Kanye West's '808s & Heartbreak' Turns 9: Ranking the Album's Tracks
After completing his transition to global superstar, and a trilogy of ground-breaking educational themed albums, Kanye West was looking for his next mountain to climb. Disaster then pierced the heart of West, who seemed unbreakable through his ascension. His mother, Donda West, whom he was very close with, unfortunately passed away from cosmetic complications in November 2007. Yeezy also broke off his year-and-a-half-long engagement with ex-girlfriend Alexis Phifer in early 2008.
West then channeled that excruciating pain into the purest form of art, his music. Going all-in on his risky auto-tune experiment, which he dabbled with on his debut album, The College Dropout. Kanye took his fans on the painful journey to explore the layers of heartbreak through the melodic 808s & Heartbreak, which shifted the landscape of hip-hop as we knew it. West described his mentality behind the passion project, saying, “So few hip-hop artists ever advance, their eighth album sounds exactly like the songs from their first album. Real people grow and I wanted to sing my growth.”
West introduced Kid Cudi and Mr. Hudson to the world, while calling on a multitude of writers and creative minds, including Saul Williams, to implement his CEO style of album creation in Hawaii. Kanye enlisted pop-artist Kaws for the album’s cover and used harrowing synths over his powerful 808 drum machine, juxtaposing eccentric sonics such as monk choirs and Japanese Taiko drums combined with auto-tune, creating a sound described as pop-art by the Yeezus artist himself.
The critically polarizing album celebrates its ninth birthday Friday (Nov. 24) with 12 icy tracks spanning 61 minutes of agonizing concepts. West moved into the next phase of his career and life, pushing the limits of creativity and the genre as a whole, saying, “If I hadn’t suffered those losses, I might be too scared to fight the war on traditional thinking.”
Billboard attempts to rank the iconic project’s tracks on its anniversary day. Thank you for inspiring us all, Mr. West.
12. “Pinocchio Story”
The cathartic “Pinocchio Story” was first performed in Singapore as a freestyle before 808s & Heartbreak was even released. It wasn’t planned to be a part of the album until Beyonce fell in love with the raw recording of the track, which really made it special, audience shrieks included. There was never a studio version recorded because it would’ve taken away from the realness of the song, where Kanye touches on his imperfections and disconnect from the real world, which coincided with the LP’s theme. “Pinocchio Story” was most recently performed during Yeezy’s two-night Hollywood Bowl cinematic expression with a 10-minute extended version.
11. “Bad News”
One of the few tracks on the album that is actually from a female’s perspective. The soulful “Bad News” details relationship situations that Kanye has experienced throughout his life rapping, “People will talk like it's old news/ I played it off and act like I already knew/ Let me ask you how long have you known dude/ You played it off and act like he's brand new.” After two minutes of emotional bars, the record then switches to a full instrumental with a blaring drum beat over bold synths tunefully fused behind piano keys. The nearly four-minute track boasts one of the most memorable outros on the album, without saying one word.
10. “See You In My Nightmares,” Featuring Lil Wayne
Yeezy enlists Lil Wayne, who was at the top of the hip-hop world in 2008, for one of his precise use of features on the project. Continuing with the dark project’s theme, the collabo is properly titled, “See You In My Nightmares.” Kanye and Weezy never truly connected for an epic record, while both dominated the late 2000s. The aggressive electronic beat has Wayne rapping over it in auto-tune, a feature he's embraced throughout his career, caressing the hook of the break-up anthem, “I got the right to put up a fight/ But not quite cause you cut off my light/ But my sight is better tonight/ And I might see you in my nightmare.”
9. “Say You Will”
The opening track shows listeners that Kanye is embarking on new territory creatively, implementing icy synths and an electronic buzzsaw cutting through fans' ears with a sonic that’s foreign to most hip-hop fans. Yeezy performed “Say You Will” during his Coachella set in 2011. During a concert, West claimed this record is about that “ex-girlfriend you call on Friday nights just to have sex.” The track was created in just 15 minutes, featuring vocals throughout the first three minutes with the second half strictly being an instrumental letting the listener attempt to decode the album opener’s eclectic sound. In 2015, West released an updated studio version of the track featuring violinist, Caroline Shaw. Drake and Big Sean actually created their own freestyles over the “Say You Will” beat on their early mixtapes in 2009.
A record that was ahead of its time, and the influence can still be heard in hip-hop today -- just go listen to Travis Scott’s “90210.” The black and white visual features Rihanna as a representation of his former romances. Mr. Hudson proved to be an integral addition to 808s & Heartbreak, adding a different flair when it came to the electronic sound that Kanye was looking for. Kid Cudi also makes an appearance crooning on the hook with Mo-Ho. West is talking to another girl telling his current girlfriend to stop being so paranoid. Consequence and Jeff Bhasker also see writing credits on the album’s fourth single, in addition to West and Cudi. Bryson Tiller sampled the record on his own version of “Paranoid.”
