The producer and songwriter Jeff Bhasker has worked on four albums with Kanye West. 808s & Heartbreak was their first collaboration, and likely the most memorable. “It was probably the easiest Kanye West record that ever got made,” he said. “It flowed the most effortlessly because we basically did it in three weeks.”
Ten years after its release, 808s & Heartbreak is an absolute. Its influence never really ceased reverberating, and its imprint still appears with some frequency across hip-hop (and pop music writ large). Kanye West’s fourth studio album raised an entire generation: wide-eyed child actors, hardened Atlanta drug dealers, elusive bedroom producers. Somehow, the Chicago artist’s most experimental and idiosyncratic work became his most seminal.
The warbled and robotic voice once meant to denote distance and detachment has now been warmed over. The untrained voices and unsung melodies of countless artists — mostly men and women of color — were let loose upon the world to rewrite the foundations of pop. The precise, synthetic and attractive bass quirks of the Roland TR-808 became the heartbeat that fueled heartbreak. 808s’ influence, though, was never guaranteed. Its creation was a long-winding and often rushed road, according to the seven artists who spoke to Rolling Stone about its inception.
According to its well-worn inception story, 808s & Heartbreak is part self-examination, part-exorcism of two tragic and life-defining moments for Kanye: the death of his mother, Donda West, on November 10, 2007, from cosmetic surgery complications and the dissolution of his 18-month engagement to Alexis Phifer. For West’s closest confidantes, his early, raw and unfiltered recordings were the first time they heard how he was coping with the losses.
“I think because he doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve a lot of time that a lot of us that are very close to him in his inner circle, that was the first time that we knew exactly where he was emotionally,” Tony Williams, Kanye’s cousin and frequent collaborator said. “A lot of it was not ever voiced verbally to us in those situations.”
Malik Yusef, one of Kanye’s oldest writing partners, remembers an inflection point between the tragedy of West’s personal life and his ascension to a new level of fame. The achievements of 2007’s Graduation — beating 50 Cent in a highly publicized first-week sales battle, selling 957,000 copies in the first week, the crossover success of “Stronger” and “Good Life” — turned West into what Yusef describes as “not just rap fame, superstardom.”
“That was the first time that we knew exactly where he was emotionally.” —Tony Williams
“Him fighting his fear, fighting depression, kind of for real, for real thrown into the public eye. So him trying to go inside himself is difficult, because he could easily write from a place of stardom, of fame, of the industry.” Yusef said. “And yeah he went deep inside himself and addressed those utterly dark, sick emotions that exist, the doubts, the fears, which makes for obviously a great tale. If you can get there.”
“He didn’t want to take a year off. He wanted to get the project out, but some people were like, ‘Give Kanye time to heal.’ I’m like ‘Nah, man.’ You gotta heal through it. You gotta go through the process and heal. You gotta work, while you’re healing.”
The genesis of 808s & Heartbreak began on 2008’s The Glow In the Dark Tour. The space opera via stadium tour found West experimenting more live, especially with his singing voice. Jeff Bhasker — a keyboardist and producer who was part of West’s live band and would end up producing and writing on nearly half of the album — witnessed the project taking shape as West began trying new things in his performances.
“The main things that triggered the idea of 808s was when we were doing the Glow in the Dark tour, and there was the ‘Good Life’ part of the show, and he said, ‘I want to do the T-Pain part in the show.’ So we put the Auto-Tune on so he could do it live, and when he had that, it was like Christmas, you know? Because now all of a sudden he could play an instrument.”
By April of the tour’s first month, Kanye had solidified the idea for his singing album, his first departure from rap. Esthero, the Canadian singer-songwriter who voiced Jane the spaceship on The Glow In the Dark Tour, remembers the Chicago artist telling her his plans for his next career move after the L.A. stop of his tour.
“Scott Storch was down the street having a party and so ‘Ye and I decided to go and check it out,” Esthero said. “It was just me and him walking alone up to the door, and we were having a conversation, and him saying to me, ‘I want to make a record where I’m singing all the way through.'”
