“If I hadn’t suffered those losses, I might be too scared to fight the war on traditional thinking.”
After defeating 50 Cent in a sales war and inherently killing gangster rap with the critically acclaimed Graduation, Kanye West had never been more powerful than he was in late 2007. The Chicago native’s vision of transitioning into a global superstar had materialized, as plans for Good Ass Job were on deck.
Just a couple months later, tragedy struck West where it hurt most, nearly catapulting him from his spot atop the hip-hop totem pole and derailing everything he had worked for. West’s mother, Donda, passed away in Nov. 2007 from post-cosmetic surgery complications. Yeezy’s downward spiral resulted in him breaking off his engagement with fiancee Alexis Phifer at the top of 2008.
The G.O.O.D. Music frontman’s isolation sparked a daring creative direction, one in which he’d share his pain with listeners through his art, which at times has prompted some of the best work of his career. Following the North American leg of his theatrical Glow in the Dark Tour, Kanye made the decision to “sing his growth” as an artist over minimalist electro-pop production fused with heavy auto-tune and thumping pitched 808s, which the Late Registration rapper declared would be known as pop-art.
That decision for a sharp career pivot would forever change the sound of traditional popular hip-hop, and pave the way for many superstars we see dominating the genre today. “So few hip-hop artists ever advance — their eighth album sounds exactly like the songs from their first album,” West told the VH1 Storytellers crowd of his experimental methodology in 2009. “Real people grow and I wanted to sing my growth.”
Anthony Kilhoffer is a Grammy-winning engineer who has worked closely with West on every one of his albums from The College Dropout through The Life of Pablo. Kilhoffer shared his experiences at studios across the globe that led to 808s & Heartbreak coming together on Nov. 24, 2008.
“I think this was the first time he decided beforehand the components of the project,” Killhofer tells Billboard. “He was like, ‘We’re going to use this technique,’ which was no hi-hats, Taiko drums and no more than four to six elements in composition of a song. It’s either got to be in the song loud as s–t, or not in the song at all. It was the end of the Scott Storch era of hip-hop.”
West would find peace and serenity on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which happened to ironically fall under the area code of 808. Stumbling upon Oahu during the summer of 2008 provided West and his collaborators with a creative safe haven that allowed the Yeezus artist to hone in and flesh out his wrathful vision free of distractions. The goldmine of creativity would also serve as the jumping off point for West’s decorated My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, which would arrive two years later.
Mornings were filled with competitive pickup basketball games, a favorite hobby of West’s. That same energy was brought to the studio every night, as Yeezy and his collaborators exchanged trailblazing ideas that would ram their head against the metaphorical brick walls of the genre. “Oahu set the precedent for this album and Dark Fantasy. There’s just something to do with that island that made great music,” Kilhoffer says.
West described his plan to pitch the 808 and use its tone as a powerful instrument rather than a basic bass. “The basis of the entire album are these 808s following a melody and my life and heartbreak on top of it,” West told KissFM in a 2008 interview. “The songwriting on this album is incredible. It goes through real life situations. I talk about things people are really going through.”
A talented group of writers helped bring West’s desolate story to life. Multi-faceted musician Jeff Bhasker is all over the project with writing credits on seven tracks. Elsewhere, others that lent their lethal pen for West to sing over included former G.O.O.D. Music artist Consequence, Tony Williams and Canadian singer Esthero, who provided vocals on “Street Lights.”
The most memorable guest appearance comes from a young Kid Cudi, who took full advantage of the opportunity provided. Cudi’s handprints are all over 808s, as his tuneful sonic influence cuts through the electronic melancholy, even though he’s only officially featured on harrowing LP standout “Welcome to Heartbreak.”
“It was a great burst of new energy in the room since all of us had been doing this a long time,” the Killhofer remembers. “You bring people in to inspire some new creativity.”
Splashes of Cudi complement West’s genius, pushing the limits of the futuristic project to usher in the new wave of emo-rap. “He saw a common connection with our creativity,” Kid Cudi told MTV in 2009. One of West’s best musical abilities has been an innate knack for precisely setting up collaborators in the perfect situation for success, much like Steve Nash or Jason Kidd in their primes executing on the basketball court.
Ten years ago, the Ohio native and West embarked on what would be a beautiful friendship and a fruitful working relationship, which built a bond that is stronger than ever in 2018. The pair finally teamed up for their highly anticipated Kids See Ghosts joint project over the summer and closed out Tyler, The Creator‘s Camp Flog Gnaw with a cinematic set earlier in November, as tantalizing rumors of a 2019 collaborative tour continue to swirl.
