“Do you think I sacrificed real life for all the fame of flashing lights?”
—Kanye West, “Pinnocchio Story”, 808s & Heartbreaks
Hey teacher teachers, how do we respond to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? How do we respond to the most bloated, egotistical, fantastical, flat-out amazing release hip-hop has seen in three, five, ten years? Ever? I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do, so I’ve got to get the bogus stuff out of the way first. I’ve got to take a moment to try and hate. Those vocals on “Dark Fantasy”, layered a baker’s dozen different ways, they’re synthetic. Those verses from Raekwon, KiD CuDi, Rick Ross, and Fergie add nothing to the record. “All of the Lights”’ percussion is soooooo not hip-hop. Half these songs were supposed to be G.O.O.D. Friday, not album tracks!! Kanye isn’t a straight up MC anymore, where’s the College Dropout-era charm and humor I was promised? This is practically 808s & Heartbreaks, Pt. 2! Kanye, you did me all the way wrong on that one! All the way!
These are the lines along which a cluster of hip-hop geeks will undoubtedly entrench themselves, debating the merits of each in regards to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’ve seen it happen already, and it’s not pretty. In the week leading to this album’s leak, many Internet listeners arrived at disappointment through the revelation they’d heard most of the album—however disjointedly—over the previous months. And as they’ve listened, those who felt let down already continued to feel so as West sings his way through a good portion of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. They’ve listened as Kanye gets his kicks from pretending to be the first hip-hop producer since perhaps the RZA who can claim to be a composer, a true studio producer who arranges and directs a song from skeletal idea to full-formed beast. “Power”, the lead single, arrives on the album imbued with countless minor additions from mere sonic details to a litany of background histrionics on guitar that play off of West’s delivery throughout. As does every song. Where Late Registration found West inviting his friend Jon Brion to impart slices of film scoring to the odds and ends of his tracks, here every song contains an underscore as ambitious as the beats upfront. “Hell of a Life” and “So Appalled” alone carry enough auditory sugar to make listening to this album on any regular sort of listening device almost a fool’s errand.
But we could talk about ear candy all day when an album’s production has been billed for $3 million and included studio sessions in Hawaii and Paris, during which West required all participants wear formal dress attire. We could talk about the amazing layering of 11 different vocalists atop skittering jungle-like percussion on “All of the Lights”, or his perfectly timed mining of Nas’s vaults for “Devil in a New Dress”. We could talk about the stark loneliness of the piano lead on “Runaway”, or its depressed cousin on “Blame Game” looped from Aphex Twin’s most fantastic piece, “Avril 14th”. We could talk about the glass-shattering bass on “Monster” and “Lost in the World”, or the glorious transition from the latter track into a modernized vision of Gil-Scott Heron’s “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox” that closes the album. We could talk about the excruciatingly precise delivery that fuels Jay-Z, Cy-Hi, Pusha T, and Kanye himself through the entirety of the record. We could talk all of that. But let’s talk concepts instead, because this album doesn’t achieve perfection through sonics alone. By classic hip-hop standards, great production and delivery is usually enough, but these days artists seem to think it takes something extra. And Kanye has delivered that something.
Those that viewed the “Runaway” short film might be able to more acutely appreciate what Kanye wants his listeners to experience on this album, but multiple close listens should reveal a lot of the details regardless. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is by and large a cinematic experience, featuring a specific cast of characters with some bit players who deal with a specific set of themes and consequences, all which build towards an open-ended conclusion about the world Kanye inhabits. Jay-Z represents his future, Rick Ross represents his past and his aspirations, Nicki Minaj represents his desires and impulses, Pusha T represents his cold, cold heart. Satan, raised hands, bright lights, the Magic Hour, loss (both of place and of relationship), and power are recurring themes throughout the record. These are highlighted by symbols both literal (Kanye’s dick) and metaphorical (herons in the sky) that further drive home the distinctly Greek tragedy that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s the dichotomy of making his most spare, personal statements on the opening of “Runaway” without any vocal masking before repeating the song’s lyrics draped in indistinguishably disgusting Auto-Tune mumbles, unleashing the embarrassment he should have felt all along. It’s the heart-wrenching way he sings without any mechanical aid on “Blame Game”, utterly failing to match John Legend’s clenched-throat performance and in the process bringing this reviewer deep into utter despair and sorrow. I have cried not once but twice to that song.
