The impact of ‘808s & Heartbreak’ on modern-day rap

Courtesy of Jason Persse via Flickr.

Kanye West is hailed in the hip hop community as one of the greatest rappers of all time. A genius. West has been putting out masterpieces of albums since his 2004 debut “The College Dropout.” Each new creation encompasses his characteristically visionary and immersive production, and his uncanny ability to master any type of flow and attitude, from melodic and touching like on “Hey Mama” to bold and biting like on “Gorgeous.” Name an achievement or milestone in the rapping game, and West has probably surpassed it, or simply created it in the first place. While I need not continue describing the prowess of someone so widely recognized for their musical ability, one particular commendation that West receives is how influential he has been in shaping the current state of rap. I always understood the distinction of his beat-producing ability and sample selection—however I never knew what specific aspects of rap he affected, only that he served as an inspiration to many modern-day artists.

         To speculate his influence on modern rappers, I listened to his album “808s and Heartbreak,” which is considered one of the most influential rap albums ever. Released on Nov. 24, 2008, “808s” is West’s fourth studio album, following the culminating album of West’s Graduation trilogy, “Graduation.” 808s marks a stark departure from the mood and tone of his previous work; while the earlier album is generally celebratory and hopeful, the following project is moody and atmospheric, portraying the mind of someone who is struggling. The 2008 release was his first after the passing of his mother, Donda, who played a tremendously large role in his life, considering she was a single mother. “808s” was West’s way of dealing with his internalized sadness, not only from his mother’s passing, but also from other aspects of his tumultuous personal life. 

After listening to the entire album, and reconsidering the state of rap today, I can say its impact is undeniable. Context is extremely important whenever you analyze the impact of someone’s work, and West’s is no exception. As someone growing up during the harder, more gritty rapping style of the ’90s, exemplified by groups such as N.W.A. and the Wu-Tang Clan, and individuals such as Nas and Tupac, West bridged the gap between two different worlds. Because of him, rap transitioned from something niche and hard-hitting, to something more approachable and appealing to a wider audience. Not everyone could relate and empathize with the struggles of having to sell drugs or resort to gang violence, but almost anyone could relate to losing someone you love and dealing with the consequences of such a loss. On his song “Heartless,” Kanye West seized our attention with his break-up story and the feelings of illegitimacy that stemmed from it. Using his masterful story-telling abilities, West describes the downfall of his relationship, and the emotions he dealt with in the process.

         The somber subject matter such as that on “Heartless” exemplifies one of the most influential aspects of this album, namely its emotional tone and vulnerability. In the era in which West grew up, having a tough reputation was tantamount. Maintaining this edge, this chip-on-your-shoulder image, was emphasized strongly. While there are notable exceptions (“Changes” by Tupac could be one), this type of personality was the status quo, often times expressed in the songs of that era. However, West wasn’t content to stay in that box; instead, he demonstrates a meaningful emotional vulnerability on this album, the likes of which had not been seen before in mainstream rap. Rather than put on a brave face, West details the emotional weaknesses he battled and the toll that these aspects of his life took on him. On “Welcome to Heartbreak,” West discusses how his friends’ lives were developing and deepening in typical ways, while his was staying the same, not evolving. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs/ He said his daughter got a brand new report card, card/ And all I got was a brand new sports car.”

         From discussing how he couldn’t handle the stress of his godsister’s wedding, to expressing how life seemed listless and without direction on “Street Lights,” West shows us a part of himself and his mental state that few other rappers of the time would have had the courage to do. We wouldn’t have songs like “Marvin’s Room,” or artists like Juice Wrld without this album. Kanye West paved the way for people to be more expressive and honest in their music, allowing them to share the more intimate details of their lives. Given how this general theme is so prevalent in modern rap, we owe West a great amount of credit.

         Closely tied with this idea of vulnerability, West revolutionized the structure of rap songs with “808s & Heartbreak.” As opposed to spitting over a beat for the entirety of a song, West added more melodic, singing elements. On “Amazing,” West and Jeezy exchange verses between a chorus about West’s desire to be seen as an upstanding figure, a symbol of power in other people’s eyes. This song structure fundamentally changed how rap would evolve in the coming years, representing a crucial reason why the genre has become far more widespread and mainstream.

         It is possible that people can identify with singing more closely than with rapping, as it is a more familiar avenue, and with this element more prevalent in rap songs, more and more people have grown to enjoy the genre and what it has to offer. So many of the biggest rappers in the game currently mix rap verses with singing choruses, including Drake, Juice Wrld and J.Cole. This melodic element is crucial to their success, and adds variety and freshness to their songs.

         The other extremely important aspect of West’s melodic emphasis, and possibly the most concretely impactful, was his use of autotune. The technique was not widely-used or hip to the rap genre prior to this album, but would soon grow to be one of the most prevalent and significant aspects of the game. Most obviously heard on “Love Lockdown,” West modifies his voice to convey the shaky, hectic feeling he experienced due to the termination of his relationship then fiancee Alexis Phifer. Additionally, the autotune amplifies his sound and fits it with the beat. Because of Kanye’s style on “808s,” artists grew to see autotune as a way to meld their voices and fit them with many different kinds of moods and beats. It wasn’t a cop-out or something to be ashamed of, but a skill to conquer.

         Without this album, we wouldn’t have artists such as Travis Scott, who owe large parts of their careers to the mastery of autotune. It opens the way for so many new possibilities in music that previously had not been adequately explored. The immense creativity of songs like “90210” wouldn’t have been possible without West paving the way for this type of track.

         Through “808s and Heartbreak” West welcomed the rap game into a new world—one of greater intimacy, vulnerability and creativity. Without this album, who knows whether the genre would have grown the way that it did. The current state of rap would undoubtedly be incredibly different. With musicians as impactful as West, I often find it hard to pick out their precise influence on the industry. While an in-depth listen to “808s” provided some clarity, often the best way to analyze the reach of these artists is to simply consider the evolution and typifying aspects of the modern style, knowing that the way things are is as good of an indication of someone’s genius as anything.

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