Classic album: Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Jimmy Coultas takes a look at perhaps the most important album of the 21st century.
Last updated: 1st Oct 2019
It’s often bloated hyperbole to attach huge levels of importance to individual moments, but there are certain flashpoints which help power the future. The development of popular music is far too complex a beast to attribute to a single instance, but nevertheless there was one which certainly shaped two of the biggest stars that would dominate this decade.
It happened a few months before it, a meeting of minds that didn’t take place in a boardroom, studio or any of the usual rendezvous for musical stakeholders away from the public. It was instead in one of the most vapid of environments, an award ceremony in front of a global audience of billions.
The MTV VMAs on September 13th 2009 saw Kanye West infamously interrupt Taylor Swift before she got the chance to deliver her acceptance for ensnaring the best video award, letting rip with the immortal line “I’mma let you finish” (see above).
A shocked and visibly upset Swift later returned to smash her performance, starting her ascent from America’s sweetheart country icon to globally dominating pop siren. Now she’s not only held as the world’s most important solo singer but a key spokesperson, rallying (rightly or wrongly) against streaming and the lack of worthwhile payments for artist's work.
That reaction to adversity helped create an icon out of Swift. Whereas she received widespread support and praise, West was admonished as an egotistical maniac – even labelled a jackass by the President Barack Obama. Others would have wilted in the glare of such negative media attention, but West has instead become even bigger, reveling in the hatred which accompanies the critical and fan love.
The first step in fuelling that ascent came in the form of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (stream below), Kanye’s epic masterpiece which turns five today. Shunned and ridiculed by the world at large, West retreated to his studio complex in Hawaii and went about recruiting one of the most ambitious cast lists in the history of music to help claw back the world's adoration.
He allowed the wrath of the planet to combine with both grief for his mother dying, and the very public end of his relationship with Amber Rose. It created a cauldron of negativity and darkness which would formulate what he described to the New York Times as his "long, backhanded apology" to the world.
Half a decade on MBDTF is still a truly amazing piece of music, the catalyst that enabled him to become the biggest, in his own words to Zane Lowe (below), rock star on the planet. A furiously fluid concoction, it marries chamber pop, prog rock, electro and much more to a hip hop backbone, a lavish orgy of sounds which coalesce with vibrant anger. Nothing stays grounded in any single style, not least opener 'Dark Fantasy'.
Nicki Minaj begins with a fairytale intro before a masterfully arranged vocal harmony asks “Can we get much higher”, the least unlikely of openings for a hip hop album. Within seconds an exquisitely sharp beat from RZA underscores West dropping a grotesque Marvin Gaye reference, "I fantasised about this back in Chicago, Mercy Mercy me that Mercielago" - dreaming of owning a Lamborghini in the same burst as name-checking a song title which attacked rabid fuel consumption. It doesn’t get any less frenetic or outlandish from then on in.
Most of his previous studio opuses favoured a particular sound; Graduation’s lust for pop reach, College Dropout’s soul infused core or the pre EDM house and electro of 808s and Heartbreaks – but this is spellbinding in its jerky juxtaposition. Take ‘All of the Lights’, the R&B crossover single which is Kanye’s own karaoke take on Timbaland remixing Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’.
John Legend, Alicia Keys and even Elton John all play a background role, and he doffs his cap to the Virginia beatmaker not only with the staccato drums that underpin it; Kid Cudi on the outro even sounds like him. The lyrical themes are even more bold and daring.
A quick comparison to the other great misunderstood black pop icon, Micheal Jackson, bleeds into a narrative of a man hitting his partner and the consequences it causes for his young son. It's a metaphor for his own mistakes, a hook describing the variety of spotlights and lifestyles of fame as some kind of explanation.
Then Rhianna, an at the time high profile victim of domestic violence, sings the hook. If art is about challenging perceptions and attitudes then this, on a fucking pop song no less, is about as dark and as confrontational as it gets.
