Revisiting the Radical Black Fever Dream of Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'
Systemic oppression exists by dehumanizing the pieces that don't fit. But what better proof is there of our humanity, that we're alive, than our ability to dream? Five years ago, on <i>MBDTF</i>, West dreamed bigger than most.
Photo via Flickr user Jason Persse
In the fall of 2010, I had already resigned myself to a sophomore year of dinginess. My dorm building lay on the outskirts of the University at Buffalo campus, and it was the only one without full Wi-Fi capabilities. But forcing an ethernet cable through a mess of clothes and books was just a small annoyance. The public bathroom's tiles bled yellowish scum, and the showers were carpeted with black grime. My neighbors were Dungeons & Dragons players who embodied the fanbase's worst hygienic and social stereotypes. My roommate was a devout Christian who abstained from binge drinking and enjoyed Jesse McCartney like it was 2004. We couldn't relate. You live the struggle. You breathe the struggle. But you never learn to like it.
That whole academic year was a haze highlighted by two things: Being a competent-at-best sports writer at my college newspaper and the return of Kanye West. Although I'd rarely boast about prosing on cross country and volleyball, the former gave my life some direction. It beat following within my family's long line of nurses. The latter was a spectacle because it looked like he controlled the zeitgeist. The mission reached its pre-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy peak with Kanye and Pusha T's Funkmaster Flex freestyle. It was a combination of many things: The rhymes were tight before they were known as "Blow," "Alone in Vegas," and "Gorgeous"; Pusha T's face looked like it was in the middle of some sort of exorcism. And Kanye's suit. How the fuck do you roll up in Hot 97 with a crisp black-and-white suit? A reference to Rosewood, West and co. were literally wearing pieces of black history. This was more the promotion of an idea than an album.
It was a moment. With each G.O.O.D. Friday release, Yeezy created more and more anticipation for a record that felt like a classic even before the damn thing came out.
On Nov. 22, the record dropped and it did not disappoint. I bought a physical copy of MBDTF and rushed back to my dorm to pop that CD into my Sony Vaio. Sixty minutes later, I thought it was the best thing I ever heard. The critical community agreed, as well—Pitchfork gave it the four-leaf-clover-rare 10.0, The Source blessed it with the iconic five mics, and Rolling Stone gave it five stars. The album played out like some dream rendered in sonic hi-def. It was experimental but rarely abstract, vivid enough to bring the best of everybody—except Jay Z, who named so many dumb beasts and ghouls on "Monster" that he turned himself into a meme. (As a lifelong Jay Z fan, it was sad to see; imagine watching your daddy get slapped right in front of you.) Rick Ross spat the realest fantasy he ever had over Bink!'s Smokey Robinson flip "Devil in a New Dress." West modulated his voice through numerous studio effects, yet none of them touched the multitudes Nicki Minaj did on her "Monster" verse. That said, West's coked-out self-aggrandizing on "Power" and the gold-plated comedown of "Runaway" showed Yeezus Christ would never get outrapped on his own record.
Throughout the album, West rides a Murciélago, fucks porn stars, and dines five star, but the hedonism is anchored by a sense of urgency, as if Yeezy knows the world's on fire and is just trying to have some fun before it all turns to ash. MBDTF is bookended by "Gorgeous" and Gil-Scott Heron's "Comment #1," his 1970 poetic vivisection of the States, repurposed as "Who Will Survive In America." Following the excess of "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous" is an indictment of an America that allegedly created AIDS and would only accept West if he plays the game: "As long as I'm in Polo smiling, they think they got me/ But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me." Scott-Heron's more abstract but visceral verse reminds us that there's never been an America that wasn't anti-black: "Two long centuries buried in the musty vault/ Hosed down daily with a gagging perfume." At first glance, "Who Will Survive in America" is the sobering note that closes the album. Sure, but a commentary on America is a bit disjointed after Yeezy "Fell in love with a porn star" on "Hell of a Life" just a few tracks ago, no? Consider the inverse: Instead being punctuated by Scott-Heron, the preceding fantasy itself is birthed from the rigged game he describes.
