In 10 For The ’10s, The A.V. Club looks back at the decade that was: 10 essays about the media that defined the 2010s, one for every year from 2010 to 2019. First up: 2010 and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The only thing to do when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped was to give it a perfect score and get out of its way. It announced itself, immediately, as Kanye West’s masterpiece: the baroque apex of a decade of restless innovation, assimilation, ambition, and self-destruction. This last part is key. After the three-album ascendancy narrative charted out by The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, each release an exponential expansion of West’s artistic vision and pop appeal, he planned to conclude the tetralogy with an album called Good Ass Job. Instead, he collapsed into himself. In 2007, his mom died, and he went through a prolonged breakup with a long-time girlfriend. Rapping, never his strong suit, failed him; he started singing over bleak ambient tones. In 2009, the Taylor Swift thing happened, and the Hov-quoting president that Jeezy foretold declared him a jackass. South Park got him, and it got to him. West went into exile, and he went through yet another breakup, this one more public than the last.
And so he holed up in a studio in Hawaii and flew in a murderers’ row of hip-hop heavyweights. The result was a storied burst of creativity, chaotic but mannered, the ghost of which Kanye has been chasing ever since. Where previous LPs saw him subsuming influences from far outside hip-hop’s normal orbit—Jon Brion, Coldplay, Daft Punk, Can—realizing his Fantasy demanded neck-snapping drums. What he needed was Pete Rock, No I.D., DJ Premier, the RZA, and Q-Tip to keep it grounded to the asphalt. He needed a low end so solid he could send Nicki Minaj and Pusha T snarling out of the speakers, a structure sturdy enough to support string interludes and elegiac choirs, Bon Iver wailing—all the opulent sonic signifiers of an artist going for broke. While there, he bounced between three separate studios, cycling input from Alicia Keys and Rihanna and Drake into some vision that only made sense in his head. He got Elton John for a hook and Big Sean for a zillion Big Sean verses. He would sleep a couple hours per night, often in the studio, then eat breakfast with the team and start again. He hung up a sign that read, “What would Mobb Deep do?” to keep everyone attuned to the wavelength.
The result sounded nothing like the infamous Queensbridge duo, but it shared with them an indomitable sense of will, a vision of hip-hop at once grimy and gilded. In late May 2010, Kanye released “Power,” a Thanos-sized fist of a song, not so much a comeback as a counteroffensive. But it was only an opening salvo. For three months before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s release, Kanye leaked a track per week—singles, remixes, sketchwork, long-lost collaborations, full-blown masterpieces never to see the light of day again, even a Dipset Christmas carol. Again, you just had to get out of its way: a new Blueprint for a new decade. You could hear it screaming over the horizon. Kanye had already proven his megalomania to be, if not correct, at least rooted in reality, presiding over a decade-long sea change in sample-based production. After 808s And Heartbreak, he found his voice as a rapper, too, his sensitivities and insecurities and frankly preposterous horniness coalescing into a run of head-turning guest verses. But his Fantasy came true when he gave up the ghost of being loved in return for this talent. He was the monster who fucked the angel, bottle in hand, leering at the viewer. Pusha had to rewrite his show-stopping verse on “Runaway” four times because Kanye kept demanding “more douchebag.”
It’s not the only time on Fantasy that Kanye speaks through a collaborator; it’s Jay, after all, who admits his Achilles heel is a never-ending thirst for love. Kanye’s ever-expanding big-tent hip-hop had long been an attempt to fill the same need, but after turning insular on 808s, he does something remarkable on Fantasy. He expands the tent and the popular conception of hip-hop to a galactic scale while simultaneously disdaining his own need to do so. “I fantasized about this back in Chicago,” he says on the album’s opening line, then proceeds to dismantle the hollowness of celebrity for 70 minutes. He’s appalled at its excesses, gazing over champagne wishes and five-star dishes and feeling nothing. It’s an old story, and he can’t believe he fell for it. He fucks porn stars with an almost nihilistic detachment. The rush of “All Of The Lights” is tempered by a howl of pain for the recently deceased King Of Pop. There’s an MJ-like aspect to the album title, and to the way Kanye conceives of his talent as something separate and childlike, in need of protection against the corrupting powers of fame, the media, even his own temptations. The outlook is not good. He repeatedly fantasizes about killing himself on the album—a one-way ticket out of the famous life, albeit, paradoxically, not out of fame itself.
On “Blame Game,” he says it most plainly: “Somebody help.” Beneath all that excess is the realization that his fantasies from back in Chicago were hollow, that talent, fame, and love are not equivalently connected but perhaps directly opposed. “Runaway” gives in, fusing his best qualities with his worst, his talent for perfectionism with his capacity for self-destruction. “I’m so gifted,” he sings, with characteristic bravado, “at finding what I don’t like the most.” There’s always been a smallness to Kanye that fans intuit to his music. After Fantasy, subsequent albums adopted a sort of cackling disdain toward those very listeners; even the vibrant Life Of Pablo contains a quick schoolyard taunt toward those who want the “old Kanye.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can often feel like a turning point, in this sense. If you want to hear the old Kanye, you go to Late Registration; if you want to hear the new Kanye, you go to Yeezus. If you want to hear both at the same time, overlapping, two self-images at odds with each other empowering an artist to raze grief, regret, shame, and what must have felt like near-universal antipathy—including from the standing president of the United States—you go to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
At least, theoretically. Make no mistake: All those Kanyes, new and old, big and small, angry and hurting, are, well, a lot. An album this maximal lingers in the memory for its most extreme moments: Nicki Minaj’s British accent, Chris Rock wailing about pussy, endless aquatic warbling about Kim Kardashian. One cannot experience “All Of The Lights” passively. But put it on again, even today, after everything, and something alchemical happens. The pieces reassemble, the cathedral comes back together, the spires become a part of the foundation. Oh yeah, you think, as delighted today as you were in 2010, a Raekwon verse. That really is just an old Pete Rock loop on “Runaway.” Kanye is funny, scabrously so, throughout; it’s the best he’s ever rapped. Like Graduation, it’s full of arena-rock incantations to wave your hands and sing along. You become a part of its power, toasting the other douchebags, drunk out of your gourd. Verses tumble over each other, one after the next, everyone goaded into their best work. What would Mobb Deep do? They’d make every hi-hat and snare clap matter, and then they’d rap their fucking brains out over it.
Despite the new new Kanye’s claims that he’s going to “George Lucas” his older albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is still all of ours. If it’s about fame, then it’s about us. But it’s the final album on which Kanye conceived a unified audience. We have seen, in the past two years, his ugliest and least interesting work—a populist hell-bent on polarization. He may still return to old form, or at least find his footing on whatever transformations still ensue. But it seems likely that we will always look at My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as his high point, if only because it is so entirely designed as such. Kanye’s primary contribution to pop music is his conception of hip-hop as its final form, capable of swallowing and assimilating anything in its path, and when mapped to the terror and ambition of Fantasy he created something unprecedented. Pop music this big is rare; the list of albums that reach as wide as this one does and succeed includes Rumours, Thriller, Purple Rain, Nevermind, and not much else—all albums about fame, and all tragedies, in their way, on a long enough timeline. The tragedy is not that Kanye became the person that he has become. It’s that he knew he would—that it is the nature of fame in America, a fantasy he yearned for and a disease no one survives.