Just Like Moments Passing In Front Of Me - Kanye West's 808s And Heartbreak Turns 10

An anecdote:

I first began working in bookstores a little over a decade ago. From August 2008 until its unceremonious end, due to the collapse of the economy, in May 2009, I was one of the last employees hired at River City Books. The store itself was owned by one of the liberal arts colleges in town—some kind of half-assed experiment to have a presence off campus, on the main Downtown street, and sell general reading books (fiction, essays, children’s books, et. al) rather than expensive text books.

To my knowledge, the store never turned a profit—I think it was costly to operate; specifically costing quite a bit to lease the space the store was housed in. And once the economy was in shambles, the college that had been bankrolling it for maybe six years at that point could no longer justify operating something at a loss, year after year.

At some point in 2007, the store began stocking CDs—it was mostly stuff that the manager would hear about on public radio, or old Bob Dylan discs he really liked.

Maybe because it was a new release that week—the week of Thanksgiving, 2008; maybe it was because I had suggested that we bring it in, but we carried a copy of Kanye West’s 2008 album, 808s and Heartbreak. I had un-ironically made it my ‘staff pick’ for the month of December, much to the surprise of the other staff and a few of the patrons who knew me—but apparently didn’t know me well enough.

We played music on an overhead system in River City Books—nobody, to my knowledge, really gave a shit about the copyright of what we played in the store. We weren’t paying for a service, and this was well before the days of using streaming radio. All the music came from a massive CD changer wedged under the front counter—I think it held 100 on a large carousel. Occasionally the manager would change things out—there was always a lot of Belle and Sebastian in there, for some reason, and not too long after I was hired, I started bringing in CD-Rs of things I liked, as well as copies of things we sold in store, in an effort to try and generate sales.

To my knowledge, I only played a copy of 808s and Heartbreak once in the store.

It was probably right after it came out, and I was working an opening shift with a woman named Beth. We were discouraged from playing the music very loudly in store, so it didn’t distract the customers. Because of that, everything was kept at a pretty low level—occasionally not sounding like much of anything at all, depending on how low you had it.

808s opens with “Say You Will.”

It’s the longest song on the record, and it is, more or less, a song in two parts. Kanye West arrives, like, right after the music begins, and he continues singing—emoting, really—for roughly half of the song. The second half of “Say You Will”—and I’ve never really understood this—but the second half is instrumental. It’s just the alternating beep and boop that you’ve heard since the song started, the same percussion pattern, and warbled choral singing—going on for another three minutes until the song concludes and slides into “Welcome to Heartbreak.”

With the music in the bookstore turned out pretty low, on the morning I played 808s and Heartbreak, I guess all you could really hear were those alternating beeps and boops in “Say You Will.” And I guess if you didn’t know the context of those sounds, they may become…irritating.

“Kevin, what are we listening to?” my co-worker, Beth, asked me, as the song was still in its second half, the light ripple of those beeps and boops coming from the speakers above our heads.

“It’s the new Kanye West album,” I told her, only mildly apprehensive about where this was going.

Expressing her absolute annoyance, Beth, without missing a beat, responded, “I never want to hear this again.”

In a conversation about 808s and Heartbreak, I told my friend George that I thought it was West’s most underrated album—this was a number of years ago, probably right after Yeezus had come out. George stopped me, almost mid-sentence, and told me he felt that it was “music’s most underrated album.”

George is also a Kanye West apologist—even to this day. I don’t know how he finds the energy to do it.

I would never say that 808s and Heartbreak is a concept album—it stops just short of that. It is, or at least was, at the time of its release, West’s most personal—maybe it still is. It’s a collection of songs loosely tied together by the idea of ‘loss,’ though the material is representative of both sides of loss; it’s then funneled through the cold, distant sounds of an 808 drum machine, 1980s inspired keyboards, and West’s own shaky singing voice, manipulated with the use of Auto-Tune, a device that was just on the cusp of taking over everything in pop music.

808s is West’s fourth proper full-length album—arriving just slightly over a year after the bombastic Technicolor bid for pop superstardom that Graduation brought him, and coming, like, exactly a year after the shocking death of his mother, Donda West, who passed away following complications from cosmetic surgeries in November of 2007.

In the fall of 2009, after West rushed the stage at the MTV Music Awards, snatching the microphone away from Taylor Swift, telling her that he was happy for her and he was going to let her finish, he made a half-hearted excuse for his behavior during a visit to the short-lived talk show hosted by Jay Leno—the one that aired in the hour before Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.” West claimed, with some prodding from Leno, that he had spent the last two years throwing himself into his work, and never truly grieved for his mother’s death, and that his behavior was a result of that.

Following the death of West’s mother, he began working on the Glow in The Dark tour—a massive undertaking that ran through most of 2008; prior to the beginning of the tour, in the spring of that year, West ended his five year relationship with Alexis Phifer—on again, off again throughout the years, at the time of the relationship’s end, they were engaged.


In revisiting the history of 808s, it’s interesting to see that West seemed to work at a frenetic, fast pace—the album itself was recorded in three weeks, in September and October of 2008, then released a month later in November. A schedule like that leaves a little more room to ensure a smooth roll out when compared to the haphazard arrival of The Life of Pablo, as well as West’s ill-fated “Wyoming Sessions” albums, but it is an admittedly quick, and tight turn around time from being in the studio, to out in the world on compact disc.

West himself refers to 808s as a pop record, or ‘pop art,’ as he called it prior to its release—there is little, if any, actual ‘rapping,’ per se, on the album, saying that he felt being a rapper had limitations to the melodies he had within at the time. Truthfully, the only rapping actually comes from its guest appearances—Lil’ Wayne arrives for a short, emphatically delivered verse on “See You in My Nightmares,” and Young Jeezy provides a very forgettable guest turn on “Amazing,” which is the album’s worst, least essential.

At the time of its release, 808s and Heartbreak was not so much misunderstood, or maligned, but it was not as widely praised as West’s previous albums had been—some critics didn’t exactly get it; others got it, sure, but didn’t see the merit. The whole thing—a moderately experimental, avant garde, kind of minimalist, electro pop album, almost completely insular, framed around the idea of loss, as well as the cliché of ‘being lonely at the top—sounds like a fucking mess on paper. And even on record, there are moments where, ten years ago, it didn’t exactly work—and that doesn’t mean that time has been kind to all of 808s and that it’s a masterpiece from start to finish. It’s a frustrating, challenging album, but at the same time, for all of its difficulties and unsuccessful moments, this kind of bravery is admirable.

In 2008, in a pre-Kim Kardashian, pre-Make America Great Again world for Kanye West, the most controversial thing he had done that far in his career was look into the camera and tell the Hurricane Katrina telethon viewers that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people.’ He had released three wildly successful (both commercially and critically) albums—so turning so far inward, and making a ‘pop’ record when everyone knows you as a rapper…it borders on fearless.


Has time been kind to 808s and Heartbreak?

Parts of it never really worked in the first place—and a decade passing hasn’t helped them, like the perplexing, “How could you be so Dr. Evil?” lyric in “Heartless.” In 2008, it was a strange pop culture reference to make; in 2018, it’s incredibly cringe-worthy. “Heartless” was never, like, one of the best or most successfully executed songs on the album to begin with—the second single released from the album, it is probably the most ‘pop’ leaning in its structure, based around an infectious hook and an energetic composition.

Some of the songs are still fun; they don’t sound ‘dated,’ per se—working within the sonic palate that West chose for 808s, I mean, it’s kind of hard to even pin down when an album that sounds like it does—recorded in 2008, but owing so much to the 1980s—I stop short of saying that it is ‘timeless,’ because that would giving it entirely too much credit. You could say that it sounds, more or less, as fresh as it did a decade ago.

The glitchy “Paranoid,” and stuttering “Robocop” are two sides of the same coin—the songs about the loss of his relationship—or loss of a relationship are very harsh, lyrically speaking. They aren’t the best, or most outstanding on the record, but they are still highly energetic—as is “Love Lockdown,” the album’s cacophonic first single, revealed two months in advance of the rest of the record.

“Love Lockdown” is, in a sense, indicative of a bulk of the rest of 808s in its simplicity. The album is ‘minimal,’ sure, because musically, there is not nearly as much as there was going on if you were to compare it to Graduation, or the pomp of his higher education back to back, The College Dropout and Late Registration. But lyrically, West also opts to work with less—there’s no need to fill up the space with a stream of clever rhymes.

The refrain to “Love Lockdown,” is just West saying variants of “Keep your love lockdown” over and over again; the refrain to “Say You Will” is equally as simplistic, and that song’s lyrics are relatively sparse, however evocative. If you listen to the music with a slightly more critical ear, or analysis, you’ll realize that the verses, more or less, are designed with the melody of the music in mind, and the words themselves are not just place holders—there is usually more to them than that—but they don’t vary all that much, or they are based around a singular idea that is emphasized through repetition.

Despite the album’s stumbles—whether you noticed them in 2008, or just now, it does house three really great songs, two of which are among West’s most devastating—which is a word that doesn’t usually get tossed around to describe rap music in general; whatever you may thing of West as a person, or a persona, he is incredibly capable of packing a dangerous amount of visceral emotion into a song.

There is, obviously, emotion—heartbreak, I guess—in the Auto-Tuned caterwauling West gets into almost immediately on “Say You Will,” though it’s not one the most devastating; even with its second, instrumental half that irritated my co-worker, it’s still a very, very startling way to open up the album. Slow moving, icy, remorseful in its skeletal, fragmented lyrics, it doesn’t really serve as a mission statement for 808s, but it gives you a small hint of what you may expect with the songs that follow.

Buried well within the album’s second half, “Street Lights” has always been one of my favorite tracks off of 808s and Heartbreak. You could say that it kind of provides a glimmer of what was to come, two years later, on another one of West’s most emotionally driven tracks—the nine minute “Runaway”—specifically the song’s dissonant second half. “Street Lights” is structured around the steady beat of rumbling bass and tom tom drums with mournful piano keys. Underneath it all is a skittering, oscillating wall of feedback that West practices incredible restraint in controlling as the rest of the song unfolds around it, including soothing, soulful backup vocals.