MBDTF is inseparable from the context that conceived it: West dissing Taylor Swift at the VMAs and his subsequent exile. West did deserve some of the public haranguing he took since this was indefensibly rude, but the fallout came with racial baggage. Swift would've never been lambasted the way West was if the roles were switched. This was a black creative stepping out of place, choosing honesty over innocuous humility. Barack Obama slamming him as a "jackass" gave racists a cover to point and ridicule West. (Thus, West's Rosewood Movement earns a disturbing significance: In 1923, the predominantly black town was razed by a white mob after a white girl claimed she was assaulted by a black man.)
West was blackballed even though he was a crossover star at the center of the pop culture after Graduation and the success of the Glow in the Dark tour. It took less than a minute for West to become a pariah. The centuries-old excuse for racial violence, the white woman, rose again to show that West was dispensable. What's white is the American norm, and what's black is an oddity.
In an interview with the New York Times, West called MBDTF his "long, backhanded apology," and I think part of that backhandedness is how he's telling America about itself in "Gorgeous" and "Who Will Survive in America."
MBDTF's maximalism was matched by impeccable songcraft. West's introspective lyrics doubled as infectious mantras, and his worldview never got lost within the production's exhausting ambition. He was showed high art's influence without getting lost in the weeds of high art itself, allowing the rest of us to slip into his headspace. The result was a package that allowed West to move right back into the cultural center while forcing America to look inward towards its corrupted core and self-hatred.
I had long left that depressing dorm by senior year and moved into a comparatively posh apartment with my own bathroom. My roommate Matt was a Caribbean descendant like myself and we both had an appreciation of Kanye and Caribbean food. I grew from a competent-at-best sports writer to a competent-at-least senior managing editor who wrote about music, mostly hip-hop.
In the newsroom, I was the hip-hop guy, the dude whose musings on the genre could be tolerated as long as they read coherently in print. The culture that I breathed before college was rarely taken seriously in the three years I worked there; it was a quirk that helped fill the room's diversity quota. I didn't care, though. I enjoyed writing and finally becoming a managing editor was an achievement. I had my name printed in bold blue font, and it hung proudly on the door of an editing room that I led.
This still wasn't my space. It was a winter day near the top of the year when I was looking at an article draft on one of the Mac desktop screens as three of my white co-editors sat across from me. They were discussing the novelist Walter Mosley, who spoke as a lecturer during a campus event that evening. The editor who attended recounted the events: the black women's "mmhmm" that reverberated when Mosley preached what they believed to be true, his matter-of-fact rhetoric, and overall activist bent.
Mosley used the term "nigger" at one point of the speech. I don't remember the context in which he said it, but when the editor uttered the word, I watched it spread like a virus. This epitaph became a plaything. The second editor repeated it and giggled, thrilled as the two-syllable word left his throat. The third did the same. They all stared at me through sheepish grins as they traded utterances. I stared back at them then I looked emotionlessly and pathetically back at the computer screen. I'd betrayed myself to think that I was going to become something more than an abnormal or punchline simply by working and playing the game. I was a disgrace.
After the incident, it was clearer that the fever dream of MBDTF was more than a pill inside a five-star fish fillet. In America, right is often correlated with white. Obversely, blackness is a glitch, and, at worst, inhuman. If the concept of being unrepentantly black while fitting into a white-worshipping society is an absurd task, MBDTF asks how absurd is it, then, to maximize our dreams and ambitions while indulging in them. That's what African-Americans held on to when Thomas Jefferson wrote "all men are created equal" as he owned slaves. If America doesn't give us meaning despite being built off us, then we make meaning on our own terms. We dreamt and worked to affirm those visions.
America's core principles preaches that you can be anything you want to be. That's untrue—not everybody's a Cinderella. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's effect is more existential. Systemic oppression exists by ostracizing and dehumanizing pieces that don't fit. But what better proof is there of our humanity, that we're alive, than to dream? On MBDTF, West dreamed bigger than most.
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