See, there are few more human albums in hip-hop than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In a genre fueled largely by ghetto fantasies and corner bravado, it has often been hard for artists to balance their true feelings with the expectations placed on them by the genre’s listeners. As such, it’s no surprise that Jay-Z is the genre’s biggest MC, or that the ramshackle pseudo-lyricism of modern day Lil’ Wayne is marked as the one truly dependable commodity in the pop marketplace. As a culture, especially as hip-hop has trended more and more as the preeminent pop force, we the ‘true heads’ find it difficult to let go of the old hip-hop ethos. Tight rhymes weaved through intricate poetic devices atop raw, stripped-down funk and jazz loops. Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, LL Cool J, Pharoahe Monch. The MC. And there’s no room in that narrative for an album like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album as depraved emotionally as Biggie Smalls on Ready to Die or Eminem on The Marshall Mathers LP but with all the pop bombast of Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3, or Kanye’s own Graduation and the trainwreck that was 808s & Heartbreaks. In a genre whose diehard fans often feel castigated within a pop marketplace, told to know their place and accept things can never be as they once were, it should be markedly easy to make plenty of excuses why Late Registration or The College Dropout were better efforts from Kanye. Those albums are just so much safer and typical, with various songs for various types of hip-hop fans.
But this one? This Fantasy? This is Kanye’s A Piece of Strange, a front-to-back narrative of disappointment and cultural excess that captures the raw essence of its creator like only the greatest of albums can. We open with Kanye cruising lonelily in his Murcielago, explaining how he’s often fantasized about the day he could create the work of his dreams. We follow Kanye on his rise to the top of Mount Olympus, his recently-revealed mandingo prepared to put any and all pussy in a sarcophagus, bruise any and all esophagi. He quickly becomes sick with the nature of his fantasy, however, reminiscing on his simpler days before hunching solemnly over a simple 4-note piano progression, the lonely musician and his instrument. And despite all this pain, resembling ballet’s appreciation for the most excruciating of human dance, Kanye responds to Swizz’s remark that “this shit is fuckin’ ridiculous” with an “I love it, though” to open “Devil in a New Dress”. He lets us in on his relationship woes on “Runaway”, flips out over them on “Hell of a Life” until his club hoochies start leeching him for more than he’s willing to indulge. At this point he completely breaks down, stressing whether the sex was ever worth it before sending a torrent of swirling, distorted vocals all around the room (seriously, invest in a sound system) in pure fury, referencing “All of the Lights” and a woman who buys coke with Kanye’s money, quoting a Chloe Mitchell poem and then dropping all conceits, singing hopelessly into the microphone in Kanye’s crowning achievement as a vocalist. He laments, “I can’t love you this much”, and just as the listener begins to feel as awful for Kanye as possible…he gets a butt dial from the woman he’s been in shambles over, and listens closely as Chris Rock delivers a darkly hilarious rendition of the conversation Kanye overhears.
And as “Lost in the World” storms out of all this dreariness with a thunderous, plodding house bass and Kanye taking Bon Iver in every which direction as the song exudes nothing but triumph, I come to a realization. While these songs are certainly able to be heard as a hip-hop album typically is, single after single, it does no justice to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Because this is Kanye’s fictional biography of his relationship with hip-hop and American consumerism, it is his exorcising of personal demons and an extended response to his thoughts post-Taylor Swift. “You’re my devil, you’re my angel” he spits in music’s general direction, stumbling into the African breakdown of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” while again begging anyone who will listen to run away from him. He stands triumphantly in the middle of multiple layers of Bon Iver, the beat to “Power” slowly circumferencing the original beat until the end of Gil-Scott Heron’s “Small Talk on 125 and Lenox” begins to come on over the loud speaker, asking over and over “Who will survive in America?” Is it true artists like Kanye, those living “as we do, upside down ... hosed down daily, with a gag of perfume”? Or is it the “bubbling, bubbling, bubbling” in the mother country’s crotch? The oppression of colonization and mainstream groupthink?
Kanye, despite his indomitable ego, does not take the opportunity to provide us with answers. When left on repeat, “Dark Fantasy” will open with Nicki Minaj’s fairytale introduction, and astute listeners will notice the melody of “Lost in the World” mumbling hopelessly underneath. Thus, an ouroboros is born, and like the serpent Kanye arrives before us again, in a perpetual state of rebirth and self-destruction.
The original cover art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy depicted a demonic Kanye West splayed across his sofa, ridden cowgirl by a beautiful phoenix. The phoenix, like the ouroboros, represents perpetual rebirth and intense, pre-ego power and fury. These two animals are the symbols which nurture all that Kanye put into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and one can’t help but think that Kanye must be very proud of himself for creating not only an ambitious album, but mastering it. Owning it as though the album didn’t require the excruciating amount of effort to create that it undoubtedly did. But it is the heart, soul, and humanity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that ultimately marks it as the defining pop moment of 2010. We surely ain’t never heard a hip-hop album like this before, sonically or thematically. Kanye posited on 2004’s The College Dropout, “I got a problem with spending before I get it / We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it”. Six years later, Kanye is undoubtedly the most openly self-aware MC. And the music world should be grateful to have him. I know I am.