7. “Amazing,” Featuring Jeezy
“I'm the only thing I'm afraid of” Kanye emphatically states on his third shortened verse. “Amazing” features ATL legend Jeezy for the celebratory anthem, looking back at their accomplishments and current reign in hip-hop. Earlier in 2008, Yeezy made his insistent return to music, joining Jeezy for “Put On,” paying homage to his late mother, as well as representing Chicago, as an omnipresent figure in the city. “Amazing” went on to be the official theme song of the 2009 NBA playoffs, as the third single off of 808s & Heartbreak.
The seventh track off the album keeps the theme of the controlling significant other rolling. Kanye actually sampled a track from a movie, Great Expectations, titled “Kissing In The Rain,” which is not something seen throughout the Yeezy discography. The euphonious “Robocop” outro sees the “Stronger” artist rapping about his girl’s distrust repeatedly saying, “You spoiled little L.A. girl/ You're just an L.A. girl.” Fans believe this song is one of the most underrated in Ye’s catalog.
5. “Love Lockdown”
Years ago at a fancy party in Paris, Kanye felt he didn’t have any records that could be played “low at the office or loud at the club and at a concert. I feel like ‘Love Lockdown’ could be my first classic end all be all record you could play until the end of time.” The piano laden “Love Lockdown” uses a powerful outro, where Kanye brilliantly incorporates a blend of tribal drums and animal howls making this an unforgettable record. “Love Lockdown” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 2008 and only took West five minutes to create. Kanye also said in an interview with Kiss FM, that “Heartless” and “Love Lockdown” were the first two tracks he created when he got into album mode following the success of Graduation.
4. “Coldest Winter”
Kanye says goodbye to his late mother, Donda West, in the form of the harrowing “Coldest Winter” track. The dark visual explores the depths of Kanye’s creativity and pain equally, over booming 808s and tribal drums. The creative genius departs from his sadness with, “Goodbye my friend, I won't ever love again/ Never again.” Even though the bitter track pays homage to his relationship with his mother and ex-girlfriend Alexis Phifer, West told Kiss FM, “People can take this music the way they want of any loss they suffer, whether it’s the loss of a relationship or loss of a loved one.”
3. “Street Lights”
Esthero graces the background vocals on one of the most depressing songs featured within the album. West has made a habit of using lights as a vessel with alternative meanings throughout his illustrated discography beginning with “Flashing Lights,” and most recently on the churchy “Ultralight Beam.” Kanye sings through the dullness of life even though he knows his final destination, it can be made so unfulfilling at times, “See I know my destination, but I'm just not there/ All the street/ lights, glowing, happen to be/ Just like moments, passing, in front of me.”
2. “Welcome To Heartbreak,” Featuring Kid Cudi
Kid Cudi’s influence on the project cannot be denied, as the blooming superstar delivers a euphonious hook on “Welcome To Heartbreak,” which was originally supposed to be for JAY-Z on Blueprint 3. The violin introducing record encompasses what 808s & Heartbreak represents in just over four minutes, as the second track on the album. Kanye raps about the gaping hole in his spirit that he tried to fill with lavish materialistic gifts, “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs/ He said his daughter got a brand new report card/And all I got was a brand new sports car, oh."
The atypical hit record defied all hip-hop charting logic at the time, as “Heartless” went on to become the anthemic track off 808s & Heartbreak and ended up peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest entry to that point since 2007’s chart topping “Stronger.” The G.O.O.D Music artist used the low-point in his life to change the landscape of rap, “I knew I had great pain in my future. I used to pray to get delivered from pain. I suffered the worst pains to help me to grow. Those experiences, I’d never ask to take them away," West said in 2008.
Michael Jackson was the one to actually inspire Kanye to do a singing album in the first place admitting on the Hot 97 Juan Epstein Podcast years later, “I think Michael [Jackson] was the one who put the battery in my back to do 808s. I played “Good Life” and he’s like ‘who’s that singing right there I like that voice?’ he gassed me up. Michael Jackson told me I could sing f---k all of y’all.”
Make sure to keep 808s & Heartbreak in heavy rotation today (Nov. 24), celebrating a historically underappreciated moment in hip-hop.
9 years ago today Kanye West released the most influential album in hiphop. 808s & Heartbreak. This album helped pave the way for many artists and many sounds that remain today. A true game changer. pic.twitter.com/ieQ1t9Hs54— KTT (@KanyeToThe) November 24, 2017