Kanye West’s fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak, came as a bit of a shock to put it mildly. For one thing, it saw the rapper singing (heavily assisted by Auto-Tune) on almost every song. For another, it saw a sharp shift toward naked, emotional lyrics from an artist who spent most of his previous album boasting about how rich he was—and outselling 50 Cent as a result.
A lot of this was inspired by the recent death of his mother and collapse of his engagement, but it was still jarring. Reviews were mixed; most amusingly, Stephen Colbert said, “Why buy Kanye’s album? You can basically hear it for free. Just put a tin can to your ear and lean against a Pac-Man machine.” To put it in plain terms, 808s & Heartbreak had a lot of great ideas in it and sounded state-of-the-art, but it was a giant bummer.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear why the album was necessary. It basically cleared the decks for Kanye artistically, giving him the latitude to make his next album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a grandiose masterpiece that made massive risks look par for the course simply because his previous album had been so severe. Future generations who look back at his discography will likely find this to be the most intriguing moment in it, and people who laughed it off at the time will seem short-sighted.