The first step in the process was “Love Lockdown,” a pulsing, serrated left turn for West that melded an alien 808s beat with piano chords and tribal drums. After previewing a demo of “Love Lockdown” for MTV Executive producer Dave Sirulnik at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, West decided to debut the track at that year’s Video Music Awards. The record was finished three days before Kanye was set to perform it on the Paramount Studios lot.
“There was a lot of verses and a lot of mumbling to translate, so we had a lot of writers trying to crack how to write that song and what that story is,” Bhasker said of the lyric writing process.
“We put the Auto-Tune on so he could do it live, and when he had that, it was like Christmas, you know? Because now all of a sudden he could play an instrument.” —Jeff Bhasker
After a friendly check-up and visit to the studio, West shoved a yellow notepad into Esthero’s hands, enlisting her to help finish the song. “The majority of it was already there, and I feel like our job, the other collaborators on this album, was really to polish and finish thoughts that had already come out fairly full and intact from him,” she says. “I’m going to say for the majority of 808s, that kind of happened to Kanye on every song.”
On September 7, Kanye debuted “Love Lockdown” flanked by 20 taiko drummers. In the middle of a dark, violet stage, Kanye donned the gray tweed jacket, afro-mullet and heartbroken pin that had become a staple sartorial choice for this era of West. His voice wavered, his onstage confidence was clearly fragile, but the 808s epoch began nonetheless.
Mature and minimal, but deceptively complex, 808s & Heartbreak found Kanye enlisting his usual collaborators (Tony Williams, Malik Yusef, Consequence), while adding new voices like Kid Cudi, Mr. Hudson and Esthero to the fold. Studio sessions would start with long conversations and in Yusef’s case, contentious arguments.
“I don’t know about the other writers, but me and Kanye argue profusely. I think through 808s & Heartbreak, I probably got kicked off the label two or three times,” Yusef said, fondly, of the early recording sessions. The two friends’ discussions about relationships ended up becoming the narrative thrust of the album.
“We were addressing heartbreak and heartbreak is a two-way street. Sometimes you get your heart broken and sometimes somebody breaks your heart and you gotta own that. You gotta own if you broke somebody’s heart, and that’s not an easy place for us to be as humans to say ‘I was wrong.’ That’s one thing we like the least, to say ‘I made a mistake. I did something wrong. I must atone or repent or redeem myself.’ That’s where we were like, ‘Yo, what have you done wrong, though?’ I think Kanye’s always in that space.”
For a new artist like Cudi, many of his contributions were meant for an entirely different album.
“I remember ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’ was initially something that I believe was submitted to Jay-Z and it was going to be called ‘Cookin’ Up in the Kitchen,'” Consequence said. “Before I think it was, ‘Cookin’ up in the kitchen / I can’t stop having these visions / I gotta keep winning.'”
“The 808 records came out of doing The Blueprint 3 records,” No I.D., Kanye’s mentor and frequent collaborator detailed on the Juan Epstein podcast in 2014. “Matter of fact, when we did ‘Heartless,’ he just stopped and said, ‘No.’ I was like, ‘No what?’ He was like, ‘No way! This is my record!’ I was like, ‘Come on, man. Can we just finish the guy’s album?’ He was like, ‘Nope. I’m doing an album.'”
“It was probably the easiest Kanye West record that ever got made and flowed the most effortlessly because we basically did it in three weeks.” —Jeff Bhasker
808s & Heartbreak was also the culmination of Kanye setting specific sonic parameters, while embracing his more melodic inclinations.
“Define your palate and work with limitations. There it is in the title: 808s and Heartbreaks, you know?” Bhasker said. “So it’s 808s and the heartbreak, I don’t know if you know, is a term for the effect that’s on the vocal, which is distortion, octave and Auto-Tune. So that’s called ‘the heartbreak.’ That’s the sound of heartbreak.”
Kanye would record through the “heartbreak effect” partially as an aesthetic choice but also, according to Esthero, because it “made him feel a little safer, and cradled.” It was there to help West, who Williams describes as “a disgruntled singer in a rapper’s body,” fulfill the vocal ambitions he was hearing in his head.
