In a 2008 review of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, Spin’s Charles Aaron sounds somewhat gleeful scavenging for hits in what he assumes to be a superstar’s grand train wreck, writing, “Most of the songs have hooks or rhythmic twists that other artists would bid Sotheby’s prices for, and even a few… may end up on a greatest-hits comp one day and be accepted as Kanyeezy standards.” It was an album that, at the time of its release, would simply not be accepted for what it was. Most of this had to do with its creator, a transcendent talent with a leash-less ego who had a habit of conflating his personal life with everything anyone else worries about: politics, pop culture, even, to a lesser extent then, fashion. 808s was the first time Kanye tried to separate himself from the zeitgeist, to keep things small, but he’d been entrenched far too long for that transition to go smoothly. This is how he ended up with critics combing through his auto-tuned diary searching for hits. They were looking for a motive that wasn’t there.
But say it was there. Say Charles Aaron had a direct line to Kanye back in 2008 and convinced him to pocket the songs from 808s and auction them off slowly over the next few years. What would a record made up of those songs, re-cast look like? I think Aaron is correct in his assessment that these songs would have found more commercial success in different hands, but it’s also important to note that this does not necessarily mean they’d be better songs just like giving a giving a Charlie Kaufman script to Michael Bay won’t make for a better movie. But it’d probably make more money.
My personal feelings about the album aside, there is a widely accepted opinion that 808s has aged extremely well, especially when digested as a primer for the sprawling and even more blood-spilling My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It is this same line of thought that made critics so quick to accept Yeezus as a minor masterpiece, recognizing it as the sludgy stepping-stone towards something more massive. But say Kanye took the hint after that SNL performance and held off on releasing his auto-tune laments. Say he went after Sotheby money for those songs instead. Who would have recorded them? And how big would they have been?
These are all questions worth asking, even if the answers are somewhat self-defeating. Re-casting the album will destroy its artistic qualities, but it could give us insight into the way pop music functions and help us draw a line between good art and good business. Even though we know Kanye chose good art, let’s say he chose good business. Let’s say 808s and Heartbreak never happened. What happens next?
808s and Heartbreak Re-Cast
1. Say You Will
Recorded by: R. Kelly
What happens?: Throw this on Kelly’s 2009 middler Untitled between “Elsewhere” and “Pregnant”, and it explodes as a more focused slow burner that’s highly tolerable (mostly because the word “booty” is used a total of 0 times). Everyone forgets about the trials because, even though the song is written by Kanye, this is a more mature and complicated Robert. We mistake the “maturity” for growth and forgive those two Jay-Z crossover albums.
2. Welcome to Heartbreak
Recorded by: Kanye West feat. Kid Cudi
What happens?: This is the only track that doesn’t fit the conceit of this article*. It has too many seeds of Kid Cudi-influence that end up crafting Dark Twisted Fantasy. I outsourced this one to my brother, and the best suggestion he had was Adam Levine, which isn’t crazy, especially with those high-pitched “Oohs”. Not to mention that anything he releases on his own could end up sounding a little like this. I’m just not sure that’s such a good thing or if Kanye would ever let that happen. So this song remains in Kanye’s back pocket until he releases it in the G.O.O.D. Fridays deluge and everyone begins to worry. Then, when Dark Twisted Fantasy drops, Kid Cudi becomes the most sought after collaborator in the business.
Recorded by: Justin Timberlake
What happens?: Rather than waiting six years in-between FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience, JT finds his footing in sparse landscapes like the one Kanye constructed here. He becomes fascinated with this style of sing-rapping and begins doing his own guest verses. The album surrounding “Heartless” is a disaster, but the mega-hit at its center buoys his stardom just enough to make The 20/20 Experience seem like a much better record when it inevitably becomes his shot at redemption.
Recorded by: Rihanna feat. Young Jeezy
What happens?: Rihanna decides to throw out “Hard”, her initial Jeezy collab on Rated R, and takes on this one instead. The song is an instant anthem and holds court on the Hot 100 causing her album to debut at number 1 on Billboard. This song, coupled with “Run This Town” dropping in the same year, gives Rihanna rap royalty status on par with Beyonce.
5. Love Lockdown and 6. Paranoid
Recorded by: Usher
What Happens?: Both songs end up on Raymond v Raymond and while “Paranoid” doesn’t get much traction, Usher still dances to it at the Grammys. “Love Lockdown”, though, is bigger than “OMG”, a song where pop Usher finally meets sensitive Usher. It changes the entire arc of his career, and he starts writing more songs like this, aligning slow jamz with aggressive pop hooks, to huge commercial success. He never becomes a host on The Voice.
Recorded by: Beyonce
What happens?: The lyrics are tweaked slightly (every “she” becomes a “he”) and the strings instantly remind everyone of “Halo”. She ends her Super Bowl performance with a medley of those two songs and a studio version heavily advertised throughout the second half power outage sits at number 1 on iTunes until Daft Punk drops “Get Lucky”.
8. Street Lights
Recorded by: The Airborne Toxic Event
What happens?: Those chiming guitars give the “Sometime Around Midnight” bottled lightning hoarders another breakthrough hit. This success drives them to seek more outside help, and they become the indie-emo Queens of the Stone Age. Their second album isn’t a politicized dud, but a collection of high profile contributions including co-writing credits from Trent Reznor and Win Butler. Butler’s fingerprints on the project make Pitchfork give the album a 7.6. They get a Grammy nod but eventually lose to Arcade Fire. Win Butler mentions them in his acceptance speech.
9. Bad News
Recorded by: Frank Ocean
What happens?: When Kanye plays this track for Frank, channelORANGE is immediately re-imagined as a double album. “Bad News” ends up being “Bad Religion”’s counterpart on the second disc and a John Mayer solo is mixed into the final cut. When everyone finds out Kanye wrote the song, a common through-line of love forms in our cultural consciousness, and we begin to accept all love as being the same. Watch the Throne 2 features a Frank Ocean hook on 10 out of 13 songs (note: this could still happen.)
10. See You In My Nightmares
Recorded by: Drake
What happens?: Drake burns this one off on the R&B mixtape he never released after Thank Me Later, ramping things up on that “Find Your Love” pitch. It gets some love on blogs and satellite radio, and Take Care ends up moving 700,000 copies in the first week. Everything else pretty much happens as it did.
11. Coldest Winter
Recorded by: Bruno Mars
What happens?: It’s released as the first official single from Unorthodox Jukebox, and after a buzz-y SNL performance, Mars cuts every song from the album besides “Young Girls”. Forgetting that he didn’t write “Coldest Winter”, Unorthodox Jukebox becomes Bruno Mars’s Chinese Democracy. After blowing through $57 million trying to find depth in the melody from “When I Was Your Man”, Mars retires from music. The album is never released.
So there’s the alternate timeline. It’s hard to say which is preferable, the real outcome or this imagined one. I’m not sure how much we’ve learned from this little exercise either, other than the fact that 808s and Heartbreak should never have been so glossed over. Even with Bruno Mars retiring from music in the alternate timeline, I think I prefer ours better. At least in ours art won out over business, if only this one time.
*Neither does “Pinnochio Story (Freestyle)”, but that track is a questionable inclusion on 808s in the first place, so it will be excluded completely here.