To achieve the minimalist sonic foundation he’d been yearning for behind his mourning warbles, West, ever the meticulous perfectionist, instructed his team to fly unique drum machines into their Hawaii studio, which would end up being sampled and reprogrammed into Yeezy’s Roland TR-808. “That’s what gives all those unique sounds on songs like ‘Say You Will’ and ‘Paranoid,” Kilhoffer explained.
West crafted buzzsaw synths and icy three-note melodies juxtaposed with eclectic sonic flourishes — like monk choirs on project opener “Say You Will,” which lets the somber instrumental run through for an ominous three-minute outro, allowing listeners to drown in West’s sorrow. Japanese Taiko drums add a cinematic touch to an atypical radio hit in “Love Lockdown,” the first single shared at the 2008 MTV VMAs, as the tune went on to peak at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Kilhoffer recalls the laboring of production on tracks such as “Robocop” and “See You in My Nightmares” that were tweaked to perfection in an international circuit of studios while West trekked across Asia and Europe as part of his worldwide Glow in the Dark Tour.
“I do remember the never-ending production decisions on ‘Robocop.’ That was like a ‘Stronger’ part two. You heard about how many times ‘Stronger’ was mixed? That was the one song that traveled the world,” Killhofer recalls.
808s & Heartbreaks’ release date was pushed up a day from Nov. 25 to Nov. 24, 2008 by Def Jam to avoid the Thanksgiving week madness. West’s fourth LP took home the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 upon its debut, moving slightly over 450,000 album units in its first week of sales. The album featured 11 recorded tracks plus one wretched live “Pinocchio Story” freestyle that took place in Singapore, which was added to the effort following some high praise from Beyoncé. 808s was met with polarizing reviews from critics and quickly became a lightning rod for a generational debate between listeners. Some championed the experimental body of work, while others refused to expand their palette for sappy hip-hop.
“This was a super daring move at the time, and more singing than Kanye had ever done. Now it looks like nothing because it shaped pop-music,” Kilhoffer acknowledged. “Somebody was out there saying we didn’t want to turn this into Common’s Electric Circus. It was bold and definitely shaped what music became post-808s.”
The “Heartless” singer’s melodrama unlocked the flood gates for singsong rap to take over the genre much like a tidal wave on the mainstream level. It would be tough to discredit 808s & Heartbreak as West’s most influential album. The emo-rap scene birthed many of the superstars we see today because of Yeezy’s bold career pivot, which proved that openly vulnerable artists can craft prolific art in times of despair, but still be a commercial blockbuster at the same time. You don’t have to look far to see the impact on artists such as Drake, Young Thug, Juice WRLD, Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert and The Weeknd, who have all drawn inspiration from the Chicago native’s innovation in various ways.
“Drake took this and did it over and over and over again,” Kilhoffer says of Drizzy’s use of auto-tune and distorted vocals. Before he evolved into the 6 God, Drake rose to prominence through his acclaimed 2009 So Far Gone mixtape. The Young Money artist poured his heart out over the instrumental to Ye’s “Say You Will,” which went on to serve as a standout cut on the project. Around that same time, a burgeoning Drizzy told MTV, “Kanye West shaped a lot of what I do, as far as music goes. I’d even go as far as to say he’s the most influential person as far as a musician that I’d ever had in my life.” ?
Back in 2015, The Weeknd spoke to Pitchfork on how 808s shifted the music paradigm following its release, calling the fearless project “one of the most important bodies of work of my generation.” If West and his sparse 808s were a tree, it would have grown another branch with the blossoming art displayed by fellow Chicago native Juice WRLD in 2018: “I was singing ‘Street Lights’ like I had s–t to be sad about. Kanye is a time traveler. That n—a went to damn near 2015 and came back with some sauce,” the 19-year-old told All Def Music.
Yeezy also began to settle into his role as a style icon, as epic sneaker collaborations with Nike and Louis Vuitton were in tow. A fashion portrait circa 2008 would find West sporting an afromullet while dabbling in upscale streetwear featuring colorful pieces from his shelved Pastelle line, like his varsity letterman jacket, tight-fitting jeans and Air Jordans. West also made his affinity for luxury designers known, hitting many award shows and performances in dapper formal attire.
When looking back on the effort’s tenth anniversary, it ushered in an iconic era in the magnificent epic of West’s career. Perhaps the best thing that could be said about the project, and may have been West’s overall goal when creating 808s, is that the story of hip-hop in the 21st century can’t be told without it.
“I suffered the worst pains to help me to grow. So those experiences, I’d never ask to take them away because they’re all in God’s plan and help make me the man I am today, and help make me more of a soldier and a vessel,” Kanye divulged in the midst of his VH1 Storytellers set.
Give the memorable project a spin for its tenth anniversary below.