Drake is back in the news again. The 29 year-old Canadian rapper and bona fide cultural phenomenon broke the internet once again with the release of his “Hotline Bling” music video on Oct. 19, so he’s going to get some love from this column. The catchy song has, so far, peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and could become Drake’s first track to hit number one. In addition, the Toronto superstar already has two of 2015’s biggest albums (“If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” and “What A Time to be Alive”) and is seemingly physically unable to make anything other than a hit.
All of these successes, however, wouldn’t have been possible if Kanye West had never released “808s & Heartbreak” back in 2008. Yes, Aubrey Drake Graham has Yeezy to thank for his success. Frankly, artists like Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, ILoveMakonnen, PartyNextDoor, Dej Loaf and Fetty Wap should probably also invest in sending Kanye a fruit basket. West was always ahead of the curve, but, with the ascension of Drake and his OVO Sound label mates, among others, the importance of “808s & Heartbreak” becomes even clearer. Drake’s entire sound feels like an extension of Kanye’s influential record. In fact, a great chunk of modern popular hip-hop can be traced back to the album that gave us “Heartless” and “Love Lockdown.” “808s & Heartbreak” would seem so commonplace in today’s hip-hop scene, but, in 2008, it was revolutionary. It featured beats that were silky smooth, almost futuristic, sounding and auto-tuned rapping that flowed over the synthetic, mellow and charismatic production. The album didn’t shy away from being vulnerable or emotional aspects but instead chose to feature those themes of self-doubt, personal misery and romantic failure.
These three elements are staples of Drake’s and The Weeknd’s catalogs today, which dominate popular hip-hop music. In 2008, the rap scene looked a whole lot different than it does today. The “Dirty South” sub-genre, gangster rap with Southern crunk flair, was still incredibly popular as Lil Wayne, TI, Young Jeezy and Rick Ross released among the top-selling albums of the year. While that sound hasn’t gone out of style, the success of a song like “Hotline Bling” would have been unthinkable in 2008. The beat is too pop, the material too emotional, the delivery too corny and the video too silly.
It took a monumental Kanye record to prove that rappers could bear their soul and sing about heartbreak. One of West’s protégés, Kid Cudi, also advanced the “808s & Heartbreak” appeal through his wildly popular projects “Man on the Moon” (2009) and “Man on the Moon II” (2010), which were essentially spinoffs of Kanye’s album in terms of thematic elements and general sound.
Drake himself burst onto the scene in 2009 with “So Far Gone,” his third mixtape. A Sept. 9, 2009 Entertainment Weekly article praised the record, saying Drake is “crooning Auto-Tune love songs one moment, spitting clever bars the next.”
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Without “808s & Heartbreak,” the club would never go up on a Tuesday, Cudi would never go on his pursuit of happiness, The Weeknd would not be calling anybody when it’s half past five, Drake’s hotline would never bling and hip-hop music just wouldn’t be the same.