No album embodies the word “great” more than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But before we dive into this masterpiece, let me tell you a story. After Kanye (who has bipolar disorder) crashed the VMA’s and ruined Taylor Swift’s night, he slipped into a dark time. His crazy moment, understandably, led to a lot of backlash. This was coupled with the fact that Kanye’s mother, whom he was extremely close to, passed away. The entire trajectory of Kanye’s career—and his life—changed. He sentenced himself to a “self-imposed” exile in Hawaii, where he spent a lot of time thinking about his mistakes. He dealt with them. He then started buzzing with ideas. Time for an album. But Kanye wasn’t trying to make HIS best album this time; he was trying to make THE best album ever.
So, Kanye flew his entire crew to Oahu. Kanye required the men to wear suits at all times in the studio. Soon, they spent thousands of hours in that studio. Kanye enlisted the help of other top producers. He brought in an array of proven talents to help him build this opus. He recruited young visionaries who would become famous upon its release. Kanye made a series of paintings. He wrote orchestral compositions. And then he topped it off by directing a full-length film for the album. Now let me be clear. Kanye did not win 260 awards, including a record-smashing 21 Grammys, by being a great rapper. Kanye won all of those awards—he revolutionized music forever and built the greatest hip-hop discography—because he achieved what no other artist had even dared to attempt. Kanye found a way to blend almost every genre of music, successfully. He’s done it all. Classical. Rap. EDM. IDM. Jazz. Rock. Pop. R&B. Gospel. Industrial. Soul. Indie. Ambient. He is far from one of the best rappers or singers. However, he is one of the best producers ever. There’s no debate. And this could not be more evident than it is in MBDTF. Let’s dive into this album as we celebrate its 10th birthday.
The album begins triumphantly with the song “Dark Fantasy.” Following a clever little Nicki Minaj intro, Teyana Taylor and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sing “Can we get much higher?”—then the brass instruments kick in, and then a crescendo of horns and choirs overwhelms you. Then the beat kicks in as Kanye opens his first verse. It is a very apt way to start the album. Kanye follows “Dark Fantasy” with “Gorgeous,” a groovy song that alternates verses between Kanye, who ponders everything from his exile in Hawaii to the ugly nature of racial injustice in America, and Kid Cudi. Kanye’s second verse—which begins with “Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion? The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing?” and continues as he proclaims that “This pimp is at the top of Mount Olympus”—is certainly one of his more memorable ones. But his third verse—which shines in the lines “They rewrite history, I don’t believe in yesterday, and what’s a black Beatle anyway, a f***ing roach? I guess that’s why they got me sitting in f***ing coach”—takes things to another level. “Gorgeous” is followed by the hit single, “Power.” The hit’s production centers on song samples from English progressive rock band King Crimson, French disco act Continent Number 6, and American funk band Cold Grits. Somehow finding order within the chaos, the song results in a stadium-booming mega-hit that pumps every person up. “The world is ours,” West proclaims.
While the first three songs are certainly momentous, the album blossoms into an exponentially greater work from this point onward. The next two songs are “All of the Lights (Interlude)” and “All of the Lights.” The interlude is a beautiful, moving orchestral piece of a cello and a piano. This slows the album down for a minute and showcases Kanye’s vision for classical music. What follows, in perfect Kanye fashion, is a massive song that successfully defies one of the most undefeated premises of music. What I mean by this is that conventional knowledge suggests that there is a finiteness to the beauty of music. You can’t play every single instrument and every sound at the same time. It would just be utter chaos. And yet, this is essentially what Kanye does. It’s perfect. “All of the Lights” embodies the image of musical maximalism. Composed in b flat minor using a common time drum pattern and a steady groove, “All of the Lights” quickly descends into madness: a frantic beat, blaring horns, elaborate percussion, bass, piano, Rihanna’s lead vocals, Kanye’s rapping, and a host of 14 different background vocalists (including Alicia Keys, Drake, Kid Cudi, Elton John, and La Roux). It is masterful.
“All of the Lights” is followed up, fittingly, by another hit single. “Monster,” featuring solid contributions from Jay-Z and Rick Ross, followed by a verse that single-handedly created a megastar out of a previously unknown Nicki Minaj. It remains, by far, her best verse. The next song, “So Appalled,” combines fluid production from Swizz Beats and potent social commentary from Kanye, Jay-Z, and Pusha T (another rapper who went famous because of this album). The next song, “Devil in a New Dress,” is one of my all-time favorite Kanye songs. With dazzling production and a sample of Smokey Robinson’s slow jam song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” Kanye belts out some of his best rap verses. His flow is perfect. His puns and wordplay are exceptional. The song is so well-paced, with neat orchestral arrangements. It’s one of Kanye’s best songs. And Rick Ross’s verse is legendary.
