Following the release of his third studio album Graduation, the remainder of 2007 and the following year featured events that profoundly affected Kanye West. On November 10, 2007, West's mother Donda West died due to complications arising following cosmetic surgery involving a tummy tuck and breast reduction procedure. Months later, West and fiancée Alexis Phifer ended their engagement and their long-term intermittent relationship, which had begun in 2002. At the same time, West struggled to adapt to his newfound pop star status he had once striven to achieve, often becoming the subject of media scrutiny. The loss, loneliness and longing for companionship and a sense of normality served to inspire 808s & Heartbreak. West stated that "This album was therapeutic – it's lonely at the top." A photograph taken by Danny Clinch of West kissing his mother on the cheek was included in the album's booklet liner notes.
West felt that his emotions could not be fully expressed simply through rapping, which he said had limitations. There were "melodies that were in me", he explained. "What was in me I couldn't stop." West went to classify 808s & Heartbreak as a pop album, asserting his disdain towards the contemporary backlash to the concept of pop music and expressed admiration for what some pop stars have accomplished in their careers. He later stated that he wishes to present the music as a new genre called "pop art," clarifying that he was well aware of the visual art movement of the same name and wished to present a musical equivalent. "Either call it 'pop' or 'pop art,' either one I'm good with," he later stated.
The album was recorded over a span of approximately three weeks from September to October 2008. Recording sessions took place at Glenwood Studios in Burbank, California and at Avex Recording Studio in Honolulu, Hawaii. As implied by its title, 808s & Heartbreak prominently features the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Drawing inspiration from 1980s synthpop and electropop performers such as Phil Collins, Gary Numan, TJ Swan and Boy George, West felt that the 808 is a resourceful instrument that can be used to evoke emotion; the concept was introduced to him by Jon Brion. West utilized the sounds created by the 808 and manipulated its pitch to produce a distorted, electronic sound, an effect he referred to as "heartbreak". He felt the characteristic of the sound was representative of his state of mind. According to West, the fact that Hawaii's area code was "808" was coincidental, as he had already developed the album's title before being informed. The realization inspired him to pursue his direction with the album, however. In terms of musical direction, West's intentions, according to Mike Dean, were to go against the typical sound of hip hop beat, instead evoking the presence of tribal drums. Overall, West maintained a "minimal but functional" approach towards the album's studio production.
The album makes prominent use of the voice audio processor technology of Auto-Tune. West had previously experimented with the technology on The College Dropout for the background vocals of "Jesus Walks" and "Never Let Me Down", but he had not used it for lead vocals until 2008. "We were working on the remixes for Lil Wayne's 'Lollipop' and Young Jeezy's 'Put On' and he fell in love with the Auto-Tune", producer Mike Dean explained. Towards the end, West enlisted T-Pain for coaching on how to utilize the technology. West himself openly stated that he loved using Auto-Tune and was dismayed that the term has been commonly associated with being "wack". He considers the technology "the funnest thing to use" and compared the situation to when he was a child and thought the color pink was cool until someone told him "it was gay", producing an analogy of how the views of society can rob people of their confidence and self-esteem. He later went on to state that he enjoyed the electronic feel produced by Auto-Tune and sought out to juxtapose the mechanical sounds with the traditional sounds of taiko drums and choir monks.
Rapper Kid Cudi, who had signed onto West's G.O.O.D. Music label, contributed to two of the album's songs. Young Jeezy contributed a rap verse on the track "Amazing" while "See You in My Nightmares" is a duet with Lil Wayne. Singer-songwriter Esthero provided the few female vocals found on the album; credited under birth name Jenny-Bea Englishman, she co-wrote three tracks. When "RoboCop" appeared on the Internet, West disclaimed responsibility and was upset that the leak had occurred as the track was an unfinished version. Mike Dean had previously stated that the track was expected to receive additional treatment by Herbie Hancock before the album's release.
