As the last few days of this decade ticked away, I found myself on a cruise ship in international waters, without internet, tangled in a web of contradictions.
Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t touched Twitter in a week, but I started to become weary of all the self-indulgent, end-of-decade romanticism that gripped the last few months of 2019. Now, I realize how pretentious that sounds, especially considering the fact that I wrote this piece for a series that’s literally called “Albums of the Decade,” but it’s a feeling I just haven’t been able to shake. I want to be able to look back on the 2010s, the first decade my 16-year-old self has fully been able to live through, and say that “I was there,” like some old James Murphy-type hipster.
But if time’s just a meaningless construct created to sell watches, what’s the use? Was I really even consciously aware of the zeitgeist for enough time to capture the essence of an era? Could I, or anyone for that matter, ever fathom the scope of an era like the 2010s, one exacerbated by a beyondless cloud-based expanse that’s redefined our cultural epoch so intensely that all this existential meandering only emerged after a few days offline?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.
A part of me wants to reject the notion of the 2010s as the moment that social media truly inserted itself into the bedrock of pop culture, but I think that’s because every time I hear someone say that, they usually follow it up with something along the lines of “Those darn kids.” It’s staggering how much our quest for “unfettered digital ubiquity,” as writer Kirk Walker-Graves calls it, has fundamentally altered us, from our perception of self to the way we interact with cultural touchstones like art, literature, and music itself.
To borrow some concepts from Walker-Graves’ essential 33⅓ book on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a digital age that prioritizes the immediacy and intimacy of online content brings with it a sense of vast, distant isolation. It’s a long-term byproduct of the rugged individualist American ideal, an inevitability that has manifested itself into archetypes like the Lone Ranger. When the lines between communication and engagement—through clicks, likes, retweets, whatnot—begin to blur, as they increasingly have in the past decade, this loneliness evolves into a search for validation, for superficial approval that perpetuates a never ending cycle to feed an exaggerated, egotistical sense of self. Paraphrasing an excerpt from The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, only the admiration and grandiosity of fame and celebrity can provide a respite from the insecurities that narcissism digs its roots in.
And that’s where Kanye West comes in.
It’s hard to think of a figure more inherently connected to the narcissism of our digital age than West; a man so polarizing that the mere mention of him is likely to result in either utter disgust or absolute adoration. The unconventional, paradoxical nature of his ego is truly remarkable; how despite the vilification of his brash outspokenness—fueled by outbursts on Twitter and a penchant for creating chaos at award shows—West’s hunger for perfection has constantly resulted in beloved, boundary-challenging work.
He’s repeatedly reimagined the future of what pop music could be, taking a hammer to pop culture and rearranging the shards into something timeless. In a May 2012 feature for The Atlantic, David Samuels referred to West as “the first true genius of the iPhone era,” and he’s right. More than anything else, his work represents the future of a digital age, his many contradictions a mirror to our descent into the vast landscape of cyberspace.
And if Kanye West is the perfect distillation of our new era, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the perfect distillation of Kanye West. An extravagantly glorious, insurmountably grandiose 68-minute exploration of fame, power, greatness, ego, self, it is, above all, the finest hour and eight minutes of one of the most important artists of the 21st century.
Emerging from a moment where West was the most hated man in America, after famously storming the stage at the 2009 VMAs to protest Taylor Swift’s win for Best Female Video, the story of MBDTF is one of redemption on his own terms. Self described by West as a “back-handed apology” aimed squarely at the vanguards of American celebrity—the media—what makes the record such a beautiful rebuke is how little breath is wasted on all the tabloids and the late-night show hosts (though, the writers of South Park were not spared). By creating a record so towering, so staggering, so absolutely, undeniably brilliant, West’s triumph over the odds was complete, the final chapter in a marvelous campaign for redemption.
