It’s been a decade since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy graced pop culture with its presence – the record that is still considered by many to be Kanye West’s magnum opus. Back then, in the good ol’ days of 2010, it was Kanye’s big moment of redemption. The solidification of his place at the top of modern hip-hop’s (and really, music’s) pantheon. Even ten years later, it still frequently turns up in commentaries, mentions, and references in any internet music circle as the be-all and end-all of hip-hop albums. And whilst the exact context of Kanye’s life, and therefore, the PR narrative around the record at the time of its release may have faded into the background, the album still stands on its own completely as a piece of incredibly ambitious music.
It’s impossible to talk about the album’s release within the
context of its time without talking about the 2009 VMAs. For those
that somehow missed out on one of the most infamous pop culture moments since
the turn of the millennium – Kanye walked on stage mid-show, uninvited and
unannounced, interrupting Taylor Swift as she was about to give her acceptance
speech after winning Video of the Year, to tell the world that Beyoncé had “one
of the best music videos of all time!!”, in reference to ‘Single Ladies (Put A
Ring On It)’. What ensued was outrage on a mass scale. The notorious evening
that caused a media storm of such magnitude that even then-president Barack Obama
casually chimed-in, affectionately calling West a “jackass”.
What allegedly followed in the fabled story that is the
making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,
was Mos Def telling Kanye to leave the country, and our anti-hero going into
more or less indefinite ex-pat status, moving to Japan and then settling in
Rome for a while, to escape the media frenzy. Even telling everyone that he was
putting music behind him and focusing on different artistic pursuits, such as
fashion. A true second act in any great feature film.
Of course, this mind-set wouldn’t last. And in true Kanye
fashion, his post- the sombre 808s & Heartbreak and
post- the controversy of VMAs return was to be on a truly epic scale.
Indefinitely renting out a studio in Honolulu, Hawaii, West flew out a veritable
who’s who of hip-hop (and not only) legends to work on what was going to become
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The sessions allegedly were music boot camp for all those involved. Complex’s
editor-in-chief Noah Callahan-Bever, who got the privilege of flying out there
himself to get a look at the process for a few days (and wrote a report well
worth checking out here)
detailed a regiment of breakfast, basketball, and then more or less music 24/7.
The studio decked out in the usual Kanye signs of “All laptops on mute”, “No
blogging”, “No negative blog viewing”, “Just shut the fuck up sometimes”, and
others. Engineers in suits. A non-stop creative work force of the greats.
Almost sounds too good to be true.
Typing out who exactly ended up contributing what on the
record feels like playing hip-hop bingo, for the most part. Besides Kanye
himself there’s Jay-Z, SZA, Rick Ross, Pusha T, Kid Cudi, etc. It’s like an
individualistic, egotistical, and incredibly fun version of ‘We Are The World’.
The grandiose marcher ‘All
Of The Lights’ somehow crams in so many triple-A performers – Rihanna,
Elton John, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Fergie, the list goes on – that you can’t
even perceive some of their voices in the final mix of the record. Additionally,
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver contributes bits and pieces throughout the run-time
of the record – most memorably, the leading sample and vocal performance to the
penultimate track and one of the highlights of the album, ‘Lost In The Woods’.
To truly make his grand return and statement to the world of
music and pop culture though, the songs themselves, as well as the people
performing them, had to be larger than life. Kanye talked about his songwriting
process for the album as “giving people exactly what they want”. Opener ‘Dark Fantasy’
introduces us to the record by having Nikki Minaj effectively read us a bed
time story, snarling “Well, gather ’round
children, zip it, listen”, amongst a background of grandiose, gospel-like
chorus of vocals. And things only increase in grandeur and intensity from
there. A truly maximalist album if there ever was one. Singles like ‘POWER’, ‘Monster’ and ‘Runaway’ have
since attained iconic status. The album saw Kanye ambitiously expand his sonic
palette so far beyond what was expected after 808s & Heartbreak, and of a hip-hop record in general, that
everyone had to coordinate being floored upon hearing it for the first time. Pitchfork
infamously gave it a perfect 10 upon release, a title which the record
singularly held until Fiona Apple’s Fetch
The Bolt Cutters this year.
