The 33 1/3 series doesn’t explicitly declare that any album in its series is a masterpiece. On its official website, it modestly states that “33 1/3 is a series of short books about a wide variety of albums.” However, given the list of albums profiled (see The Velvet Underground and Nico, OK Computer, There’s a Riot Going On), it’s not a stretch to say that many of the albums in the 33 1/3 series are indeed masterpieces of some sort.
That’s what makes Kirk Walker Graves’ profile of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy such a compelling read. At a scant four years old, Graves rightfully asks whether any album that young should be given a “Hall of Fame” treatment. In the introduction, Graves states “No sane person would presume to elevate the legacy of a four-year-old.” He revisits this argument throughout the book by comparing some of West’s most petty, high-profiled tirades to that of a temper tantrum thrown by a four-year-old.
To Graves’ point, yes, no sane person would elevate the legacy of a four-year-old. But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is no ordinary four-year old. Released mere days before many critics had to turn in their “best albums of 2010” list, it still holds the record for the largest margin of victory in the history of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critic’s poll. This mix of universal acclaim and short shelf life gives something most 33 1/3 books lack: a level of urgency. Graves essentially uses his book to lay out the argument that, yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does deserve to be placed alongside such albums as Thriller and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Each song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy gets its own chapter. In these chapters, Graves delves into the samples West uses throughout My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In addition, he ties in such pop culture moments as Walter White’s downfall in the pinnacle episode of Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias”, Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special, and even The Great Gatsby to West’s own attempt to rebuild his own image after his infamous MTV Video Music Award appearance where he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech.
Thankfully, Graves had a few pages to spare at the end, and he chose to focus on West’s much-debated and very “punk” response to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s plea to be understood and possibly loved: the metaphoric “fuck you” known as Yeezus. In the final chapter, Graves expertly lays out those great internal “Is this awful, or do I just not understand it?” dialogues that critics and music lovers oftentimes wrestle with when they’re presented with a baffling piece of work.
If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is West’s Nevermind, then Yeezus is his In Utero. And after 20-plus years, people earn far more “street” music credibility by saying they prefer In Utero‘s brashness to Nevermind‘s glossy sheen. But Graves proudly declares his preference of the meticulously-produced big budget studio album over the album where West banged out the majority of vocals in a matter of hours. In the end, he claims he finally “got” Yeezus after seeing it performed live. But even his prose at that moment has a strong element of doubt.
West may be divisive enough to not win over his detractors, but Graves’ mix of fanboy marvel and critical detachment is persuasive enough to convince even detractors to give My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a close listen. At the end of its 132 pages, Graves makes a convincing argument that this four-year-old deserves a spot in the 33 1/3 series. But perhaps more important, he does something that great criticism should do: he makes you want to listen to the album.