Reckoning with the Chicago rap great’s 2010 masterpiece in the age of MAGA
The first thing to understand about Kanye West’s mythologized-to-death fifth album and fifth work to redefine contemporary music wholesale is that it didn’t change the world: It broke the internet. Not the same thing.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy created a rip in the monoculture timeline (this is also known as a generation gap) where if you’re not Extremely Online, you expected and/or got more or less another great Kanye West album. It didn’t have any hits on the order of “Gold Digger” or “Stronger”; in fact, Kanye’s role in Katy Perry’s negligible “E.T.” at the time helped recoup some of his album costs and keep up chart appearances. It reached number one and while Kanye’s proper album did too, it only held the spot for a week and none of its own singles even made the top ten. Considering West was a premier album artist since his debut six years ago, this was hardly a cause for alarm.
But it’s an important data point: This superstar was making capital-A art in a hit-dependent medium (this isn’t Elvis Costello, folks) and being a hitmaker now came second for the auteur if at all. His lavish new pretensions toward six-minute tracks and 35-minute videos and Elton John cameos paid off; until the visual-album benchmark Beyoncé at the tail end of 2013 and Kendrick Lamar’s jazz-shocked, To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, Fantasy was the uncontested, critically acclaimed masterpiece in all of music for the initial 2010s: Kid A and Stankonia rolled into one and a lot less humble about it. To calculate its influence on 2010s hip-hop is to try and contact trace Nirvana’s Nevermind.
So while The Internet wasn’t yet synonymous with The World in 2010, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy helped that process along for better or worse. (Judging by the 2020 existence of QAnon, I’d say worse.) If the monoculture lost its real-world circulation around this time, Fantasy was proof it was still thriving in the virtual realm: thing’s flawless beginning to end. Or at least, with Kanye, it represented the very last time that his flaws still doubled as his strengths, i.e. a convoluted missive like “Ever have sex with a pharaoh / Put the pussy in a sarcophagus” typified the genius rather than the obstacles in the way of it.
They were one and the same, and here he wrote back-to-back-to-back-to-back masterpieces about that very thing: “Runaway,” a gorgeous pile of studio excess borne from a lobotomized, one-note piano-plink and sending an unsolicited dickpic. “I don’t know what it is with females / But I’m not too good at that shit” is horrorshowvinism turned elaborate celestial-manchild yearning by the time he toasts douchebags and assholes and finally invokes the title in a spirited chant of “run away from me, baby.” (To his credit, his baby still hasn’t run away from him.) Then the song masturbates itself to nine minutes with a distorted Auto-Tune fireworks-Van Halen sendoff, complete with staccato strings. You can hear Pusha T marveling at this very manifestation he was involved in; to this day Fantasy is his favorite album ever made, and Kanye made him president of his record company, G.O.O.D. Music.
VIDEO: Kanye West feat. Pusha T “Runaway”
But this incredible work of synergy in the face of mad, disturbing genius elevated everyone involved. Dubious figures like Rick Ross and (sorry) Bon Iver sound great on it. I’d rather listen to the “Iron Man”-interpolating “Hell of a Life,” which demonstrates hubris in the red with swollen distorted compression and a pornstar wedding where Ye and his betrothed “both fuck the bridesmaids” than Black Sabbath any day, to say nothing of the use of King Crimson on “Power.” Very ‘70s arena-prog this thing. Loads of distortion, including Kanye’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On-invoking murmur on “Gorgeous.” Sample sources worth his bank account and good taste, like pairing Aphex Twin and Chris Rock, arguably the living best of their respective kinds, on “Blame Game.” (It’s worth noting that Kanye’s unadorned singing — “I can’t love you this much” — is quite beautiful, too.) A brooding, gorgeous middle section with the drowned-soul “Devil in a New Dress” and state-of-the-union fucking-ridickalous-ness of “So Appalled.” A Bon Iver disco party at the finish with young Gil Scott-Heron to send it out. And then, after “Runaway,” the other two pillars.
There’s “All of the Lights,” a disturbing, cinematic, regal rollercoaster of hyperpop “B.O.B.” drums, extensive orchestral fanfare, and a correlation of abuse directly to fame. (Side questions: Why is Kanye always choking people? And why did everyone, i.e. Eminem, enlist poor Rihanna to sing on their abuse meditation?) The sheer experiential rush of it makes it hard to pin down details, which come crashing down later on “Blame Game,” though neither regretful song is as unsettling as the boasts of bruising esophagi on the more “lighthearted” fare. But “All of the Lights” is one of Rihanna’s greatest moments and probably Kanye’s most exhilarating.
VIDEO: Kanye West “Power”
Then we can’t talk about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy without talking about Nicki Minaj, because she’s one of those talents like Prince or Kurt Cobain where it’s now impossible to imagine life before she existed. But she didn’t quite exist until My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Her own masterpiece Pink Friday charted just below it and ended up having longer (ha) legs commercially. But despite some early hints at her genius on Young Money posse cuts and the buzz from mixtapes like Beam Me Up Scotty (you’ll rarely hear a star as alive as on the truly wicked “Itty Bitty Piggy”), these twin neutron bombs are what launched her into the universe. Her four-dimensional prime time on “Monster” is oft-cited as the greatest rap verse of the 2010s because it is. But Kanye also let his new pet weirdo start the record off with her terrible fake-British accent, which is something we only let titans like André 3000 do. On “Monster,” an on-fire Jay-Z sounds normative. Between Nicki’s neon-pink, planet-sized personality, and Kanye’s wall-of-excellence grandiloquence, a high bar was set for 2010s rap that was rarely met, which is okay.
VIDEO: Kanye West featuring Rick Ro$$, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj “Monster”
The jokes on this magnum opus are world-class problematic, as we’d come to say: “Took pills, killed an heiress, and woke back up in Paris” and of course, “Yeezy reupholstered my pussy.” But some are just so fucking stupid and funny: “Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your wins low,” “so much head I woke up in Sleepy Hollow.” Of course, the expert cringe-comic is also hideously insecure with his South Park and SNL disses and nothing if not honest when he says he “found bravery in my bravado.” It’s also kind of a relief that the born-again Trump-misreader isn’t like, a much worse human being by now.
The most masterpiece-minded of all Kanye’s masterpieces is a trip through a sick, virtuosic, invigorating mind and never once feels alone or at odds with its grandiose cast, which is to say the album is also full of love and trust in a united vision. It doesn’t feel at all bizarre to give it what it wants and call it a fulfillment of music, the best album ever made. When your strengths and flaws are a perpetual motion machine pumping blood both good and bad into the aortas and ventricles of your lifework, you can make that claim, and even get away with a song called “I Am a God (feat. God)” for a spell, apparently. But even if that’s not quite the case, no one has the heart to tell it otherwise. For once, a triumph of the form like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is all that it claims to be: Beautiful, dark, twisted, and all his. And a fantasy.