Kanye West's Perfect Imperfections: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at Five
Kanye West's glorious racket shifted the way we talk about black music.
For the month of November, Noisey will be remembering the buildup to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a weekly series of G.O.O.D. Friday posts. Welcome to Noisey G.O.O.D. Fridays.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy shouldn’t exist. Kanye West shouldn’t have had the year that prompted him to summon a team of modern musical Avengers to help create it. He shouldn’t have initiated the cognac-assisted Taylor Swift MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech interruption that turned America against him in 2009. Frankly, she shouldn’t have won. The cutesy high school drama of the “You Belong with Me” video doesn’t hold a candle to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Drunk and outrageous as West’s long history of award show gaffes has often been, the underlying ideal—that black art and artists need better recognition and representation—is shared by creatives across every medium. Through his art, interviews, and outbursts, West helped bushwhack a tolerance to push these kinds of conversations out into the open, to make them the focus of the art itself even, rather than resenting erasure behind masks of acceptance at deserved accolades lost.
Kanye was right about Beyonce and Taylor, but his post-VMA path was rocky. Fans griped. The internet made memes. The president called him a jackass. West quietly disappeared and fashioned an entire project as closure for his public scorn and the bullish, boozy wanderlust that landed him there. The cornerstone of the 2010 charm offensive was the G.O.O.D. Friday campaign, a weekly free track drop that served a myriad of cross purposes: The chief thrust was to dazzle the public back into Kanye’s hands en masse via a series of can’t-miss event records, but an underrated subplot effected in the weekly rollout was that tight deadlines necessitated the artist shaking his perfectionist tendencies over unmastered, loose, and sometimes unfinished tracks. It also walked listeners into the twisted world of the coming album, opening curt and cool but progressing to ghoulish oddities like “Take One for the Team” and the washed out, sadsack “Christian Dior Denim Flow” and “Don’t Look Down.” It worked: By the time the album hit, Kanye had secured an audience rapt and ready to follow him and his Greek chorus of co-stars through breathtaking turns, and he enjoyed unilateral rave reviews for his courageous new direction.
For an album supposedly engineered for mass consumption, Fantasy is notably coarse and challenging, in concept as well as structure and arrangement. If this was, in fact, just an apology bouquet, then the flowers are roses: blood red and riddled with thorns. If West seemed hungry to win back white America, he made sure to do it in the blackest way possible: with guest spots from members of the Wu-Tang Clan, swatches of spoken word from Gil Scott-Heron, and a riff by Chris Rock. The closest analog in the Kanye catalog is the revolutionary orchestral pomp of Late Registration, but scathing screeds like “Crack Music” were really just punching lush instrumental breaks and builds into more conventional songs when you hold them up to the Wu-Tang prog of “Dark Fantasy” or the turgid Madonna-whore complexes and Black Sabbath invocations of “Hell of a Life,” itself a harbinger of the tone of Yeezus.
Fantasy wasn’t just allowing beats room to breathe, it contorted and mutated them. The session’s calling card “Runaway,” a forthright admission of Kanye West’s legendary prickliness, appears late in a towering, extended version whose verses and choruses are chased by a lengthy coda wraithlike in its methodical dissolution of the song’s central groove from Pete Rock indebted sampler workout into a thick soup of the scorched remains of all the underlying melodies. The grand celebrity summit “All of the Lights,” which tapped Rihanna, The-Dream, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Elton John, and a half-dozen more for backing vocals, employs a kingly fanfare of french horns, trumpets, and trombones to envelop West’s story of a man who single-handedly destroys his family with domestic abuse. Doom stalks every sweetness.
This axiom is borne out explicitly in installation artist Marco Brambilla’s two-minute “video painting” for Fantasy’s lead single “Power.” In it, Kanye stands darkly still in his own Garden of Earthly Delights rapping “No one man should have all that power,” awash in a scene of carnal extravagance as the legendary Sword of Damocles hangs ominously overhead, and assassins close in on his neck. Moreso than the high concept, Hype Williams directed Runaway film that accompanied the album’s physical release with a fantastical phoenix story, Brambilla’s short embodies the spirit of Fantasy: everything breaks, everything dies, and the second you decide that for you it doesn’t, your turn comes. The enduring genius of the project was its recasting of Kanye’s rocky 2009 as a tragedy of cosmic significance. “These are our kings,” it seemed to say. “Hip-hop is our empire.”
