The forgotten legacy of '808s and Heartbreak'

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I remember the first time I heard Kanye West.

I had just turned 12 and received a new iPod Nano for my birthday. One of the first songs I bought was a top 10 hit on iTunes called “Heartless,” which struck me right away. I searched YouTube for anything that sounded similar — the closest contenders were other songs from Kanye’s dreary 2008 album about the loss of love and life, “808s & Heartbreak.” As I became more exposed to hip-hop over the years, I recognized the influence “808s” has had on the rap genre.

Yet, as I stood in the stands of the Hollywood Bowl Sept. 26 — where Kanye performed the entirety of “808s” — I quickly realized that half of the audience bought tickets with the notion that they were going to see Yeezus, the post-heartbreak Kanye that became a hip-hop and concert deity, and had no intention of witnessing a heartbreak-era Kanye at all. Ignorant and incessant chatter along the lines of “How long does this song last?” and “Why isn’t Kanye moving?” began to block out the strings of the orchestra and hymns of the choir that play a part in making “808s” such an emotional trip.

It turns out the legacy of “808s” is not as well-known as it deserves to be, despite the platform it provided for some of the biggest names and styles in hip-hop today. During my initial listen to “808s” at age 12, the snippet of someone rapping woefully over the album’s opener “Say You Will” piqued my interest. That someone turned out to be Drake.

Take a second to compare Drake’s “Know Yourself” to Kanye’s “Welcome to Heartbreak.” Their similarity is not a coincidence — Drake took a page out of Kanye’s book in 2008 and modeled a career on his ability to address personal issues and establish heartfelt, raw emotion in the three to five minutes of a song’s runtime. Now, he’s often regarded as one of the biggest names in hip-hop.

“808s” set a precedent for more than just Drake’s career. The album solidified auto-tune as a stylistic choice that gave rise to many big names in hip-hop, most notably the gritty-voiced Future and the up-and-coming Young Thug. History says that T-Pain broke into the auto-tune scene first, but he’s decidedly an R&B singer. Rappers like Lil Wayne were already experimenting with auto-tune in hits like “Lollipop,” but no one had truly let it define their aesthetic like Kanye did in “808s.”

Kanye took the audio processor and used it as an extension of his self, pouring his heart out in a very synthesized and cold voice; there is no warmth to be found in “808s.” What he found, though, was a viable way for rappers to use auto-tune as part of their identity that extended beyond the goofiness of T-Pain’s love ballads.

“808s”‘s influence is more than just a few faint lines that can be traced between Kanye and Drake or Future — Kanye’s “808s” gave us an entire genealogy that deserves the recognition of every hip-hop enthusiast.

Benj Salkind is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at salkind@oxy.edu.