It’s easy to overstate the impact of an album as singular as Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, so let’s begin with the caveats. Scarface reckoned with suicidal thoughts on the 1991 Geto Boys classic ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’, several years before a hungry young West helped Jay-Z patent The Blueprint, whereas T-Pain recognised autotune as a machine for striking pop gold in 2007. Nothing on 808s is groundbreaking.
Nevertheless, its legend has endured surprisingly well. We all know the tragic circumstances of its creation. 808s is haunted by the loss of West’s mother, Donda West, who passed during a liposuction operation paid for by the Chicago rapper himself. What followed was his chilliest record yet, a cold fusion of Human League keyboards and autotuned cyber-soul released to both widespread acclaim and general confusion.
Ten years on, time has vindicated 808s as a watershed in popular music production. Glance at the charts and you find its progeny everywhere, from Drake’s early mixtapes to the modern output of smart new MCs like Juice WRLD and Gunna. Listening back to its songs, you can appreciate the influence while also noticing how eloquently, if unintentionally, its hollow drums reflected a planet still in deep recovery from a colossal global financial failure.
‘Welcome to Heartbreak’ opens on the funereal hum of a single cello. He determines to rap, perhaps attempting to lure back any listeners put off by ‘Say You Will’, but the vocals remain distorted, frosted over in alienating layers of distortion and reverb. The rhymes are clumsy: ‘Dad cracked a joke all the kids laugh/ But I couldn’t hear em all the way in first class’, but West’s blunt words suggest the alienated lifestyle of the improbably rich and famous.
the vocals remain frosted over in alienating layers of distortion and reverb
Listen to the album’s closing soliloquy, ‘Pinocchio Story’, a freestyle recorded live at Singapore. West laments: ‘There is no YSL that they could sell/ To get my heart, out of this hell/And my mind, out of this jail’. So hoarding luxury Francophile accessories doesn’t make you happy. But what is this jail? On first listen, the raps sound a little toothless for an MC who began as a forthright critic of social injustice. Late Registration cut ‘Roses’ found pathos in a retired secretary’s struggle to pay for her hospital bills on a middle class pension. Why are Kanye’s lyrics on 808s always so vague, always gesturing to a problem without uttering its name?
It’s because the capitalist norms that cripple us, as some theorists have argued, are so normalised, so endemic, that they almost become invisible. Mark Fisher, a critic who often referred to pop in his readings of modern economics, wrote of ‘a sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility’ haunting the routines of contemporary life. Unlike West, he could give it a name: capitalist realism, the acceptance of competition as the default design for humanity. Every talent, skill, and emotion is commodified, its essence chained to a free market value. Anything that defies a quantitative measurement- kindness, love, community- is as an obstacle to economic progress. And our ministers assure us that there is no alternative.
It was the first mainstream pop record to capture our depressive crisis
The effect on the mind is frankly devastating. Neoliberalism isolates us from our peers. Eventually, the pursuit of pleasure, rather than the pleasure itself, becomes our only available therapy. Fisher called it ‘depressive hedonia’ and it’s the background noise of every modern pop record worth hearing. You can discern in the zombified gloom of Travis Scott’s pornographic catalogues of designer consumption. You can taste it in the acid of Robyn’s bittersweet promise on ‘Honey’: ‘No, you’re not gonna get what you need/But baby, I have what you want/ Come get your honey’.
The legacy of 808s reaches beyond an infectiously refrigerated sound. It was perhaps the first mainstream pop record to capture something of our current depressive crisis. Hip-hop was among the 20th century’s great cultural evangelists for unfettered consumerism. To be rich was to be free. It is fitting the 21st century’s most radical artist would see that myth for what it was: a machine good for nothing but producing lonely disenchantment. After all, no Louis Vuitton can stitch the wound of losing somebody you love.
West’s most inward album probably wasn’t intended as a capitalist critique. But pop is the canary in the coal mine. Its downbeat melodies offer a topography of our culture. Trace the contours and you touch the face of the greatest threat our society has known: the neoliberal project that taught us nothing in our lives mattered unless it could be measured by the dollar sign.