After the Taylor Swift incident and the subsequent cancellation of his joint tour with Lady Gaga, West had quietly decamped from the U.S. to escape the tabloids, popping up first in Japan, and then in Italy, where he began to absorb the high art and fashion around him. In due time, he’d return to the States, setting up a sort of “Rap Camp” in Honolulu to record for the album with a dazzling cast of characters, filled with vanguards of hip-hop (RZA, Q-Tip, Madlib), pop icons (Rihanna, Elton John, Alicia Keys), up-and-coming stars (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Kid Cudi), and a few curveballs (Chris Rock, Seal, Bon Iver).
Finding a newfound, instantly gratifying platform to communicate with in Twitter, West began unloading rants, artwork and various online curios onto his now-infamous account, even visiting Twitter’s HQ in Silicon Valley as one of his first comeback appearances in public. In a move to rebuild goodwill and increase hype for the record, he began putting out free music weekly as part of his G.O.O.D. Fridays releases in August of 2010.
And the music was good. Like, really good. There’s no doubt in my mind that if West’s new record consisted solely of those G.O.O.D. releases, it would’ve been enough to absolve him of the scorn he had faced. But most of these songs were mere loosies, tossed-off scraps that had emerged from the Hawaii sessions. Those that ended up on the record would eventually be revealed as mere demos, bursts of brilliance that hadn’t even been fully actualized yet. The fact that these songs weren’t enough to make MBDTF’s final cut remains a testament to the level of artistry that West was operating at, a reflection of his laser-focused creative vision.
And so, we finally arrive at the music of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is rendered in remarkably precise, unimaginably maximalist detail. The sonic template matches the manic excess of the record’s thematic content, drawing out distinguishers from West’s past work and blowing it up to astronomical proportions. The soulful chops of The College Dropout, the swirling orchestration of Late Registration, the crisp sonic sheen of Graduation, the isolated chill of 808s and Heartbreaks; it’s all here on a scope more massive than anything attempted by West before.
What emerges are songs like “Hell of a Life,” a pornographic ode to the fundamental juxtaposition between “pussy and religion” that crams in its composition a harpsichord solo, thunderous percussion, a terrifyingly grimy synth line, and a particularly creative interpolation of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” There’s “So Appalled,” an enormously opulent six-man cypher cut with a towering, string-anchored beat that sounds like it’s echoing down gold-plated halls. There’s “Gorgeous,” which takes a slick guitar line, a Kid Cudi hook and some of Kanye’s most brilliant verses, and filters them all through a marvelous layer of fuzz. And who could forget the album opener, “Dark Fantasy,” a song that’s rocketed into the stratosphere courtesy of its immense, otherworldly choir?
The preface of “Dark Fantasy,” delivered by a snarling Nicki Minaj, presents the most fundamental, significant internal conflict explored by MBDTF: the battle between West’s naive desire for the trappings of fame, and the harm of its true, tyrannical nature. He says it himself on the roaring exaltation of “POWER”: “my childlike creativity, purity and honesty is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts / reality is catching up with me, taking my inner child, I’m fighting for custody.”
There’s a sense of futility that emerges throughout “POWER,” the gradual understanding that West’s power trip can only last for so long. The symbolism of West’s artistic choices here is brilliant; sampling King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” as a mirror his own ego-drunk power, using the “jumping out the window” allegory to represent the inevitable downfall (“a beautiful death”), he paints a portrait of a man being pulled at from all sides. The video extends this imagery, zooming out on a kingly portrait of West to reveal the approaching evils that threaten to swallow him whole.
But if there’s truly a perfect character portrait here, it’s not one of West. It arrives on the following track, “All Of The Lights.” The song crams Fergie, Elton John and Rihanna into a ping-ponging, triumphant horn arrangement, eulogizing Michael Jackson before diving right into the story of an adulterous parolee desperate to meet his daughter and make amends. For how gargantuan and star-studded the arrangement is, the song’s greatest triumph is that it manages to put forth a touching moment of reflection, a vital counterpoint to the grandiose brushstrokes the record often operates in.