The ever morphing aural palette sees plenty more themes infiltrating the songwriting. His usual lyrical braggadocio remains, opening ‘Monster’ with “Best ever dead or living hands down urrrh”, and highlighting his chart topping prowess with natty wordplay on ‘Dark Fantasy’ (“I’m the King of Leon-a Lewis”). But he dips into the futility of couples arguing on ‘Blame Game’, as well as the temptation of the female form on 'Devil in a New Dress'.
Race is never far away as well, West always ready to pour flames on the divisiveness that can engulf the issue. 'Gorgeous' sees a luxurious beat complemented by lyrics detailing the mis-treatment of blacks in America, referencing crack, AIDS and how people liked him only "as long as I'm in a polo smiling". Both his and Raekwon's raps are muddied with distortion, as if the voice of hip hop is some kind of stain on American society.
Then on 'Power’ a trademark play on words decries how he was labelled the “abomination of the Obama Nation”. That incredulity epitomises what motivates West, this idea that in an era where there is finally a black president he, it’s biggest black star, could be rejected by both him and popular culture at large. If you're left at any doubt about his voluble viewpoints on the matter, the raging sampled voice of Gil Scot Heron as the album goes kicking and screaming into the night on "Who Will Survive in America", underlines the vitriol.
'All of the Lights' grandiose cast list isn't the only noteworthy collaboration; elsewhere there's plenty more gloriously inspired cameos. Turning to Justin Vernon of folk band Bon Iver is an out the box masterstroke, whilst the hip hop heavyweights all deliver. Rick Ross is peerless on 'Devil in A Blue Dress', Jay-Z adds lavish approval to the negative connotations of fame on both his verses, whilst the posse cuts 'So Appalled' and 'Monster' sees everyone stepping up with an abundance of quotables.
It's Minaj's turn on the latter which is perhaps the most breathtaking moment on the album, a fearsome tour de force which sees her shift her accents, flow and delivery with devastating ease. It's presence underlines the curiosity of Kanye's ego, letting someone out-rap him yet birthing a star in the process on the only moment where he isn't the dominant force.
It’s also a collaboration which sends the album’s centrepiece into orbit, sonorous ballad ‘Runaway’. It’d be nigh on impossible to encapsulate such a varied and mutli-faceted career into a single song, but this is the individual record which best surmises West as he bares his soul more than at any other moment in his career.
Admitting his inability to deal with intimacy and how his perfectionism hurts others ("I'm so gifted at finding out what I don't like the most"), West croons and casually raps over his most achingly beautiful production. The distance between the piano keys at the beginning, the auto-tune solo over the strings, and the way it's devastatingly simple yet so ridiculously overblown; this is complete sonic magnificence.
And the verse from Pusha T also adds another crux. Even when Kanye is admitting so many flaws he'll get another rapper to offer the coldest counterpart viewpoint, crushing the glamour of fame and money with an almost complete contradiction of the apology. It reaffirms his scintillating ability not only as a musician but also as an auteur, asking for forgiveness for his faults from both his female muse and the world at large. And it comes with a caveat; you must accept him for who he is or run away.
Hip-hop at it's finest moments will always be outsider music, Public Enemy forcing you to re-evaluate history, NWA snarling at society and Biggie Smalls' mixture of mafioso genius and putrid self loathing. Where otherartists have struggled to continue this once fame was the norm, West latched onto that to maintain his interloper status. Even in his darkest hour he somehow managed to absorb the hatred and fire it back into his defining masterpiece.
Everything that has followed from him since would be impossible without MBDTF, from the cringe-worthily brilliant interviews to headlining Glastonbury. The opulence of Jay-z double header Watch The Throne wouldn't be here, neither Yeezus, an even more unflinchingly aggressive riposte. And could Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly have existed for a generation not previously readied for such genre bending brilliance?
Five years on this record remains one of the most darkly brilliant LPs of all time, a gorgeous yet vulgar analysis of the outer reaches of both West and society's minds. He's courted revulsion and adulation with equal measures ever since and he, and for that matter ourselves, wouldn't have it any other way.
Love this? You can find see a 16-piece orchestra performing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy live with Re:Imagine bringing events to both London and Manchester. Find tickets below.