“This is a song I wrote for my mother back in 2000,” says a fresh-faced 28-year-old Kanye West. “I saved it for the opportunity to be on the Oprah show and perform it for her.” In 2005, the televised world premiere of Hey Mama saw Donda West beaming with joy, dancing next to Oprah as Kanye emboldened a middle-aged studio audience to clap along to his emotional sermon.
When Donda West died of complications from cosmetic surgery in 2007, Kanye’s world was shattered. Months later, West ended his six-year relationship with fiancée Alexis Phifer. He also put a stop to completing his planned tetralogy. In an interview from 2003, West outlined his ambitious vision for his first four projects before he’d even released his debut record, College Dropout. "I'm calling the next one Late Registration," he told MTV. "Then my third album is going to be called Graduation. And the fourth is Good-Ass Job." West scrapped Good-Ass Job and on November 24th, 2008 released the iconoclastic 808s & Heartbreak.
Recorded and produced in just three weeks, West’s fourth studio album is arguably his most polarising. Renowned for his heavy use of auto-tune on lead vocals, inspired by T-Pain, Lil Wayne’s Lollipop and Young Jeezy’s Put On, West moved to change the landscape of music. “Hip hop is over for me now,” he started saying, dismissively, in interviews. “From now on, I want to be seen alongside only the musicians you see in the old black-and-white photographs — Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles.”
Ten years later, 808s & Heartbreak remains to be the coronation of Kanye “The Innovator” West and also an introduction to a man alienated by fame. The raw exploration of emotional upheaval was for all intents and purposes, unchartered territory in hip hop. Without 808s & Heartbreak, we may never have known the robotic trap of Travis Scott or the sad crooning of Drake. But we never would have had 808s & Heartbreak without Kid Cudi.
After a chance meeting at a Virgin Megastore in 2004, West called on Cudi to reference hooks for Jay-Z. While in the studio, the pair began to play around with Good-Ass Job. There’s a theory that Cudi’s melody-heavy singsong style inspired West to do 808s in the first place.
Five months prior to West recording 808s, Plain Pat (who has managed both Cudi and West), sent A Kid Named Cudi, to West. He immediately flew Cudi to Hawaii where they would work on the record together. “I wrote all the records,” West told DJ Semtex in an interview, “I would hum it out and get the basic idea in one take... and then I'd have Cudi, Esthero or Tony Williams just vibe out and help me think of a line to make this sound better. [Cudi] brought a lot to the table with the singer-rapper style.” In another interview with Rolling Stone, West credited the record’s “brooding, stark sound” entirely to Cudi. “His writing is just so pure and natural and important,” said West, “[That's] more important than where things chart."
Cudi’s grasp on melodies and fusion of genres that ranged from grunge, electropop, and even house music, rather than traditional hip hop is ubiquitous on 808s. West’s fascination with the Roland TR-808 drum machine, synth pop, and performers like Phil Collins and Boy George feels almost at one with Cudi’s debut studio album, Man On The Moon: The End Of Day.
Credited for co-writing Heartless, Welcome To Heartbreak, Paranoid and Robocop, Cudi hints in an interview with Complex that the summation of his input extended beyond this. From the distorted vocals on Amazing to the tenderness of Love Lockdown, Cudi’s presence is never far. A lot of his input from this time, including Man On The Moon (The Anthem), Heaven At Nite and Day ‘N’ Nite mirror a lilting dalliance with melancholy like distant relatives of West’s output. In the final moments of Streetlights West bemoans “life’s just not fair” repeatedly, completely succumbed by a desolate sadness. In 808s' darkest moments, it’s hard not to become overwhelmingly grateful that Cudi was present to guide this vehicle of bubbling emotion and help create one of the most pivotal albums across pop, hip hop and R&B.
This year, a decade since 808s, Cudi and West released their eponymous debut studio album, Kids See Ghosts. The omnipresence of Cudi is felt in the darkness of Yeezus, the euphoria of Pablo (Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1) and on the only memorable moments of ye (Ghost Town).
To celebrate the gravity of 808s & Heartbreak means more than honouring its decade-long influence on hip hop and the artists borne from Kanye West’s innovation. In his most vulnerable moments, West’s braggadocio and vainglorious facade melted away and with the unsung hero of the record, Kid Cudi, created his most powerful statement yet.