Is Kanye’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ The Most Influential Album of the 21st Century?

Kanye West’s fourth studio album, 808s & Heartbreak, was released 15 years ago. Maybe today more than ever, we can see just how influential this album was on music. At the time of its release, 808s was considered the most experimental Kanye has ever been. To this day, some people praise it’s uniqueness and creativity, while others scoff at and blame it for the landscape of music today.

Four years ago, a reddit post had the family tree of 808s, using Drake, Future, and Kid Cudi as the main branches, and from there creating other famous artists we love to listen to today: Travis Scott, Migos, Young Thug, The Weeknd, Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, Lil Baby, amongst others. The other day, I saw the tree reappear on a TikTok video. Today, I want to bring forward a harder question, is 808s & Heartbreak the most influential album of the 21st Century?

Let’s start here first, it is seemingly undeniable at this point that 808s is the main source of influence for rappers using auto tune and singing about their feelings, women, heartbreak, etc. Now that is not to say that Kanye created that sound, but he certainly helped bring it to the mainstream and made it ‘cool’ to do so.

A moment of appreciation for t-pain

T-Pain, Teddy Pain, Tallahassee Pain, Teddy Benderazzdown, he is the progenitor of auto tune. However, T-Pain was so closely associated with R&B that his style of music making was way more in line with that genre. An established rap icon like Kanye bringing it to hip-hop is what made it such a significant stylistic change. But salute to T-Pain, genuinely one of the most talented individuals in music history. 

When I posed this question to my friends, one of them said to me, “John, are you saying that without 808s, there is no Drake? Because newsflash pal, Drake was going to be a star either way.” To which I say, no. Drake, Future, and Kid Cudi (the main branches) existed along side Kanye already, but it is undeniable the influence the album had on their style, especially early on. Of course, Kid Cudi worked closely with Kanye on 808s, without him, who knows what that album turns into?

I’m looking at the big picture, take a look at the hip-hop landscape today. How many artists out there don’t have a single, or an entire album, where they are using auto tune or singing a chorus or a verse about their emotions or a girl? It’s a normal practice in music today. Yes, we all love the gangster rap of the 90s and early 2000s, but it’s so much easier to relate to your favorite artist talking about a girl.

What other artist can have as strong as a claim as Kanye for directly inspiring so many others? Even with all his recent and unfortunate controversies aside, his musical influence has reached so many of the biggest and most successful hip-hop artists of the last 15 years.

Am I biased? absolutely. 808s & Heartbreak is my favorite Kanye album; but I think I make more than a few good points. Auto tune became a common placed tool in rap. Being comfortable with ones masculinity was more openly accepted in hip-hop. Belting your heart out on a chorus is a must.

Shout out to the actual GOAT, Michael Jackson, who told Kanye he could sing after he heard Good Life (which happened to also feature T-Pain).

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