Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Is His Masterpiece
A decade ago today, November 22, 2010, Kanye West released his masterpiece.
Full of distorted beats and impassioned vocals, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a dense, rewarding, angry and heartfelt record packed with enough collaborators and guest artists to fill an album five times its length – but no one here detracts from West, who spat the record out after a period of public controversy and self-imposed exile. It’s not a flawless record, but a record that celebrates flaws, and does so triumphantly.
In 2009, West was called a ‘jackass’ by then president of the United States, Barack Obama, after rushing the stage at the MTV Awards, interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video and uttering the now infamous phrase, ‘I’mma let you finish, but…’. Citing fatigue from overworking and a desire to get away from the paparazzi, West took himself off to Hawaii and focussed his energy on creating MBDTF – and it worked. With tracks like Runaway, POWER, All of the Lights and Monster, West hit career highs he’s rarely achieved since.
His fifth studio album, MBDTF arrived after the highly celebrated trilogy of The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation, as well as the more esoteric but nonetheless brilliant 808s & Heartbreak.
Sampling everyone from Aphex Twin to Black Sabbath, King Crimson to Gil Scott-Heron, the record was a return of sorts to Kanye’s pre-808s maximalist sounds. Opening with Dark Fantasy, a retelling of Cinderella by a British-accented Nicki Minaj, the album’s themes are laid bare from the off; West has moved on from the heartbreak of his previous record to a darker, angrier, determined tone of voice. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the back-to-back sequencing of POWER, All of the Lights and Monster.
In particular, POWER, the first single to be released off the album, shows West once again wearing his feelings on his sleeve for everyone to see. Utilising King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man as its main hook, the track exemplified West’s device of using multiple voices, multiple egos at once – a recurring theme for the rapper ever since, and represented by the various album covers released for the album. As Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal put it at the time, ‘More than ever, though, POWER has Kanye internalizing his multiple minds and coming to an ecstatic peace with them. POWER is not a bitchfest. It’s an exaltation.’
Meanwhile, All of the Lights, the album’s fourth single, may as well be called ‘All of the Stars’, as John Legend, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Elton John, Drake, Kid Cudi and The-Dream, among many others, are all credited. The following track, Monster, continued the ‘more the merrier’ approach, as Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver all elevate the track. Monster was an introduction of sorts to Minaj, who released her debut album Pink Friday the same day as MBDTF, and whose verse on Monster was not just a highlight of the single, but went on to become one of her most iconic performances of all time.
Meanwhile, in the same song West helped catapult Bon Iver from rising indie star to major crossover success. By 2010, Bon Iver had only released one album and an EP; both were critically lauded and demonstrated Justin Vernon’s adept songwriting. It was the track Woods, off the Blood Bank EP, that drew West to Vernon thanks to his use of auto-tune. The pair struck up a close working relationship and friendship, which lasted for the next few years, while West used Woods as the basis of penultimate track Lost In The World.
Central to MBDTF is Runaway, a true highlight in an album full of them. West manages to rap about d*ck pics, cheating on girlfriends and general ‘douchebaggery’, all while being self-aware enough to turn it into a nine-minute tour de force – the repeated yell of ‘reaction’ a telling indication of the responses he knows he’ll illicit.
West first released the track ahead of the album in a self-directed 35-minute film, where lyrics like ‘Let’s have a toast for jerk offs’ offer a stark contrast to images of elegant ballerinas. As Nitsuh Abebe of Vulture put it, West ‘sticks a symbol of classical refinement next to a lyric about being toxic and acting ugly… This feels like the heart of West’s whole project this year’. Rolling Stone later named Runaway their song of the year, calling it ‘a nine-minute meditation on romantic failure and public infamy,’ and writing, ‘It takes a special kind of dark, twisted genius to raise the white flag of surrender while raising a middle finger. Kanye West is that genius.’
More than a decade after Obama called him a jackass, West himself ran for president. It wasn’t particularly successful. Indeed, these days it seems West may have answered his own question of Who Will Survive In America – MBDTF’s Gil Scott-Heron-sampling final track – at least politically. As listeners, we may enjoy the many sides of West’s rap personas, but it seems no one is quite ready to see them in the White House.
MBDTF was not just an artistic triumph, but a hugely significant, cultural turning point for the rapper. West’s artistic drive has never been in doubt, and while recently he’s been accused of releasing unfinished records (ye, Jesus Is King) or indefinitely delaying others (Donda: With Child), MBDTF focussed his talents like never before and proved he is – or at least was – self-aware enough to know that the only way to bounce back after a shaky year in the spotlight was to release his best work yet. After 2020 sent West on a rollercoaster of coronavirus and campaigning, who knows what 2021 will have in store.
For now, give yourself an hour and eight minutes to revisit Kanye’s masterpiece – it’s no less relevant than the day it was released.
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