2008's "808s & Heartbreak" is certainly far from Kanye West's best-loved album, but it may have had a more widespread effect on hip-hop as a whole than any of his "classic" albums.
In 2014, it's no secret that where Kanye West goes, the rest of hip-hop follows. Starting with him and Just Blaze making "chipmunk soul" a hot sound in Roc-A-Fella's prime, Mr. West's musical output has always been a pretty good gauge of where hip-hop is headed, whether it be his early mantra of having a "Benz and a backpack" or his drill-invigorating remix of Chief Keef's "I Don't Like." But in a career filled with moments of trendsetting and breaking the mold, one era and album stand out as far more influential and forward-thinking than anything West's ever done.
Though fans regularly butt heads about the "best" Kanye album, 808s & Heartbreak is rarely (if ever) included in the equation. And why should it be? It sticks out like a sore thumb in West's discography, the lone, alien outlier among certifiable hip-hop masterpieces. Most critics and fans wrote off the album as an emotional low-point between two better albums (Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), but nearly six years after its release, 808s & Heartbreak's greatest triumph has been its reverberations around the hip-hop and R&B landscape.
A piece of art doesn't have to be "great" to inspire many others of its kind. We're not here to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of 808s & Heartbreak, but rather the sea change its arrival heralded. In 2008, auto-tune was still the stuff of T-Pain and "Lollipop"-era Lil Wayne, a technology most rappers wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. In 2008, singing and/or rapping about your deepest emotions was not a commercially viable strategy for selling records. In 2008, it was very hard to find minimal, back-to-basics production amid all of the state-of-the-art Swizz Beatz, DJ Toomp and Drumma Boy beats that were in demand. But most of all, in 2008, it seemed impossible for a Canadian who sings love songs to run the rap game.
Yes, Drake is the most obvious disciple of the school of 808s & Heartbreak, even going so far as to call Kanye the "most influential person" on his sound about six months after the album was released. But beyond The Boy, even artists who in past lives would've most likely been singing-averse street rappers (Keef, Lil Durk, Rich Homie Quan, Future, Travis Scott) have taken cues from Kanye's album-length rumination on breakups and death.
On the surface, the biggest lasting effect of 808s was that it inspired rappers to flip the auto-tune switch and try out singing. But, to borrow a phrase from T-Pain's breakout album, "rappers-ternt-sangas" were nothing new in 2008. Just five years prior, 50 Cent and Ja Rule were selling millions of records in NYC while singing most of their own hooks, and even before that, we had everyone from Biz Markie to Devin The Dude trying their hand at crooning for a song or two. But rarely, if ever, was singing used to convey melancholy emotions. At their saddest, you could find Fif singing about the death threats on his head, or Devin relating stories of staying afloat in the music industry -- not quite the stuff of the "emo rap" tag that would emerge later in the '00s.
Beyond the subject matter, Fif and Ja also sang in unaltered voices that were almost soulful in quality -- far cry from the skillful acrobatics of contemporary R&B singers, but in a style that was decades-old and didn't rely on any masking techniques or manipulation of any kind. Even T-Pain's trendsetting reliance on auto-tune a few years later was used to give him a very clear-sounding, intelligible voice which was far cry from the alien-esuqe, warbled, gurgled and garbled voices you hear coming from your radio now.
After Kanye released the album in November, 2008, an almost immediate shockwave was felt in the next six months, with the similarly-emo stylings of Kid Cudi and Drake taking over the rap blogosphere. Cudi and 'Ye had a connection that stretched beyond lyrical rumination on depression and loss, which led to the latter's mentorship of the former, and Drake (really his music collaborator Noah "40" Shebib) broke out with a minimal, moody sound that was unmistakably inspired by 808s -- he even sampled the album's first track on So Far Gone's "Say It Real."
Though Drizzy was far from being the almost-universally-accepted rapper he is today, the mere fact that hip-hop heads considered him worth their time would have been unimaginable in any previous era of hip-hop. Kanye had always been one to air out his sentimental thoughts on tracks like "Family Business" and "Hey Mama," but it wasn't until he devoted an entire album to sadness and despair that hip-hop as a whole became more accepting of songs about being cheated on, depressed, and above all, vulnerable.
This bring us to Future, who's been able to make a career out of alternating between bizarro balladeer and street anthem savior. Had the man who calls himself Future Hendrix rose to prominence in another era, he likely would have been forced to choose one path, but in 2014 he was able to drop arguably the drug-peddling song of the year, "Move That Dope," in the same month as the very 808s-esque "I Be U." His dichotomous personality has led to a fanbase somewhat divided in the Future songs they tend to enjoy, but with Honest cementing him as one of ATL's bona fide superstars, that divide doesn't seem to be hurting his career.
Part of the reason the 808s & Heartbreak formula has become so popular is due to its rudimentary, relatively easy-to-replicate template. The 808 drum machine was one of the first of its kind, meaning that it's much more basic and limited than the drum machines that would follow it, and auto-tune is... well... auto-tune, a technology that makes it easier to hit notes. All of this is not to say that Kanye or any of his followers fail to distinguish themselves from the many lesser-knowns who use the same technology -- far from it -- but making the "Say You Will" beat must have been easier than constructing, say, OutKast's "B.O.B."
Add this to what many consider the imperfect final product of 808s & Heartbreak, and you have what reads as an open invitation to young artists to improve upon Kanye's easy-enough-to-master formula. Think of how many kids heard the album for the first time and said, "Hey, I could do this." It's no different from The Ramones' legendary punk rock debut, wherein the band showed that knowing four chords and having a slick image was all they needed to make it, and ended up fueling the stream of punk music that's still going today.
Just last week, Houston rapper and Kanye protégé Travi$ Scott released Days Before Rodeo, a project that's one of the best-ever improvements on the 808s sound. Though he doesn't limit himself to and 808 drum machine and strictly auto-tuned vocals like Kanye did, Scott allows for contemplative lyrics, moody soundscapes and computer-addled vocals, all of which are somewhat uncommon on mixtapes. By blending the bare-bones eeriness of 808s with a druggy, depressed vibe somewhat akin to The Weeknd's House Of Balloons, Scott builds on the work of two of the most unique minds in hip-hop/R&B's last decade, and in doing so, sounds very zeitgeist-y in 2014.
There's no telling if 808s & Heartbreak will continue to be looked at as a watershed moment in hip-hop, but the past six years have seen a very visible, but gradual acceptance of anguished-yet-computerized vocals, depressive song concepts (Sad Boys, anyone?), and instrumental minimalism. By going full on robot, Kanye began a very humanizing movement for hip-hop. Regardless of whether this article will cause you to go revisit the album, or make you never want to hear it again, if you've been listening to hip-hop that's been released since 2008, you've heard a distinct, trackable ripple effect coming from 808s & Heartbreak.
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you agree, but hate all music spawned from 808s? Let us know in the comments.