Record #401: Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak (2008)

There’s almost no artist quite as polarizing as Kanye West. From his Reality TV wife to his maelstrom of a Twitter feed, Mr. West is a pretty big pill for some people to swallow. But early in his career, his music was one thing that people mostly agreed on. His first few records were excellent and clever, but not too adventurous. He had his sights set on mainstream hip-hop, and he delivered.

Then came 2008… 

A few months after his model fiancé broke up with him, his beloved mother passed away. While Ye had never shied away from vulnerability in his previous records, these personal tragedies found him even more introspective. 

The subject matter was paired with a very specific aesthetic: all of the songs are sung, not rapped, drenched in autotune, accompanied by a retro Roland 808 drum machine. The resulting record is basically a concept album—and one that a lot of Kanye’s previous fans hated.

The autotune in particular was a sticking point for people. Why sing an entire album if you can’t sing? But naysayers missed that the effect’s use was entirely aesthetic. Such heartwrenching tunes sung in a robotic vibrato creates a powerful aural irony that makes these songs more affecting, not less. Anyone who wrote the album off also missed Kanye’s incredible sense of melody. The tunes he writes here are engaging and catchy. 
By all accounts, this album should not have worked. But its limited sonic palette and narrow subject matter ended up creating a laser focused album that succeeds because of its singular vision. 

And if this album set the stage for a Kanye that was completely unconcerned with satisfying cultural expectations for his output, all the better.

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