It is getting difficult to recognize Kanye these days. Since the whole Trump fiasco, many fans have abandoned ship leaving those left scratching their heads wondering what the hell is going on. While he is still pumping out fantastic music and even has a new album in the works, it is safe to say he is unrecognizable from the Yeezy of ten years ago.
However, it is important to note this is not the first time something seemed to be off about Ye. On November 24, 2008 he released his fourth studio album: 808s and Heartbreaks. Personally, it is one of my favorite albums, but it’s a drastic shift away from the sound that helped turn Kanye into a global icon.
On 808s and Heartbreaks, Kanye distances himself from the traditional rap records he had previously produced and instead goes with a more synthesized sound featuring autotuned vocals. It is strikingly clear that this was his most pop-oriented album, and no song emphasizes that more than “Heartless.” As one of Kanye’s most famous songs, it peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped spread his sound to an entirely new audience. The lack of curse words in 808’s and Heartbreaks allowed a younger audience to get into Kanye. I can even remember bumping “Heartless” when I was a prepubescent boy who didn’t know the first thing about rap music.
While this metamorphosis of sound was successful in expanding his fanbase, the album has a much deeper meaning than just creating radio hits. This album was released in one of the darkest period of Kanye’s life. A year before the album’s release, his mother Donda West tragically died from complications following a breast reduction procedure. Her death was a defining moment in his career and is something that still clearly affects him. In the build up to the release of his latest album Ye, he toyed with the idea of making the cover art a picture of the doctor who performed his mother’s surgery. In addition to his mother’s death, Kanye’s engagement with his fiancee, Alexis Phifer, ended around the same time after a five year long relationship.
Amidst the turmoil in his personal life, Kanye did what any artist does when they go through hardship: hit the studio and tell the story. When listening to the album, you can hear the raw emotion behind it. He claimed he didn’t believe he could properly display his emotions through rapping. The problem is that despite his musical prowess, Kanye has a shit voice. Luckily, vocal autotune was emerging around the same time and allowed him to produce a nuanced sound people were not familiar with at the time, and he used this empty market to brand his music.
Understandably, some people hated the autotuned Kanye. Even in today’s rap game with just about every artist employing some form of autotune, the method still gets a lot of hate. The fact is that Kanye had established himself as one of the most dynamic rappers in the game, and 808s and Heartbreaks was a sharp left turn from his previous work. However, I think that this divergence is what makes Kanye the musical genius he is. His ability to release an album of an unusual genre — and have it be as successful as it was — speaks volumes to the type of artist he is: a musical genius.
“808s and Heartbreaks” is definitely Kanye’s most unique album. While some of his more early fans may not enjoy it as much as The College Dropout or Late Registration, this is an important album in his musical journey. It represents a particular turning point in his career, and I personally think the albums following its release have gotten better and better each time. 808s and Heartbreaks allowed us to see a different side of the superstar and led Kanye to expand his musical repertoire into the diverse sound he displays today.