Kanye West fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is an undisputed masterpiece. An album that culminates and compacts everything West has done into a sixty-nine minute album of hedonism, excess, debauchery, self- exploration, introspection, idealism of the American Dream, ego, and unabashed, brutal honesty. Numerous publications, and even Mr. West himself, have given Kanye the designation as “the greatest artist alive”. While that designation is highly subjective, and completely depends on what you think of him, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a strong case for such a title.
Everything we have come to know and love about Kanye West is in this album, and blown up on a Super Panovision screen: old-school soul samples from The College Dropout; baroque and string arrangements a la Late Registration; flashy production like on Graduation; auto-tune and self deprecation from 808s & Heartbreak – it’s all here, with a new form of maximalist production that makes a majority of these songs light years away in style and concept than most hip hop albums in recent memory. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s magnum opus – a grandiose vision from one of the 21st century’s true auteurs.
When approaching this album, one must keep in mind the time it came out: Kanye’s relationship with super model Amber Rose was dissolving, the 808s & Heartbreak tour was overworking West’s routine, and as a result this led to an outburst during the 2009 MTV VMA Awards. Shunned by friends, the public – hell – pretty much everyone, West took a self-imposed exile to Hawai’i where he began work on what would be known as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, formerly known as Good Ass Job. Little did we know was that West’s fifth album would be a game-changing blueprint for the future of hip hop, an album that took more risks than it should and payed off better than expected.
“Dark Fantasy” opens this album up with a fairy-tale narration from Nicki Minaj and ends with a Gil Scott- Heron poem, a glimpse at the scope of what this album encompasses. The feature roster here flexes its muscles with some of the talented artists of our day: Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Pusha T, RZA, John Legend, hell even Bon Iver finds himself on here. While some of the artists have provided some lukewarm material, the performances that they deliver on this record transcend their usual material. It’s as if MBDTF is a movie, and Kanye is the director, then Mr. West has pulled the greatest performances from his “cast”. The balance between West pointing the spotlight on him versus the consideration for the amount of help he gets on this album is ridiculously equal for you never linger much on one artist, but you always know West’s power (no pun intended) seething underneath the layers of sound, music, and composition. It’s an impressive feat no doubt, and one that pays off with every listen.
To say that this album is narrow-minded is a naive observation. West assembles different sounds, samples, and beats into a massive collage of influences that maximizes the potential of the typical hip-hop record. Maximalism is key; everything on each track is busy, consuming, and not a beat, note, or sample goes unwanted. The samples here are eccentric, covering many genres in the best way: there’s the King Crimson sample (prog rock) on “POWER”, the Aphex Twin sample (IDM) on the haunting “Blame Game”, and the soulful “Devil In A New Dress” samples Smokey Robinson in a gritty and subversive way. “Iron Man”, the iconic song that’s been sampled loads of times gets maliciously twisted into a melody about fucking a porn star – a lyrical awakening in the middle of a heavy and vivid album.
While 808s and Graduation provided some electronica samples, and while Kanye has sampled multiple source material in his early work (Chaka Khan still hits it out of the ballpark), MBDTF finds West twisting the sounds and making them solely his own – a tapestry of work indebted in the mind, wisdom, and knowledge of himself. Among the knotted and complex arteries of this body of music lies the personality and inner thoughts of an arrogant yet genius producer who, midst the chaos and full-throttle rise to a new level of fame and controversy, stopped and looked around for a while and took everything in as it came. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s album cover is blood red for a reason. To further this notion of MBDTF being the special album that it is, West went all-out with the eccentricity: strict recording rules, idiosyncratic samples, and a 35 minute short film accompanying a nine minute songs. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is truly a bold and ambitious project, album, and statement. It’s a fully realized and wholesome expression that, for all its criticism, features some of West’s best work.
Yet at the end of the day you have an album, an album that for all it’s worth, is an extension of Mr. West himself. All the vile mannerisms, eccentric inspirations and samples, maximal production, and hilarious and clever wordplay are snuggled up nice and tight into the seconds and minutes of MBDTF expansive sixty-nine. Crafted by an emotionally unstable artist, the album is surprisingly substantial and comprehensive, packing in years of social and cultural commentary and observation (“Sex is on fire/ I’m the King of Leona Lewis”). 2010 marked the beginning of Kanye’s major stylistic shift – a amalgamation of everything he was known for, in music and in life, converged into a magnum opus that started the new decade in flames.
Here we are in 2015, and many of us are still analyzing, listening, and dissecting the cavernous lines of wit and samples of brilliance hidden in the nooks and crannies of this undisputed masterpiece of a record. We’re still listening because in it, we find parts that have laid the blueprint for future classics to come; good kid, m.A.A.d city’s deeply personal narrative, channel ORANGE‘s sturdy yet penetrable vulnerability, To Pimp A Butterfly’s comprehensive social commentary, delivered with pomp and bravado, and Modern Vampires of the City‘s embrace of growth and change, Lonerism’s extended adventurous song structure, and many more. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is both an achievement and a landmark – an album that took years to make, took many risks, and eventually stuck the landing. The new decade began with a burst of visceral creativity that still burns with us today and still begs the question: “can we get much higher?” For Kanye, the answer could be anything; he’s accepted who he is, what he’s done, and what he can do. So at this point, nothing is stopping him from creating another MBDTF, a strange occurrence in music that rarely happens and one that should be celebrated to ubiquity. So what are you waiting for? “You might think you’ve picked the scene. You haven’t, the real one’s far too mean. The -“
And the rest is history…
Author’s Note: Commentary and debate is encouraged in the comment section below.