808s & Heartbreak is a radical departure from West's previous hip hop albums. According to 33⅓ writer Kirk Walker Graves, 808s & Heartbreak is an avant-garde electropop album. Rolling Stone magazine called it an "introspective, synthpop album," while The 405 described it as West's "experimental pop record." According to The Independent, West abandoned his customary hip hop sound in favor of sparse, drum machine-based electropop. Pitchfork's Scott Plagenhoef also categorized the album as "an introspective, minimal electro-pop record", but added that it is "steeped in regret, pain, and even more self-examination than a typical Kanye West album". Music writer Robert Christgau called it a "slow, sad-ass and self-involved ... breakup album" and analyzed that West's choice to "robotize as well as pitch-correct his voice both undercuts his self-importance and adds physical reality to tales of alienated fame that might otherwise be pure pity parties". Christgau asserted that its final track "Pinocchio Story" is "the only track here about what's really bringing [West] down: not the loss of his girlfriend but the death of his mother, during cosmetic surgery that somewhere not too deep down he's sure traces all too directly to his alienated fame." Andre Grant of HipHopDX wrote that "to combat this trenchant melancholia, he poured himself into an all-autotunes R&B album" which would prove divisive in hip hop. West's singing has been characterized as "flat" and "nearly unmelodic" which "underscores his own cyborgish detachment." Canadian writer Stephen Marche viewed that West used "the shallow musical gimmickry of Auto-Tune, a program designed to eliminate individuality, and produced a hauntingly personal album."
The music of 808s & Heartbreak draws heavily on electronic elements, particularly virtual synthesis, the Roland TR-808 drum machine, and explicitly auto-tuned vocal tracks. Tracks on the album utilize step input drum machine and synth-bass parts. Step input sequencing, a product of vintage analogue devices limited to recording only 16 individual notes, was popular in music production during the 1980s, but also became available in digital workstations. The album's music features austere production and elements such as dense drums, lengthy strings, droning synths, and somber piano. Andy Kellman of AllMusic writes of the music, "Several tracks have almost as much in common with irrefutably bleak post-punk albums, such as New Order's Movement and The Cure's Pornography, as contemporary rap and R&B." These musical elements help convey moods of despair and dejection that reflect the album's subject matter. NJ.com columnist Trist McCall wrote that the record "stripped modern art-pop down to its iconic rudiments — beats, charismatic personalities, hand-selected melodies, and computer-assisted vocals." Most of the lyrics are directed at an ex-lover; West refers to her treatment of him as "the coldest story ever told" on "Heartless", and on "RoboCop", she is called a "spoiled little L.A. girl" and is compared to the antagonist in the 1990 film Misery. On "Welcome to Heartbreak", West's character faces an existential crisis as he dispassionately recounts sitting alone on a flight, with a laughing family seated ahead of him. He longs for his late mother on the album's penultimate track "Coldest Winter", which samples the desolate 1983 song "Memories Fade" by Tears for Fears.
On September 24, West announced that he had finished the album and would be releasing it sometime in November. In his blog post, he wrote "I changed my album to November something cause I finished the album and I felt like it..I want y'all to hear it as soon as possible". West later stated that the album would be released on November 25, 2008. However, Island Def Jam, the distributing label, brought the date forward by one day to capitalize on Thanksgiving weekend. 808s & Heartbreak was also released on November 24, 2008 in the United Kingdom and the Philippines. A limited edition in a digipak case was first released in Germany on November 21, 2008. A special edition of the album was released on December 16 that contains the album in CD and dual LP format, and also features album artwork redone by the artist of the original cover, KAWS.
On October 16, West released an excerpt of "Coldest Winter" on the radio station Power 106 in Los Angeles. The track recreates elements of the song "Memories Fade" by the band Tears for Fears. The song "Paranoid" later leaked onto the Internet and features Mr. Hudson in the chorus. A remixed version of "Paranoid" was reported to feature pop singer Rihanna, but did not materialize. Also appearing prior to the release date were "Amazing" featuring Young Jeezy, "See You in My Nightmares" featuring Lil Wayne, "Street Lights", "Say You Will", "Welcome to Heartbreak" and "Bad News". An additional track, "Pinocchio Story" is a freestyle recorded at a live concert in Singapore. It was included in the album at the request of Beyoncé Knowles.
On October 14, West, in collaboration with Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft, hosted a promotional album listening event at Ace Gallery. Over 700 guests were invited to preview the entirety of 808s & Heartbreak. Under Beecroft's guidance, the event featured approximately forty nude women wearing nothing besides wool masks who silently stood in the center of the room. The women were illuminated by multicolored lights that would change as the music progressed. When it came time for him to speak, West stated that he'd been a fan of Beecroft's work and strong imagery, saying that he liked the idea of nudity because "society told us to wear clothes at a certain point". Beecroft had been contacted a month prior and conceptualized and generated the installation in a week. Beecroft admitted that while he had caught her offguard, she had the opportunity to hear the album for herself and heard things that touched her own life. Five days later, promotional photos for the album by photographer Willy Vanderperre were released. The images portrayed West wearing a grey glen plaid suit, large browline glasses, and a heart-shaped pin.
