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5 Years Later, In Defense of Kanye’s “808s & Heartbreak” Album

Posted by Lucas G. on 11/25/13 | Filed under Opinion, Kanye West, Album Reviews, In Defense

This past weekend marked the anniversary of not one, but two Kanye albums, 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Both albums were extremely successful, well-produced, and engaging, but only one gets the credit. People exalt from the heavens the decadent, epic production of "MBDTF" but treat "808s" like it is a Nickleback and Miley Cyrus collaborative Christmas album. Way back when I wrote the piece ranking every Kanye album, I was amazed at how low everyone had "808s". If I remember correctly, I don’t think one person had it in the top five; it deserves better. Now, I am not saying that "808s" is my favorite Kanye album, far from it, but on the five-year anniversary, I think it’s time re-listen and reassess this slept on album.

A lot of my defense of this album relies less on the album itself, and more on what it meant for the industry (and what it changed). But before we get into that, I think it is important to look at the music in a vacuum too. Of course, one of the main critiques of "808s" is the use of auto-tune. Today, you would be hard pressed to find an artists who relies on auto-tune; excluding Future (who more than proves my point that auto-tune is kind of annoying). Not only was the whole thing over done and played out, but usually, auto-tune was used as a crutch, making up for lack of substance with a catchy gimmick. I love a good T-Pain song, as much as the next guy, but let’s be honest it’s catchy and nothing else.

With "808s & Heartbreak", I don’t get the impression that Kanye was relying on the catchy, novelty factor of auto-tune. It felt like it was more a tool to create a unique, original sound than some window dressing for a radio-ready pop cut. For Kanye to change the role of auto-tune took an incredible amount of creativity and while the sound might not be up your alley, you can’t deny it is properly executed. Besides, it’s not like he used auto-tune on every song. He also distorted, flanged, and isolated his vocals to create a wide variety of moods and sounds, and to say "808s & Heartbreak" was “auto-tune shit” is unfair to the album. Similar to "MBDTF", Kanye creates these vast, textured and diverse landscapes with the production, but where people celebrate it on "MBDTF", they dismiss it on "808s", and it doesn’t make sense. On "MBDTF" Kanye perfectly created luxurious concept and vibe and on "808s" he perfectly executed the loneliness and isolation of a break-up. While the concepts and sounds on both are different the execution is flawless and both should me admired from that standpoint.You can’t commend his execution on "MBDTF" and shun it on "808s" because both are the same in that regard; it is the concepts that differ not how he went about them. If you take out your preconceived notions of auto-tune and really give 808s a listen, I think you’ll find a little more substance than you originally thought.

Outside of the vacuum, 808s too, deserves better. Obviously, "808s" is a heavy electronic album (not to beat a dead horse, but that’s why he used auto-tune and it worked), and in 2008 it was years ahead of its time. "808s" fits in much better with today’s music scene than 2008, which just goes to show you how, much of a trendsetter Kanye is. At a time when it was all about, light, breezy pop tunes (Chris Brown’s “Forever”, T.I.’s “What Ever You Like”, and Rihanna’s “Disturbia” were three of the biggest songs in 2008) Kanye took a noticeably darker, edgier sound which would become much more prevalent a few years later; perhaps that is why at the time, it was dismissed.

Now, with electronic cuts as far as the ear can hear, it doesn’t sound so strange, but at the time it was completely new and different; perhaps why it is so slept on.  Also, just on experimentation alone, 808s should be admired. With three highly successful albums that more or less all followed a more traditional formula—although "Graduation" is on the “different” side - Kanye could have churned out something similar, but instead he went with something new and untested. While most artists stick to a formula Kanye refuses to do the same thing twice. It is one of the things I most admire about him, and 808s is perhaps the best example. You might not love the choices he makes, but you have to commend his willingness to experiment. Surely you, a rational thinking hip-hop head, can admire "808s & Heartbreak" on that level.

If you are in the "808s" is garbage camp I have a challenge for you. Go back and listen to the album; really listen. Considering you hate it, I bet it has been a few years since you listened to the album, because unless you are glutton for punishment, why would you listen to something you hate? Now that "808s" fits in much better with today’s music, I think you might find it wasn’t as bad as you thought. Back in 2008 many weren’t ready for that type of sound, but now that we have grown accustomed to it, there is plenty to love on "808s".  Who knows, maybe five years from now, we will be having the same conversation about "Yeezus". If you still think it is crap, fine, but at least now you have the perspective to admire Kanye for pushing the boundaries and setting the trends and for that alone "808s" deserves some sort of praise.

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