But just when you think the album is at its peak, it soars to an even higher level: “Runaway.” The song begins with a harrowing reverse piano tune. It is so subtle and simple. But it is heart-wrenching. And then the enthralling beat kicks in. “Runaway” proves to be Kanye’s apology song (to Taylor Swift and basically everyone else in his life) without actually being an apology song. Instead, he simply sings “Baby, I got a plan, run away as fast as you can.” This is Kanye at his all-time most vulnerable moment. He doesn’t rap on “Runaway” much. He sings. And though he’s no Freddy Mercury or Whitney Houston, his vocals here are devastatingly potent. He goes on and on about his weaknesses and insecurities, imploring those he loves to run away from him because of his destructiveness. The long, drawn-out outro of the song combines more orchestral arrangements with a unique deployment of his autotuned voice as an instrument (another of the many things Kanye did before anyone else. “Runaway” is a classic.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy continues with the song “Hell of a Life.” And while this is one of the less iconic songs on the album, it continues Kanye’s sense of maximalism with a catchy beat, elements of rock and even heavy metal, and bombastic lyrics. The next song, “Blame Game,” unfolds under the lead of a sample from Aphex Twin, proving that Kanye is the only dude that can build a hip-hop ballad with John Legend out of an ambient song. It explores past relationships, unrequited love, and heartbreak. The next song is another of my favorites on the album: “Lost in the World.” Beginning with an intro from Justin Vernon, the talented singer of the aforementioned indie band Bon Iver, the song then explodes into a heavenly arrangement of sounds. Kanye’s vocals begin with a compelling poem he wrote for his wife, Kim Kardashian (whom he’d just started dating). He begins with “You’re my devil, you’re my angel, you’re my heaven, you’re my hell, you’re my now, you’re my forever, you’re my freedom, you’re my jail, you’re my lies, you’re my truth, you’re my wars, you’re my truce, you’re my questions, you’re my proof.” As he continues his vocals, the pace picks up and slows down and continues to change in inventive ways. The beat continues to go hard as an eclectic deployment of African conga drum beats segues into a Gil Scott-Heron sample.
Kanye, who directed all of the music videos for this album, shows his artistic side in his video for “Lost in The World.” Anyway, the Gil Scott-Heron sample at the end of the song bleeds into the final song on the album, which is fittingly named “Who Will Survive in America?” The beat and conga drums from “Lost in the World” continue while a Gil Scott-Heron speech plays. Scott-Heron ponders America, modernity, ideas of revolution, our country’s crazy history, and the chaos of the modern world. The album ends, then, with him again asking “Who will survive in America?” Mic drop. Remember that this album came out in 2010. The modern world we now know was quickly starting to blossom. The economy had just collapsed. Barack Obama got elected. Social media was on its fast ascent to the foreground of society, culture, and consciousness. Everyone seemed to be filled with some obfuscated mix of awe, fear, excitement, and wonder. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is both an ideological and an artistic manifestation of that confluence of ideas. It’s not an album for everybody per se. Kanye’s lyrics, for example, are extremely vulgar throughout it. Still, this is a quintessential modern pop album that cannot be eclipsed, one that was particularly groundbreaking in its time. This was cemented when the album famously got not just a 10 but an extremely rare “10.0/10” rating from Pitchfork and a 94 on Metacritic (one of the highest ever), as well as nearly universal status as the album of the year.
Anyway, consider that before Kanye, there were no famous women in rap. Eminem was the only top white rapper. “Gangsta” rap was the only form of popular rap. Before Kanye, there were no Drakes or Kendricks or Lupe Fiascos or Earl Sweatshirts or Travis Scotts or J. Coles. Only the likes of Tupac, Biggie, Ice Cube, and 50 Cent. No nerds with pink polos and Gucci backpacks. No sappy, emotional lyrics. No electronic hits or house bangers or R&B love songs or avant-garde hipster rap. Kanye West changed the game. He single-handedly influenced the majority of all prominent rappers and R&B artists alive, as well as literally millions of other musicians. Kanye may not be the “best,” nor is he the most “talented,” but he might be the most influential musician of all time. Nobody can doubt his creativity. I’m not a fan of the things he’s been saying lately, nor am I even a fan of any of his recent music. But I cannot and will not deny this audacious, revolutionary monolith of art what it deserves: a 10/10.