“I fantasized ’bout this back in Chicago…”
Long before Kanye West was a pop pariah / media megalomaniac / Christian contrarian, he was merely a polarizing figure who would interrupt Taylor Swift and liken himself to Michael Jackson repeatedly. Two albums later, he would make a whole song about how he loves himself. But at some point, Kanye was a true artist, the kind that calls himself a genius and for all its worth… is right. There is an apex to all ability, however, and it’s nearly always noticed in hindsight. When MBDTF dropped a decade ago, an artist had his most quintessential work- an endlessly quote-able, often repugnant, undeniably gorgeous, sonically diverse, musically challenging album. It was an artist reaching a zenith so shortly after his emotional nadir, and a masterpiece that has aged well in spite of its creator.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person to write about MBDTF this weekend. Frankly, more seasoned reviewers would probably do a better job of exfoliating the grime from West’s career in critical attempt of justifying anything the man has done. Yeah, he’s become a walking pinball machine with the tilt sensor broken off, but in a way he’s always been that way.
Kanye’s personality expands in a mitosis that defies probability. That enigmatic egomaniac attitude really developed after the death of his mother and the subsequent release of 808’s and Heartbreak.
The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation were a trilogy on a particular theme of self discovery and fulfillment. There was a sense of joy and warmth in those albums, and their wake is still being felt today. When 808’s came out, it was a hard left turn. There’s a darkness, an understandable weight of grief cast upon the whole project. More than at any point, Kanye’s willingness to wear his heart as a $300 t-shirt was on display. The songs often trail on long after the lyrics are done. It was, critically, his failure to this point.
For the younger crowd, its hard to truly explain how ubiquitous Kanye West was in the mid-00’s. At one point it felt like that at any given moment, somewhere in America, a song was being played that West had touched. From his own singles, to guest verses, to production, he was everywhere. West reasonably got a big head about it all. Graduation had to be a grandiose statement about his place in history. 808’s was the moment of the crown feeling heavy. His best friend was gone.
Then came My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It was like the third act of a superhero movie, when the hero regains his strength and emerges more powerful than ever.
I remember the commotion on Twitter when Pitchfork gave it a 10. It’s easy in hindsight to see why they did that, but at that time Kanye West was beginning to seem like he was losing his steam. Prior to its release, there was the rumor that he was going back to the original trilogy and making an album called A Good Ass Job, which I’m sure would have been fine. It was too easy to go back to what worked, so West went forward and raged total war on the path ahead.
In an about-face from his emotional crater that was 808’s, West is at his most ostentatious from the moment the album starts. Each track builds on itself in that competitive ire that consumes him. He’s internalized his mother’s death and come to terms with mortality on the whole. Crude, blunt, and arrogant, West writes from the perspective of a man who doesn’t fear death, instead treating it like meaningless inevitability.
The whole thing feels cinematic in scope. The opening to “Dark Fantasy” has all of the feeling of opening credits. We’re introduced to our main characters, Kanye and his personal demons. All the while, he casually drops lines like “too many Urkels on your team that’s why your Winslow,” a Family Matters reference, insult, and clever wordplay all at once.
“Gorgeous” and “POWER” have West reckoning with the way he’s viewed publicly, particularly his perceptions on South Park, Saturday Night Live, and the infamous Hurricane Katrina telethon. On “Gorgeous,” he has the audacity to (rightfully) place himself beside Lennon/McCartney with the line “what’s black Beatle anyway, a fuckin roach?” His self-worth is incalculable, yet there’s a feeling the whole time that the golden calf within his heart is hollow. “POWER” is this realization. “Colin Powells, Austin Powers, lost in translation with a whole fuckin’ nation. They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation. Well that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation.” Probably the most discussed line on the album, West tries, unsuccessfully, to justify his outburst that brought him public scrutiny. He could not possibly care less if you believe him, though. “I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick.” In West’s own way, he’s displaying is self-anointed providence.
“All of the Lights” has a vocal cast that required credits at the end (and an epilepsy warning at the beginning) of the music video. Lights have been a through-theme of West’s career. They’re objects of lust, power, condemnation, and a euphemism for life and death. In this case, they’re emblematic of his public persona, having his whole self on display for worse or worst. It’s anthemic and grand and yet in the lyrics there is a cautious vulnerability. The song has a feeling that it might be a peak to the album, like all of the energy was poured into it and everything on the other side will have less gravity. Fortunately, Kanye turned to the best weapon in his arsenal- his friends.
West has never been afraid of features, and understands the crossover appeal that comes with inviting others onto a song. It’s his competitive nature that makes these songs some of his best. I’ve always said that “Gone” from Late Registration is his best song. The Ray Charles sample runs throughout, interacting with the lyrics like Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Consequence’s verse is flawless and energetic, looping around the word “gone” and its homophones masterfully. So when it’s West’s turn to close the song, he delivers his career best verse.