In October 2009, West was scheduled to embark on a tour, Fame Kills: Starring Kanye West and Lady Gaga tour, in promotion of Gaga's The Fame, and West's 808s & Heartbreak. It was canceled on October 1, 2009, without reason. Several songs from the album were performed by West during his live VH1 Storytellers performance, such as "Heartless", "Amazing" and "Say You Will." In the interim, director Nabil Elderkin directed two additional promotional videos for the album. "Welcome to Heartbreak", which featured an artistic use of liberal compression artifacts, was released in June 2009. A remixed version of "Coldest Winter" was released in February 2010. This video featured a woman in a wedding gown running away from a cult group through a moonlit forest.
808s & Heartbreak received generally positive reviews from critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream publications, the album received an average score of 75, based on 36 reviews. Chris Richards from The Washington Post called it "an information-age masterpiece", while USA Today critic Steve Jones said "West deftly uses the 808 drum machine and Auto-Tune vocal effect to channel his feelings of hurt, anger and doubt through his well-crafted lyrics". Dan Cairns from The Times stated, "This so should not work...Yet 808s & Heartbreak is a triumph, recklessly departing from the commercially copper-bottomed script and venturing far beyond West’s comfort zone." Rolling Stone's Jody Rosen commended West's incorporation of the Roland TR-808 drum machine and described the album as "Kanye's would-be Here, My Dear or Blood on the Tracks, a mournful song-suite that swings violently between self-pity and self-loathing". In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot called it West's "most radical yet" and said while West's fans may be disappointed, "this one is for him. It remains to be seen if he goes back to making records for everybody else. For now, this is one fascinatingly perverse detour." PopMatters critic Dave Heaton was impressed by West's "song and album construction, and with the way he captures a particular feeling through unusual, evocative, carefully crafted music that’s both simple and complex, cold and warm, mechanical and human, melodic and harsh". Writing for MSN Music, Robert Christgau found it "brilliant" with a unique "dark sound" and "engaging tunes", despite a second-half drop-off, and praised West's use of Auto-Tune, which he felt "both undercuts his self-importance and adds physical reality to tales of alienated fame that might otherwise be pure pity parties".
In a less enthusiastic review, The Independent found West's "immersion in personal misery" uncomfortable and commented that the "stylistic tropes quickly become irritating". AllMusic editor Andy Kellman stated "no matter its commendable fearlessness, the album is a listless, bleary trudge along West's permafrost". Charles Aaron from Spin criticized the songs' musical structures, calling the album "a long processional that starts and restarts and never reaches the ceremony". Slant Magazine's Wilson McBee panned West's singing, while Jon Caramanica from The New York Times singled it out as the "weakness for which this album will ultimately be remembered, some solid songs notwithstanding." Caramanica wrote that, "at best, it is a rough sketch for a great album, with ideas he would have typically rendered with complexity, here distilled to a few words, a few synthesizer notes, a lean drumbeat. At worst, it’s clumsy and underfed, a reminder that all of that ornamentation served a purpose". Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis stated, "If West had interspersed the more mechanical tracks with some that were the exact opposite—say, simple piano interludes provided by his old collaborators John Legend or Jon Brion—he might have made a masterpiece. Instead, he's merely given us an extremely intriguing, sporadically gripping, undeniably fearless and altogether unexpected piece of his troubled soul."
808s & Heartbreak was voted the tenth best album of 2008 in the Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of prominent American critics. The album was also named one of the ten best albums of 2008 by a number of publications, including the Associated Press (number four), The Hartford Courant (number seven), NOW (number four), The Observer (number eight), Vibe (no order) and Time (number six). Pitchfork named 808s & Heartbreak the twenty-first best album of 2008. Dan Leroy of LA Weekly cited it as one of the top ten hip hop albums of the year. Jam! named it the top album of 2008. Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis included the album on his list of the year's ten best albums and wrote, "With every listen, the poignancy of these personal tales of loss grows deeper, perfectly matched by the cold, lonely, robotic but nevertheless winning grooves that accompany them. Upon further reflection, it is a brave and daring 4-star effort that deserves to be heard by any fan of adventurous pop music." Time Out New York featured the album on its list of the Best and Worst Albums of 2008. The magazine's writer Colin St. John cited 808s & Heartbreak as one of the worst of 2008, and editor Steve Smith named it third on his best-of list, while calling the album "the year's most misunderstood triumph."
Despite its accolades, 808s & Heartbreak was largely overlooked as a contender for the 52nd Grammy Awards. According to Vibe magazine editor-in-chief Jermaine Hall, West's controversial incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and the ensuing backlash against West "probably hurt him", but perceived West's stylistic change on the album as the primary reason for it not being nominated. West received one solo nomination, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for "Amazing", and five other nominations for his guest appearances and collaborational work. 808s & Heartbreak received a nomination for Outstanding Album at 40th annual NAACP Image Awards. The album also received a nomination for Best Album at the 2009 MOBO Awards. In 2009, Rolling Stone ranked it number 63 on its list of the 100 Best Album of the Decade, and Q named it the decade's 81st best record. On similar lists, Slant Magazine and PopMatters ranked it 124th and 42nd, respectively.
In its first week of sales, 808s & Heartbreak reached the number one spot on Billboard 200, selling 450,145 units in its first week. In the last week of the year, 808s & Heartbreak sold 165,100 copies, jumping from the eleventh spot back up to the number five on the Billboard 200. The album moved up again the following week, selling 70,900 units and landing at number three. On January 27, 2009, 808s & Heartbreak was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, serving as West's fourth album to ship one million copies in the United States. As of June 14, 2013, it has sold 1.7 million copies in the US, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Despite the debate and uncertainty surrounding the album's conception, its preceding singles demonstrated outstanding chart performances. Upon its release, the lead single "Love Lockdown" debuted at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a "Hot Shot Debut". It is the highest debut of West's career, the second highest debut on the Hot 100 that year and the tenth song of the millennium to debut in the top three. Grossing over 1.3 million copies at the iTunes Store alone, the single was certified platinum by the RIAA by the end of the year. On August 18, 2010, it was certified triple platinum by the RIAA, for shipments of three million units in the US. The single was also met by positive reviews from music critics, eventually culminating with being crowned "Song of the Year" by Time. The second single, "Heartless" performed similarly and became his second consecutive "Hot Shot Debut" by debuting at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. It was certified double platinum by the RIAA, having shipped two million units in the US. Due in part to the momentum produced by the album's release, certain tracks were met by chart success despite not actually being released as singles. The tenth track "See You in My Nightmares" became yet another "Hot Shot Debut," peaking at number twenty-one in the US and at number twenty-two in Canada while the fourth track "Amazing" charted at 81 on the Hot 100. Following suit, "Welcome to Heartbreak" peaked at number eighty-seven on the Pop 100.
Before its release, reaction to 808s & Heartbreak was mixed, ranging from anticipation to bewilderment and indifference to the album's concept. Upon the unveiling of the lead single "Love Lockdown" at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, music audiences were taken aback by the uncharacteristic production style and the presence of Auto-Tune. The negative feedback intensified when West revealed that the entire album would be primarily sung with Auto-Tune rather than rapped and would focus on themes of love and heartache.
Numerous hip hop fans and certain rappers mocked West for becoming "sappy" while others deemed the upcoming LP as a throwaway experimental album. Comparisons were drawn to Electric Circus, an album recorded by West's labelmate and close friend Common. MTV eventually interviewed Common to share his thoughts and views on the artistic direction of the album. Common expressed both his understanding and his support for West's intentions, stating "I love it. I'mma tell you, as an artist, you wanna be free. I'mma do what I feel. You can't just cater to the audience. You gotta say, 'Hey, y'all, this is where I'm at.' For him to do an album called 808s and Heartbreak, you know that's where he is at this moment. I heard some songs, and I think it's fresh. I think the people are ready for it."
West received similar approval from Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy, both of whom contributed to the album. During an interview, when asked what music today inspires him, Wayne stated "everybody's doing their thing, but they're not exciting. Everybody is doing the same thing. That's terrible. Do I love the music that's out right now? I love it with a passion. Does it motivate me? Not one bit. That's because 808s & Heartbreak isn't out yet." Despite the approval from the rap superstars, as well as the record-breaking chart performances of the first two singles, hip hop audiences remained indifferent towards the album, predicting it would flop. Responding to reviews, West stated that he didn't care about sales or getting good ratings, saying that it came from the heart and that's all that matters to him. When asked about the current state of hip hop, West compared it to a high school, stating that hip hop used to be all about being fearless and standing out, and that now it is about being afraid and fitting in.
Although West designed it as a melancholic pop album, 808s & Heartbreak had a significant effect on hip hop music. While his decision to sing about love, loneliness, and heartache for the entirety of the album was at first heavily criticized by music audiences and the album predicted to be a flop, its subsequent critical acclaim and commercial success encouraged other mainstream rappers to take greater creative risks with their music. During the release of The Blueprint 3, New York rap mogul Jay-Z revealed that his next studio album would be an experimental effort, stating, "... it's not gonna be a #1 album. That's where I'm at right now. I wanna make the most experimental album I ever made." Jay-Z elaborated that like West, he was unsatisfied with contemporary hip hop, was being inspired by indie-rockers like Grizzly Bear and asserted his belief that the indie rock movement would play an important role in the continued evolution of hip hop.
The album impacted hip hop stylistically and laid the groundwork for a new wave of hip hop artists who generally eschewed typical rap braggadocio for intimate subject matter and introspection, including B.o.B, Kid Cudi, Childish Gambino, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and Drake. Jake Paine of HipHopDX dubbed the album as "our Chronic", noting West's effect on hip hop with 808s & Heartbreak as "a sound, no different than the way Dr. Dre's synthesizer challenged the boom-bap of the early '90s." Fact described the record as an "art-pop masterpiece [which] broke the shackles of generations of one-upmanship [in hip hop]." Rolling Stone journalist Matthew Trammell asserted that the record was ahead of its time and wrote in a 2012 article, "Now that popular music has finally caught up to it, 808s & Heartbreak has revealed itself to be Kanye’s most vulnerable work, and perhaps his most brilliant."
According to Greg Kot, 808s & Heartbreak initiated the "wave of inward-looking sensitivity" and "emo"-inspired rappers during the late 2000s: "[It] presaged everything from the introspective hip-hop of Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009) to the wispy crooning, plush keyboards and light mechanical beats of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and British dub-step balladeer James Blake." Consequence of Sound credited it with shaping subsequent developments in "indie R&B or electropop or whatever you want to call it": "808s' is flooded with R&B and it digitizes the raw emotion and isolated feelings that [James Blake and The Weeknd] have carved their brands out of today." Craig D. Linsey from The Village Voice wrote that the album's "naked humanity ... practically set off the emo-rap/r&b boom that everyone from Drake to Frank Ocean to The Weeknd now traffic in." Marcus Scott of GIANT said rappers such as B.o.B, Drake, and Kid Cudi followed West's album with similarly-minded works, citing West's introspective, emotional themes and synthpop/"Vangelis-inspired" music as influences. In the opinion of Billboard senior editor Alex Gale, the album was "the equivalent of (Bob) Dylan going electric, and you still hear that all the time, in hip-hop and outside of hip-hop." Drake's 2009 mixtape So Far Gone received comparisons from critics to 808s & Heartbreak. Todd Martens of the Los Angeles Times cited 808s & Heartbreak as "the template [...] for essentially the entirety of Drake's young career", and that wrote that he "shares West's love for mood and never-ending existential analysis". In a 2009 interview, Drake cited West as "the most influential person" in shaping his own sound. In 2014, Rolling Stone named 808s & Heartbreak one of the 40 most groundbreaking albums of all time. On September 26, 2015, West performed the album in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Songwriting credits, production credits, and notes for tracks 1–11 adapted from the liner notes of 808s & Heartbreak. Songwriting credits for track 12 adapted from BMI.Notes
^[a] co-producer"RoboCop" embodies portions of "Kissing in the Rain", written by Doyle
"Bad News" contains a sample of the recording "See Line Woman" as performed by Nina Simone and written by Bass
"Coldest Winter" embodies an interpolation of "Memories Fade", written by Orzabal
Credits for 808s & Heartbreak adapted from AllMusic.