Last weekend, Twitter celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Kanye West’s landmark 808s & Heartbreak album.
Hope y’all had fun with that. I wasn’t moved.
808s represented a turning point for musical culture, no doubt. Unfortunately, that tonal shift kicked off a decade of events that all but erased soul music from mainstream airwaves.
Yeah, I’m bout to go on one of my old man rants. But I said what I said: 808s & Heartbreak is Patient Zero for the illness that crippled modern R&B.
Let’s go back to 2008, where the “snap” era of ringtone rap was on its last legs and fans were ready for something new. Enter this guy.
T-Pain, who went from mediocre rapper to Voltron Luther Vandross when he found his vocoder, had already achieved some notoriety with his first album. But he really hit big with “Buy You a Drank,” which pushed his sophomore set to the top of the charts.
Obviously, dude did not invent autotune – it was used liberally for vocal effects throughout R&B for decades – but he was the first person of his era to use it to create entire songs.
And once one person finds success, HERE COME THE COPYCATS.
Kanye decided to swipe the concept for his 808s album, an LP that was supposed to exude emotion and pain. News flash, you can’t convey genuine feelings with a computer, y’all – all that “emotion” in 808s came off as hollow and whiny. But I can’t deny this album’s success. While T-Pain was definitely popular, Kanye was nearing his mainstream peak by 2008. T-Pain made autotune a cute novelty. Kanye legitimized autotune with 808s.
And herein lies the problem. 808s normalized autotune to the point where fans started to believe that dudes talking like a robot = soulful vocals. Anyone with a computer program could now celebrated as a “soul singer.” And that was bad news for the real crooners.
It was weird. Robo-singing became the new sound. And R&B took a HUGE hit.
R&B has always been the stepchild of mainstream music. While hip-hop began to be celebrated as a cultural force, R&B was downplayed. And with this new blend of hip-hop masquerading as soul, the lines were blurred and the legacy of soul slowly began being erased.
In order for traditional R&B singers to keep up, they had two options: THEY TOO had to start sounding like rapping robots to maintain sales OR give up on soul and start doing pop stuff to pay the bills.
Remember when R&B stalwarts like Ne-Yo and Usher suddenly started doing those annoying EDM and pop tracks they still play in your spin class? That’s why.
It’s no coincidence that R&B started to decline creatively circa 2010, right when 808s was hitting big (and producing dozens of clones). Now flash forward to 2018 and XXXtempertantrum-whatever wins the Billboard award for best R&B/soul album without ONE real R&B song on it.
We really forgot what R&B really is.
I know all isn’t lost. There are currently tons of younger artists out here trying to get that old feeling back, and plenty of veterans stayed the course. Salute.
And as I’ve said a billion times before, if you truly miss R&B/soul, make your voice heard with your wallet. Buy (don’t steal, BUY) new music when your fave R&B artist drops something new. Cop tickets when they come to your town.
Don’t wait on the industry to deliver talent to your doorstep. They’ll always go for the cheapest, quickest way to make a new star, and trust, it was a lot easier to make a rapper sound like Digital Donny Hathaway than actually FIND a new Donny Hathaway.
I ain’t telling y’all what to like. If 808s is your go-to Ye album, have fun with that hot garbage. But facts are facts – 808s snatched soul/R&B out of the mainstream and we’re still recovering.