Illustration by Tom Stotcher
This post originally appeared in VICE UK
33⅓ is a series of books dedicated to the most incredible musical albums ever made—one book per album, one author per book. Over the coming months, we'll be running excerpts from their in-depth essays. This week, Tennessee-based music writer Kirk Walker Graves introduces Kanye West's 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Here's Chapter One:
Lurking somewhere amid the tabloid covers and reality show cameos, in the icy silence between tweets, the periods of relative calm preceding fresh bouts of histrionics, lost within the noxious cultural static that clings to his very name, there has always been—in spite of his best efforts to distract us—the music. And in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Kanye West created the best—the most consistently ambitious and thrilling—pop music of any American artist, hip-hop or otherwise, during the period. From "Through the Wire"—the first single off his 2004 debut LP The College Dropout, and the cockiest anthem of survivor gratitude this side of disco—to "Lost in the World", the penultimate track on 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF), more mystic dare than pop song—he has staked his claim as the digital era's first pop visionary, a multivalent talent with an intuitive genius for collage. Best known initially as Jay Z's wunderkind producer at the turn of the millennium, champion of the sample-driven "chipmunk soul" beats heard in "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)", West's music now illuminates the pop skyline with a gauche radiance all its own.
For sheer scale and visionary brio, MBDTF is his masterpiece, the work that contains the fullest possible expression of his aesthetic vision. The album opens with a foreboding nursery rhyme chanted in a bad English brogue by rapper Nicki Minaj, and it ends with a relentlessly unanswerable question—"Who will survive in America?"—posed by late bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron, via a sample of his "Comment No. 1." Between those end stops lie 68 minutes and 38 seconds of closed—circuit narcissism, a buffet of sonic delights that blends rococo opulence ("So Appalled") with pornographic anxiety ("Hell of a Life"), suicidal ideation ("POWER") with feelings of omnipotence ("POWER"), redemptive humility ("All of the Lights") with go-for-broke ambition ("Monster"). The album unites disparate samples in a spirit of bold experimentation, incorporating prog rock as an enjambment here, transmogrifying a sixties radio pop melody into a hook there. Each song crackles with the intensity of a manic episode, employing every color in the sonic palette to paint a pop fantasia that is sui generis. MBDTF is such a testament to the power of first-rate American maximalism that one almost need look to literature—to twentieth century behemoths like The Recognitions and Women and Men—for an apt analogue. Simply put, the album has few peers in the way it stormed out of the gates and into the pop music canon.
That said, the 33 ⅓ series is devoted to landmark pop albums of the past few decades. Why write a book on an album less than four years old? How much perspective on the music is possible? In human terms, the average four-year-old has few tangible achievements outside toilet proficiency and a functional understanding of Velcro. And as music is such a vital force, a phenomenon as synonymous with life as respiration, shouldn't we apply developmental benchmarks to our judgment of its value? No sane person would presume to evaluate the legacy of a four-year-old. For most of the music we come to cherish, our love anneals in the crucible of elapsed time. The passing years trace the grooves in the culture the music has made, put our first impressions on trial in the courts of evolved taste and popular opinion. We hear, say, "Hey Ya" in an antiseptic department store lobby and receive deliverance across a lost decade, borne back to the moment of polymorphously perverse joy we felt upon hearing it for the first time. A truly great record is a miracle of double endurance, thriving in the besieged sanctum of the heart—beating back the new music , the competition for our ardor—while simultaneously persisting through time in the byzantine officialdom of critical acclaim. We reflect on where and when a particular record became more than a record, looking for the point at which the music's charm collided with our own tender susceptibility. We find meaning, prophecy, validation, and mystery in those points of connection. Time then bequeaths the music to posterity, cultivating the growth of an intergenerational democracy, a world where tomorrow's grandparents can share their grandchildren's burgeoning enthusiasm for London Calling, Pet Sounds, The Chronic, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
The question, therefore, remains: Why write a whole book about such a young album? MBDTF is a concentrated dose of Kanye West, who, in his way, is a concentrated dose of the still-young digital era. Ours is a period of unprecedented and instantaneous access to books, films, fashions, and ideas. The vast majority of the world's recorded music is searchable and streaming, just a few clicks or swipes away. The arc of West's career reflects this digital ubiquity as no artist before him, the artistry of his samples a kind of transhistorical pop consciousness. And as the pop music canon continues to self-codify, new technologies have made it easier than ever to document and endlessly share our mandarin obsessions and revelations. Blogs and now apps have become clearing-houses for the kind of serendipity that dorm rooms and college radio stations used to provide. Kanye embodies our era's insatiable appetite to aggregate—to incorporate everything all at once—and MBDTF is the operatic sound of that insatiability set to music. To promote the album in the late summer of 2010, he even gave impromptu performances of new tracks at the headquarters of both Facebook and Twitter, where, at the latter, he opened his now infamous account.
There are many other compelling reasons to devote an entire volume to MBDTF. Few compete with the album's greatest theme, however, which is the saga of its creator's pathological need for greatness. More than a panegyric to excess or a celebration of his narcissism, MBDTF is a spiritual anatomy of Kanye West. Listen hard and you find that the fundamental conflict is between a child-emperor and his irrational fear of oblivion. "My-Beautiful-Dark-Twisted-Fantasy"—say it aloud. It could be the title of an essay penned by a vengeful third grader. The album is a portrait of genius held hostage on all sides by ambition, frustration, and insecurity, an allegory about art as the only valid response to emotional crisis and the only authentic mode of redemption. If those descriptions sound a bit too highfalutin for a discussion about a pop star, that is because West is no ordinary pop star. In truth, it is unclear what he is, exactly, or what he might become. On MBDTF he often seems to bear more kinship to visual artists like Matthew Barney and Sigmar Polke than Lil Wayne or Prince.
From its swollen roster of diverse collaborators, to its polysemic tapestry of inspired samples and breathtaking hooks, to its creator's covetous wish to inherit the King of Pop's mantle, to the in-studio awareness during production of the stakes for West's career, to its yawping desire to sound like nothing else before or since, MBDTF is a monument to its own pursuit of perfection. For critics and fans across demographics, listening to the album once in its entirety was enough to ratify its status as an instant classic—more exploding quasar than landmark—but a classic nonetheless.
Follow Kirk Walker Graves on Twitter.