There’s something to take note of in the way West juxtaposes the humanity of “All of the Lights” with the track that follows it. Bookended by Justin Vernon’s menacingly layered vocals, “Monster” is truly a monstrous song, a six-minute behemoth that takes up an entire side’s worth of music on the MBDTF LP. The beat, a churning vocal sample and relentlessly pounding tribal drums, is truly insane, constantly teetering on the edge of collapse. It’s the apex of the record’s hedonistic bent, and it takes that role with gusto; Rick Ross, Kanye, Jay-Z and, most of all, Nicki Minaj all sound like they’re foaming at the mouth as they dive into their verses.
The menace of “Monster” is undeniable, but the sort of kingly power the song wields seems to warrant more attention. It’s almost as if West is posing the question: “how much power is too much?” What happens when all these things, all the glitz, the glamour, the “champagne wishes,” all start to seem so immense that inevitably, they become meaningless? This is where “Devil In A New Dress” comes in.
“Devil in a New Dress” is the moment where West becomes disillusioned with his own superficiality; where he realizes that fame has surrounded him with people just like him. It comes in the form of the metaphorical “devil,” an enchanting temptress that preys on the most carnal of West’s vices.
The song is filled with some of West’s funniest lines (“I ordered the jerk, she said ‘you are what you eat’”), as well as some of his most profound (“you loved me for me, could you be more phony?”), as West probes the dichotomy of the piety of religion and the godlike status of fame. It’s truly a sobering realization, as Rick Ross’ iconic verse brings the song to a close, that this is West’s desperate grasp for profound connection and love, for something real, and he knows that he’ll never find anything honest in the facade.
And so, we finally arrive at “Runaway,” the beating heart of MBDTF.
For all intents and purposes, it’s hard to talk about “Runaway” as the final fulcrum point in the grand thematic arc of the record. A prettier conclusion might involve the songs that follow it: the aforementioned “Hell of a Life,” the nightmarish heartbreak and collapse that unfolds over the Aphex Twin-sampling “Blame Game,” the redemptive acceptance of “Lost in the World,” the titular question posed by legendary poet Gil Scott-Heron on the final track. In writing this piece, I’ve often considered characterizing these songs as the final redemption of MBDTF’s narrative, but no matter how brilliant they all are, I simply can’t bring myself to. Not when they’re all preceded, dwarfed, by the greatest song of Kanye West’s career.
“Runaway” doesn’t sound like much when it starts, just the reverberating strike of a piano, droning on somberly for almost half a minute. It’s so rudimentary, so elemental, so absolutely minimal in contrast with the rest of the record, that the juxtaposition is a bit jarring at first listen. It seems so slight, yet still so powerful, like a match illuminating the walls of an enormous cavern.
And then the lights flood in.
As the drums finally let loose, “Runaway” springs to life, anchored by cellos and the scattered echoes of Rick James’ voice. On a record filled to the brim with non-apologies, “Runaway” is maybe West’s most heartfelt one, an anthemic toast to the douchebags that owns the mistakes he’s made while admitting he’ll never be able to change. And it’s beautiful too; something about those strings mixing with West’s impassioned croon gets me welled up every time. His vocal performance is honestly stunning, as is Pusha-T’s guest verse, which juxtaposes West’s sincerity with a sneering arrogance that’s so commanding that his voice practically fills up the room.
West and Push represent the battle within “Runaway,” between West’s remorse for his actions, from the Taylor Swift incident to his relationship with Amber Rose, and the ego he’s carried all his life, the ego that made him truly great. It plays this battle out beautifully for nearly six minutes, at which point everything except for that piano melody cuts out. Over the next three minutes, something remarkable happens: West finally escapes.
A common theme in analyzing this album (and West himself), is observing that Kanye’s music has always provided some sort of respite from the internal strife that exists within him. He’s always managed to turn his personal shortcomings and failings into art that seems raw, expressive and profoundly real.
And in these last three minutes, where his voice is heavily filtered through a fuzzy vocoder as he pours his heart out unintelligibly over that elegiac string section, we see maybe Kanye West’s greatest, most beautiful example of that. For all the incredible moments on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this is the one that stops me cold in my tracks every single time.