Kanye West-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010, Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella)
Before I even get into the music talk, I just want to say, for the record, that I was as disappointed as anyone when Kanye hitched his wagon to the deluded, wheezing horse that is Donald Trump. That being said, it is worth noting that Kanye has a legitimate, sometimes debilitating, mental illness (he’s bipolar, for those who live under a rock), and that I found it somewhat hypocritical when the Twitter-verse that claims to promote compassionate understanding of mental illness was so quick to chuck him onto the sacrificial altar. That being said, there are plenty of bipolar people who do not choose to support our moronic president, and I’m not here to apologize for a rich and famous person’s bad decisions.
In the end, Kanye’s current garbage politics don’t change the fact that he’s created some of the best music of the 21st century. There are no heroes, and it’s possible to be a talented artist and a flawed person. It’s on the audience to decide where the line is; I refuse to listen to, say, Ryan Adams or Kodak Black, because they are both credibly accused of mistreating women, but I’ll never stop appreciating the album I’m highlighting here even though I don’t agree with Kanye West’s politics.
I bought My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on a whim back in the summer of 2012 at some music store in Boston. I didn’t yet love hip-hop music at that point, but I was well on the path; a few weeks later, my fate would be sealed when I got brutally sick while on vacation in Maine and ended up lying in bed for a week listening to nothing but Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 and A$AP Rocky’s Live. Love. ASAP. I gave MBDTF another listen after this revelatory experience and I was hooked. It’s been one of my favorite albums ever since. It’s such a thoroughly enjoyable, masterfully conceived work that even my dad, a white man in his 60’s, appreciated it when I once played it for him in the car. I’m really not sure what I can say about this one that hasn’t already been said; I mean, Pitchfork gave it a fucking 10/10. However, it’s an album that has a lot of personal significance, so I wanted to discuss it anyway.
It was late 2010, and Kanye West had just emerged from a period of self-imposed exile in Hawaii. He spent the end of the previous year being butchered by the media, the president, and general public opinion for his infamous (most likely drunken) interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, an incident so over-exposed that I don’t need to get into it. I will point out, though, that Kanye was actually right about Beyonce deserving the “Best Video” award over Swift, and that he’s been exonerated for his outburst by this point, because everyone apparently hates Taylor Swift now. Anyway, back to 2010.
After months in the shadows, Kanye was videotaped standing on a table and rapping a cappella verses at the Facebook headquarters. He released a 30-minute music video/short film that looked like a moving painting. This was the beginning of his whole “mad genius” shtick, when the “mad” was manageable and the “genius” was most apparent. Rumors had been circulating about the intense, secretive sessions for his new album; he’d been flying all sorts of creative types to Hawaii over the past months, and people eagerly anticipated his next move.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Kanye would release the groundbreakingly opulent masterpiece that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It took bits and pieces of sounds that he had featured over the course of his career (chipmunk soul samples, cinematic strings, stadium anthems, and mournful autotune), added a hefty dose of prog, and mashed everything up into a goldleaf-encrusted stew meant to be feasted upon only by those willing to follow Kanye down the bejeweled rabbit hole (which ended up being a lot of people).
On the album, Kanye samples the likes of King Crimson, Black Sabbath, and Manfred Mann, effectively rendering obsolete the traditional boundary between rock and hip-hop. The album actually manages to measure up to Kanye’s massive ego; he’s the only person who would even attempt something like it, much less pull it off with flying colors. Kanye’s role here is that of a curator, with the album conceived as a kind of luxury art museum; he knows exactly who and what to place in any given spot, and his direction elevates everyone and everything around him to another level. Here’s a rundown of his many masterstrokes on MBDTF
- Having the sheer audacity to feature Elton John, The-Dream, John Legend, Charlie Wilson, Alicia Keys, and Drake on the anthemic “All Of The Lights,” only to have them all sing the song’s refrain simultaneously, essentially becoming a “We Are The World”-style celebrity chorus (although Sir Elton does get a few moments in the spotlight)
- Positioning then-newcomer Nicki Minaj as both a demented fairy godmother on the album’s opening track “Dark Fantasy,” as she exhorts, “Gather round, children, ZIP IT, LISTEN” in a devilish growl, and a rhyme-slinging, multiple personality badass on the rumbling “Monster,” on which she delivers the album’s best verse
- Employing Rick Ross to use his signature, booming baritone to portray a menacing carnival barker type on the intro of the aforementioned “Monster” and a purple robe-clad Mafioso don on “Devil In A New Dress,” on which Ross’s career-highlight verse shows up after an extended guitar solo overtop a Smokey Robinson sample
- Enlisting Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon to contribute a grimy verse to “Gorgeous,” which is basically a rap-ified version of a Strokes song, complete with vocals that sound like they’re being recorded through a payphone
- Wringing a hilariously heartbreaking moment out of comedian Chris Rock(!?), who rattles off an extended, profane bit overtop a mournful Aphex Twin piano loop to close out “Blame Game”
- Tapping Justin Vernon from indie act Bon Iver to contribute soulful vocals on several songs, giving the album instant indie cred
Kanye has a few star turns as well, the most unusual of which occurs in the latter half of the marathon “Runaway,” where he uses a vocoder to turn his wailing voice into yet another instrument and then proceeds to solo on said instrument for minutes at a time. It’s self indulgent, but effective and ultimately moving, as is the entire album. I think that penultimate track “Lost In The World” best encapsulates the essence of MBDTF. Built around an extended sample of Bon Iver’s ghostly a cappella track “Woods,” it grabs the original song’s insular, lonely spirit and warps it into the guiding melody of a maximalist rave-up. Kanye may be lost, but he sounds utterly enthused about it. Overall, the album is a singular achievement, one that Kanye has not and will not equal, only because there are few people on earth who could equal it. “Dark Fantasy” opens the album by asking, “Can we get much higher?” The answer is: no, you cannot get much higher than this.