It was in the course of making “Say You Will” that Esthero witnessed the peak of West’s capabilities as a singer-songwriter come alive. She briefly breaks into the chorus, “Hey, hey, hey, hey, don’t say you will,” honing in on the notes Kanye had decided to settle on when he was singing.
“I begged him. I said ‘I don’t care how many of these lines you re-record. I know you have to write lyrics and you’re going to re-record them. That one, do not get rid of that. Please keep that. It’s magic.'”
It was Manny Marroquin’s job to uphold the integrity of the first half of the album’s concept — the 808s. The eight-time Grammy winning mixing engineer had less than two weeks to mix the album, while West was completing his world tour. He described the 808 as “the driving force for every song.”
“Making room for the 808s was probably the biggest challenge. Most people I think when they work with 808s they try to EQ the 808s so that it sounds bigger and it’s better and all this, but in my opinion my approach was the complete opposite.”
“It’s like how do you just not fuck with the 808s and have that be as pure as it can be without messing with it? I think that way you don’t have to have a big sounding 808, it’s more of an organic and it feels right and it’s great and it’s got life to it.”
Of the eleven songs on 808s, “Robocop” is the one that the majority of collaborators agree was the most difficult to pull off. According to Consequence, the song was “so conceptual” and “would’ve probably been an easier rhyme to write.”
“I don’t think he was a hundred percent happy with that track to be honest with you. I don’t know if he was ever a hundred percent happy with it,” Marroquin said. “I think it was challenging, just because he heard it in his head and he couldn’t get it… We got like three or four different versions of that song.”
According to Esthero, there is a demo with a different string arrangement. It’s still the one she prefers. “There was this swell, and I still listen to the original demo of ‘Robocop’ because I just felt the original strings sat better. I don’t know, production-wise, how long they worked on that. I can’t remember. I just remember being in the room and randomly spitting out lyrics. Like it will be playing what he had done, over and over again, and I was like ‘Oh, that sounds like this word! Try that,’ and, like, make a sentence make sense.”
Aesthetics matter to West, and a element that helped define the 808s & Heartbreak era was the album’s iconic cover. In the middle of a muted, gray background lies a deflated red balloon. Willo Perron the creative director of the project remembers meeting Kanye, Virgil Abloh and Don C for the first time in Tokyo. The album’s artwork was due later that night.
“So I went to the store, that’s kind of like a department store and a hardware store in Tokyo, called Tokyu Hands and I kind of bought everything that had a heart,” Perron said. “It’s kind of perfect that Tokyo is like a model spot for toys and hearts. We went back to the hotel and just kinda shot [on] this shitty little digital camera, I shot a bunch of these heart objects from Tokyu Hands.”
Perron went back to his room to take more photos and send them to Kanye. It was the deflated heart he connected to the most. The trio of West, Abloh and Perron were under strict time constraints to get the artwork completed.
“It was like an iTunes deadline that came up and they were like, ‘If we don’t have an image for the album cover today, the albums gonna get delayed another few months,’ or whatever it was at those times. I think the original iTunes one is slightly a different color.”
“It’s like witnessing the birth of Cubism,” Bhasker said. 808s & Heartbreak and Picasso’s calling card were separated by over a century, but both were hated in their time. 50 Cent isn’t exactly Louis Vauxcelles (the French art critic who dismissively invented the term “Cubism”), but his critique was just as harsh. “I’m surprised he got away with it,” he said in a 2009 radio interview. “That album is supposed to be a brick.” Much to the chagrin of traditional hip-hop gatekeepers, West’s most experimental work sold has sold a million copies and spawned the six-times platinum “Heartless” and the triple platinum “Love Lockdown.”
But it’s that hatred and dismissal that kept the album, alive. There is a fearlessness that enveloped Kanye it permeates 808s. The stakes were high, the creative decisions were risky, and the margin of error was thin.
“When we sat back and we listened to it, I think we were like, ‘Either this gonna change the game or people are going to hate it,'” Consequence said. “I think that was the bet and I think we walked out the casinos winning with this one.”