One way to frame a discussion of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is to bring up his career trajectory having just released the stylistically overhauled and universally panned 808’s & Heartbreak, his media image after infamously interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMA awards ceremony, and his personality of an egomanical, substance-abusing, womanizing provocateur. For some, the context of Kanye’s controversial persona heightens the impact of the record – for others, historical context is nothing more than smoke and mirrors that cloud an otherwise unremarkable album. The litmus test of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy though, is that if it were released anonymously, the listener would be left wanting to know, “who the hell is this guy?” This is a testament to Kanye’s ability to craft a compelling narrative of celebrity excess, emotional instability, and the perils of fame.
“Dark Fantasy” opens with a fairy tale-esque monologue by Nicki Minaj and a soulful hook by Teyana Taylor that omniously invokes the Icarian mythos: “Can we get much higher?” The first verse begins in standard West fashion with him cruising in his Murcielago reveling in his wealth, musical prowess, and sexual exploits, a boast that highlights his excellent wordplay: “Sex is on fire, I’m the king of Leon-a Lewis”. The tone then shifts as Kanye confesses: “Sorry for the night demons still visit me/ The plan was, to drink until the pain over/ But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” A somber outro featuring an autotuned Justin Vernon closes the track – an innovative, interdisciplinary decision by Kanye that was made during a time when Jay-Z and Beyoncé very publicly attended a concert by indie rockers Grizzly Bear.
“Gorgeous” is a comparatively unembellished collection of thoughts by Kanye on racial injustice in the United States and the interplay between West, the African-American community, & hip hop music. Some of Kanye’s best lines are featured on this track: “Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums/ Based off the way we was branded/ Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon”; “Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion?/ The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing”; “And what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?/ I guess that’s why they got me sitting in fucking coach.”
The chorus of “POWER” samples a track from progressive rock band King Crimson’s cult classic In The Court of the Crimson King (1969) lamenting the detached morality of the then ongoing Vietnam War. Some fifty years later, Kanye, continuing his bombast from “Dark Fantasy,” mockingly embraces King Crimson’s dystopian vision of the “21st century schizoid man.”
“All of the Lights” features a staggering fourteen guest artists over thundering percussion and trumpet fanfare, a decision that in any other hands would be deemed extravagant and self-indulgent. But in Kanye’s universe, extravagance and self-indulgence are par for the course. “Monster” similarly showcases Kanye’s prowess as an arranger of voices. Nicki Minaj is the highlight, spitting out her lines with the ferocity of a machine gun in what is surely the best verse of the track and likely the best verse of her career. Incidentally, “Monster” may also be the first and only instance in hip hop that “sarcophagus” was paired with “esophagus.”
“Devil In A New Dress” samples the soul classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by Smokey Robinson, a fitting accompaniment to a relatively low-key contemplation of lust and heartache. As per Minaj on “Monster,” Rick Ross’s guest verse on this track is likely the greatest of his career.
A sparse, ringing piano riff and reverberated vocals complement the hauntingly beautiful “Runaway,” the most personal and relatable track on the album. Exploring topics such as his defunct relationship with model Amber Rose and the VMA incident with Taylor Swift, Kanye publicly confesses that his persona is deeply flawed. “Runaway” is more of “a toast to the douchebags” than it is an apology though, and the most Kanye can offer is the advice: “Run away as fast as you can.”
“Hell Of A Life” features Kanye’s genre-defying production of his own voice as an electric guitar, borrowing a classic Black Sabbath bass riff for the song’s indulgent hook. In a similar vein, folk singer-songwriter Justin Vernon is once again featured on “Lost in the World” with copious production and use of autotune. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy closes with “Who Will Survive in America,” a beat-backed excerpt from Gil-Scott Heron’s 1970 poem “Comment #1” that paints a bleak picture of the African-American condition and the idealism of the American dream.
Even the earliest iterations of hip hop amongst 70’s African-American youth in the South Bronx was rooted in boastful, bombastic poetry, a tradition that has carried on prominently in the gangster rap culture of the 90’s and 00’s. Certainly, Kanye did not invent introspective hip hop, nor did he completely abandon the spirit of pomposity that permeates the genre. It can be argued though, that originality is neither necessary nor sufficient to be influential – what is required is an audience that is listening. That someone brazen enough to list being the greatest artist of all time as one of their goals would reveal his vulnerabilities to the world in such a dramatic fashion captivated the hip hop community. In that sense, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could have only been conceived through some modicum of lucidity in an otherwise blinding ethos of grandiosity and bravado.
Kanye West – Dark Fantasy