Nearly every musical genre is referenced or touched upon, at
least in some way, on this monstrosity. Samples from old jazz standards and
obscurities sit beside King Crimson samples and Black Sabbath references. Nikki
Minaj verses beside Elton John playing piano. There’s a literal lion roar
sampled on ‘Monster’ and the beats are unrelenting. ‘Runaway’ ends on a three-minute
Auto-Tune vocal solo from Kanye, new analysis of which I still come across to
this day. Kanye also honed his lyricism on the record. Not that Kanye’s selling
point was ever his wordsmithing ability, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy might still objectively be the
highlight of his career, at least as far as traditional rapping is concerned.
The album gave us gems like ‘So
Appalled’, where West somehow does not get completely outshined by
contributing verses from Jay-Z and Pusha T, instead dropping absolute gems in
that true Kanye humour like “That was a
little joke – voila / Praises due to the most-high – Allah / Praises due to the
most fly – Prada / Baby I’m magic – Ta-Da”.
Kanye’s verses and trademark off-pitch yet somehow overtly
confident delivery keeps the record firmly grounded as Kanye West’s, despite
the many guest-list appearances. There are verses where he’s talking about his
own creative inner turmoil, such as on the aforementioned ‘POWER’: “I just needed time along with my own
thoughts / Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault”. And
then there are parts like ‘Blame
Game’, a track that’s tasteless to the point of hilarity which unfolds over
an uncharacteristically sad Aphex Twin sample from ‘Avril 14th’ and
ends on a Chris Rock monologue so cringe-inducing and misogynistic, that by end
of the lengthy ordeal you can’t help but laugh from sheer shock value.
Kanye teased the release of the record by dropping free
singles through his label G.O.O.D. Music, some of which, like ‘Christian Dior Denim Flow’,
didn’t even end up being on the final cut of the album, yet still slap harder
than some rapper’s entire careers. A testament to the creative force Kanye West
had assembled for the project. Upon release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy generated so much good press for
West that it went above and beyond expectations for his redemption arc. It got
praise as high as “better than Thriller”,
by some radio shows. The goodwill this record generated on its own, and, in
all honesty, is sustained even a decade after it was first released, has seen
Kanye through most of his work after it, with every critic and music fan
holding their breath for Kanye’s newest release pretty much until 2016’s The
Life Of Pablo, even through many delays and typical weird media
READ MORE: Kanye West // ‘Graduation’ at 10 years old
Perhaps, there is no better testament to the influence and
status this record came to hold than the sheer fact that even as Kanye as we
knew him disappeared further and further into whatever mental spiral and
paranoid frustrations he has now, some people are still genuinely convinced
that he’s the de facto genius of the music industry, and are still
anxiously awaiting a new, grandiose Kanye release to blow everything out of the
water. Even if their numbers dwindle with every ridiculous presidential
candidacy. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
is the epitome of multiple people at their prime coming together to somehow
stitch together this Frankenstein’s monster of talents, styles, and
arrangements. Canonically so good that, a decade later, the public is still not over it. Pushing the ideas of
what a hip-hop album can be so far that you’d struggle to find any up and
coming hip-hop artist now that wouldn’t at least partially name it as an
influence. So good that even Kanye himself cannot fuck up the reputation he
himself built for the record.
Listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Ocean, Childish Gambino, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper,
Danny Brown, Vince Staples, Anderson .Paak, Miguel, J. Cole, The Weeknd, Rae
Sremmurd, Bishop Nehru, Travis Scott, Migos, Denzel Curry, BROCKHAMPTON
Influenced by: Dr. Dre, Nas, DJ Premier, Jay-Z, Common, Outkast, The Neptunes, Timbaland
Tags: 10 years old, 10th anniversary, classic 10s, Def Jam, Ellie Wolf, GOOD Music, Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella
Currently studying Mathematics and Music at Leeds University. Generally a fan of all things musical, cultural, and pretentious. Values aesthetic way too much.
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