It’s important to look back at West’s career prior to MBDTF to understand why it’s such a landmark. It was like his first four albums were practice spaces for this one. He’s set an artistic precedent that requires cultivation as well as pruning. This is most evident on “Monster.”
I’m not talking about Jay-Z’s verse, which is fine and on theme, sure. Nicki Minaj could have retired after her verse and it would have been a full career. She’s erratic and vibrant, taking the song by the throat and making it hers. Back then, you could still go to your favorite file sharing app and download Nicki_Minaj_Monster_Verse.MP3 and it would be just her, tearing two legends limb from limb. The indelible style of changing her pace and candor throughout the 32 bars leaves nothing to the imagination, and nothing more is needed. Even without it coming from the lips of West himself, its a centerpiece on his album, and raises the stakes in the process.
To this point the album has continued on his own self-aggrandizing path, with little retribution for his own perverse lifestyle. “So Appalled,” a low point if there is one, has a similar lyrical sentiment, but feels like there is some depressive hole parked in the soul of all of this opulence. “Devil in a New Dress” is the afterparty to it. Everyone is starting to clear out, but we’re still on top of the world. The armor is off. “We love Jesus but you done learned a lot from Satan.” His flow is off, a little staggered, and bouncing around between styles and ideas so quickly that it feels like a raw stream of consciousness. Rick Ross takes over and lets West lay down for a minute. Ross embodies the theme of the whole album when he professes “I’m making love to the angel of death.” The beat plays out and then hard cuts as the party and Kanye’s invincibility end abruptly.
Then West finds himself alone.
The nine minute, eight second labyrinth of a single begins with a solitary note played once per measure. In a way, this song is emblematic of his career to date as well as a reflection of the style that brought him the most critical condemnation. It uses every weapon in his arsenal- minimalism and garishness and all the accoutrements of someone obsessive of perfection. And its funny, because a song so focused and realized also has the words “douche bags,” “assholes,” and “jerk offs” in it. And that’s the essence of Kanye’s music. It’s a Rembrandt with a smiley face painted over The Kitchen Maid. It’s intentional infliction of discomfort, and it’s his calling card.
“Hell of a Life” and “Blame Game” feel like a cause and effect, and both rely on West’s lack of filter when discussing sexual affairs. Kanye has always been crude, and charmingly so. “Hell of a Life” is that motif injected with that stuff from Crank, and if West doesn’t graphically fuck something soon, he’ll certainly die. So when the party is over and the penicillin is taken, “Blame Game” takes the perspective of one half of an irreparably toxic relationship. He’s ashamed of what he’s done but at this point is there any reason to stop? Like he hypothetically asked on the first song- “what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” The latter half of the track is a pseudo-skit featuring Chris Rock, wherein West is listening to Rock’s “local dude” character talk to a woman Kanye used to fuck. It burns eternal in the phrase “Yeezy reupholstered my pussy.”
West utilizes his latest musical obsession, Justin Vernon, sampling his Bon Iver song “Woods” for the penultimate track “Lost in the World”. He’s come around, and in his exhaustive wake he’s opines that the object of the song is the alpha and omega of all things, adding that “if we die in each other’s arms, still get laid in the afterlife.” Again, West casually throws death by the wayside, acting as if it is merely a tool to some other conscious invention. The song melts into the finale, the Gil-Scott Heron sampling “Who Will Survive In America.”
West doesn’t speak on the track at all, and that’s not anything new. Back on Late Registration, the song “My Way Home” was also strictly a Kanye production, with none of his own lyrics. Common recites the verse and a Gil-Scott Heron sample closes it out. If MBDTF is a summation of all previous parts, it only makes sense that the album closes with a powerful, graphic metaphor for American hubris and injustice.
A decade later, Kanye’s public image is so far gone from even who he was then. It seemed like it was always his destiny to push so many boundaries in his mind that eventually it all just breaks. After this album, he teamed up with Jay-Z on Watch the Throne, an album that is somehow even larger in scale than this one. Then he went back inward and utilized the darkness within him on Yeezus, an album whose title is intentionally sacrilegious. Each solo album after MBDTF went in a completely different direction from its predecessor, and for the most part benefitted from that risk. He had free reign on his creative process and could put out whatever he saw fit, and that lies mostly on the shoulders of this album.
He treats life with such frivolity that you’d assume he’d have reverence for death. But Kanye West, still healing from the death of his best friend, realized death is but a door and doors can be ripped off the hinge. It’s a masterpiece in every meaning of the word. Its a glimpse into the mind of an actual and self-evident genius at his creative peak- Kanye West’s Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy.