd on down to Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert. His pain is real (“Coldest Winter”), but his arrogance is, too (“RoboCop”). He recognizes the transitory nature of life (“Street Lights”), but it doesn’t stop him from holding a grudge (“Heartless”). And no matter how alienated fame makes him feel (“Welcome to Heartbreak”), he can’t quite give it up (“Amazing”).
Kanye says he started exploring melody because that’s how teachers taught concepts to him when he was a kid—learning through song. And for all its robotic austerity, 808s is a kind of kids’ album, or at least one that taps into the rush of unsorted emotions that comes with youth. If he runs all its tracks through Auto-Tune, it isn’t just to get the notes right, but to convey the reality of what it means to try to feel everything at once: You go numb.