To that end, the writing on Fantasy reads the most like classical poetry of anything in the Kanye West songbook before or since. Stakes are sky-high, for the man and the culture, and not a word is wasted. “Gorgeous” decries the roads carrying black youth to incarceration in its first verse:
“Penitentiary chances, the devil dances
And eventually answers to the call of autumn
All them fallin’ for the love of ballin’
Got caught with thirty rocks, the cop looked like Alec Baldwin
Inter-century anthems based off inner city tantrums
Based off the way we was branded
Face it, Jerome gets more time than Brandon
And at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random”
“Lost in the World” uses Bon Iver’s experimental Blood Bank EP highlight “Woods” to bait a potential lover into whatever edification or adversity might ensue:
“You’re my devil, you’re my angel
You’re my heaven, you’re my hell
You’re my now, you’re my forever
You’re my freedom, you’re my jail”
But Fantasy isn’t just West circling his poetic apex. A few of its guest verses are considered among his collaborator’s best: Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse (“PINK WIG, THICK ASS, GIVE EM WHIPLASH / I THINK BIG, GET CASH, MAKE EM BLINK FAST”) destroyed all the boys and proved her mettle to a hip-hop audience that had given up on women as stars when Lauryn, Missy, and Kim crept into extended hiatus. Rick Ross’s spot after Mike Dean’s devastating guitar solo on “Devil in a New Dress” is the Miami mogul at his objective finest, half full of lies (“Had cyphers with Yeezy before his mouth wired,” “Getting 2pac money twice over!”) but godly regal in his flagrant overreach. The intricate, star-studded maximalism of Fantasy only works because Kanye is a crack producer both in the hip-hop beatmaking sense but also in the classic sense; he knows how to put a room full of people to work to the betterment of a record and how to tease out performances none of them thought possible.
The reputation My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy holds as Kanye West’s personal finest hour is understandable; it is a record of often stunning genius. But critics heralding it as flawless in its time and since are missing the pulse beating through the marketing and the music itself. Fantasy is an album about finding acceptance for one’s own flawed humanity, and like the man who created it, its histrionics are periodically trying. Nicki Minaj's British accent on "Dark Fantasy" is absurd. The “Runaway” outro lasts a good minute longer than necessary. The two-minute Chris Rock skit that closes “Blame Game” kills the song’s mood stone dead. “So Appalled” is nearly torpedoed by a tragic CyHi da Prynce verse, and RZA’s appearance afterward—blessings to the Abbot—is just one voice too many in a track overstuffed with them. If Fantasy was an attempt to bribe the masses into loving Kanye West again, in its rockier portions, it can come on like the one extra drink that sends a classic night into chaos, a fitting fate after all, since it was a few too many swigs of Hennessy that created this monster in the first place.
The success of the war against black Hollywood erasure fought by Kanye West, film directors Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder creator Shonda Rimes, and many more is tangible but still frustratingly uneven: We see ourselves more on primetime television in the wake of Black-ish, Empire, and the like, and black film directors have had encouraging box office successes this year (DuVernay’s Selma, F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton), but a featherweight Beck release can still swipe the Grammy for Album of the Year out from under Beyonce’s game-changing blockbuster self-titled album.
A spat surrounding this year’s VMA nominations illustrated Kanye’s specific revolution: Nicki Minaj’s peers balked when she suggested her “Anaconda” and “Feeling Myself” videos were working at a critical disadvantage to records by svelte white pop stars because of her race and body type, but where West’s brash, bulldog defense of Beyonce’s artistry was met with consternation, Nicki’s claim sparked a vital dialogue about the value of women of color in the music industry instead of derision as some scandalous, birdbrained VMA Moment. Kanye calling the establishment into question in song (“The day that you play me will be the same day MTV play videos”) and on their own event stages won him a reputation as something of a tyrant. But the advancing uproar over prestige season whitewashing of hip-hop (see: Macklemore beating Kendrick Lamar at the 2014 Grammys and really, anything awarded to Iggy Azalea) is more absolution than any glowing review could offer.
Craig's livin' in that 21st Century, doin' somethin' mean to it, doin' better than anybody you ever seen do it. Follow him on Twitter.