“Street Lights” is one of the songs on the album that most directly deals with West’s struggle with loneliness within success—though it’s not as obvious as “Welcome to Heartbreak.” Again, like so many of the songs, the lyrics very simplistic; “Street Lights” focuses on the repletion of a specific series of words, falling right in place over the pulse of the beat.

Even though it isn’t really the final track on the CD version of 808s (that honor belongs to the hidden/unlisted track of “Pinocchio Story”) the other most devastating moment on 808s is what was probably conceived as the last song of the album proper—“Coldest Winter.”

Sampling and interpolating an obscure Tears For Fears song from 1983, “Memories Fade,” it’s one of the songs that finds West most clearly trying to process the passing of his mother. The lyrics—there is more of them here for him to work with, though every line is repeated once before the next one comes along—are a little cloying, but the sentiment—and the heartbreak—are both very, very tangible. Juxtaposed against the creeping, chilly synthesizer melody (lifted from “Memories Fade”) and the pounding of the takio-esque drums that bring in the song’s conclusion.


808s and Heartbreak, as a piece of physical media, ends with “Pinocchio Story,” a strange, sprawling, six minute ‘freestyle’ that was recorded live, in Singapore. Truthfully, in the last decade, I’m not sure if I’ve ever sat through the whole thing—the poor audio quality has a lot to do with that. It sounds like it was recorded with a broken walkmen, by someone who was, like, really far away from the stage. I’m not sure why, if West was recording his live show’s audio, didn’t think to record directly from the soundboard, or try to achieve some kind of proper live mix.

The track itself, lyrically speaking, is harrowing. I guess, in a sense, it serves as an afterward, or an epilogue, to 808s and Heartbreak. For six minutes, West rambles over melancholic piano, with heavy, heavy echo on his microphone, practically screaming at some points within the second verse, emoting about the cost of fame, and more or less blaming himself for his mother’s death.

A studio recording of “Pinocchio Story” has never surfaced, and parts of it were interpolated into a lengthy version of “Heartless,” pulled from his “VH-1 Storytellers” performance. The inclusion of it at the end is a strange way to really conclude an already strange album.


For an album that was as perplexing as 808s and Heartbreak was, upon arrival, it’s the kind of album that wound up having a surprising amount of influence and significance on other artists—the most apparent being West’s friend and collaborator Kid Cudi, who was, himself, featured as guest performer on the record after West was given a copy of his mixtape. Cudi would later see fame in 2009 with his single “Day n Night,” and though a bit of a polarizing artist since then, he re-teamed with West for the Kids See Ghost project. Other introspective, synth inspired artists like Drake (apparently) as well as Donald Glover and Frank Ocean could, in a sense, have been inspired in part by the record.

Roughly six, or seven months after the album’s release, a short film starring West, and directed by Spike Jonze entitled We Were Once A Fairytale premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival; the film itself would find its way into wider release in the fall, following West’s liquor fueled outburst at the Video Music Awards.

West’s fall from public grace after that incident actually lent itself well to the caricature of himself he plays in the film, which is more or less a music video for the song “See You In My Nightmares.” In the piece, he plays a drunken version of himself, stumbling around a club, becoming belligerent with others around him; the clip ends with him in a bathroom, cutting himself open to pull out a strange rodent, connected to him by an umbilical cord. The rodent, a puppet named Henry, then takes his own life by stabbing himself with a smaller sword.

Seven years after the album’s release, West performed 808s and Heartbreak live, in full, at the Hollywood Bowl, in an elaborate, unsettling, and artist stage show, involving live strings, a large, glowing orb atop a staircase, and a bizarre suit that he wore, and unnaturally writhed around in, during “Pinocchio Story.” To my knowledge, there was no real reason was ever revealed as to why West would choose to bring this album to life, for two nights, seven years later—or if he would ever intend to do something like this again.

Is 808s and Heartbreak ‘music’s most underrated album?’ With a slow burning legacy like it’s developed I’d say it’s not underrated, but I’d say that it took a long time for people to begin to understand and even appreciate it. Is it West’s most underrated album? Again, I think it takes so much time to unpack all of its layers, and all of its densities, that it really needed awhile before it was able to find the cult following that it has now. It’s not inaccessible, but it’s also very welcoming either.

In 2008, this was considered a risk; though to be experimental and arty. It’s difficult to think about what kind of time we were living in then, considering the directions West has gone in the decade that has followed—directions both good, frustrating and difficult, and bad.

Like so many things in life—mostly media like records, books, or films—808s and Heartbreak, now, ten years after the fact, is representative of this moment in time; specifically of West’s life at this point in time. West was 31 years old when it was released, recovering from two drastically different, yet connected, kinds of devastation and loss. For him, it serves as a time capsule; for us, following the every move and breath of a celebrity, it serves as a window—allowing us to look inside and glom onto his pain, attempting to make it our own.