The album title refers to the Roland TR-808 drum machine, which West used to make the drum sounds for the set. It also alludes to his feelings regarding the ending of his 18-month engagement to the designer Alexis Phifer and the recent tragic death of his mother. The Observer November 30, 2008 asked West what came first, the 808's or the Heartbreak? The Chicago rapper replied: "The music, then I came up with the title because I was taking an 808 and pitching it. A lot of people have used 808s in the past but because it was so low, nobody bothered messing with the pitch. I actually call the effect 'heartbreak.' It sounds distorted and electronic, and just the sound of it represents where I'm at."
The album was recorded in Hawaii whose area code is "808." However West said this was mere co-incidence as he'd already thought up the title before he became aware of this fact.
This was West's first release not to need a Parental Advisory label.
The song's music video was directed by Los Angeles-based photographer Nabil Elderkin who'd previously helmed the promo for "Champion" from West's 2007 album Graduation. Elderkin told MTV News that the video features a bleeding-pixels element. that is called "data moshing," to convey the haunting element of the track. He explained: "I wanted to use it more of strategic way, using calculated moshes, colors and textures to compliment the effect. Different parts of the songs represented different feelings, and I wanted to come with a visual representation of the flow and textures that are I feel are very important in this song. I shot different things in super-slow-motion with the Phantom just for transitional movement and textures."
Elderkin added that he pitched the idea to West following a meeting for their book. He said: "I knew that was the song this video had to be for. He liked what I showed him, and I nagged him a few times about doing it. I told him again, I really felt this would be a great visual for the song, and he pulled the trigger. I got busy on the phone trying to put it together, and somehow we did it the next day in New York. I shot all the extra components the following week in L.A."
This song features GOOD Music artist Kid Cudi, who also appears in the video.
In the book Chicken Soup For The Soul: The Story Behind The Song, West explained that this song was inspired by a conversation with Dave Sirulnick, a producer from MTV, who had a small photo album of him and his wife and children. West said: "It struck me that I really want to be married and have a family, but that hasn't worked out for me. 'My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.' I felt like I was in high school and jealous of what another guy had. I knew that was what I really wanted."
West went on to explain the verse: "He said his daughter got a brand new report card/And all I got was a brand new sports car." He said: "You have to put time and effort into a relationship with the right person and you have to be with the right person to have a family. Being #1 is great and I want that but I also want to chase other dreams in my life. It was the first time a rap artist spoke condescendingly about property, possessions like a sports car. People are so concerned with what they have or what other people have instead of what's really important - other people. Things like cars are usually used to show how people make it, but there is nothing more important than home and family."
West added that the verse "about missing my sister's wedding is absolutely true. I had to leave to catch a plane to London. These are real accounts of my life."
The song's chord progression was borrowed from Italian composers Michele Fedrigotti and Danilo Lorenzini's 1979 track "Fiori Mistici."