The best-received and most ambitious album of Kanye West’s career turns five today.
Since we began this “Classic Rotation” feature two years ago, we’ve written about albums that have stood the test of time, ones that have come to define eras and genres. A decade is usually what’s needed to meet such lofty criteria, but today, we’re highlighting the youngest album to ever make the cut. Kanye West’s fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was released just five years ago, still fresh enough in everyone’s minds that most of us probably remember where we were when we first heard it. Most “Classic Rotation” features discuss albums’ influence on future generations, and while this one is still lacking in that department (especially for a Kanye album), it doesn’t have much to do with its release date. If you’re looking for the most influential project of 2010– one that sparked reverberations throughout hip hop almost as soon as it landed– that’s Flockaveli, Waka Flocka and Lex Luger’s complete annihilation of everything you thought was “hard” in earlier years. Hell, its sphere of influence even includes Ye’s next release, Watch the Throne (as he tapped Luger and 808 Mafia co-conspirator Southside for production). MBDTF‘s lack of obvious offspring is more of a testament to its genius than a fault, because the fact is that few have attempted statements of such magnitude before or since.
Lyrically, West is more honed in on a specific mindset than he was on his first four albums, and this is heightened by guest appearances that were scrutinized by Ye until they were perfect (Pusha T‘s “Runaway” verse took four tries). This level of coordination between so many legends is a true marvel, most likely a product of the storied “Rap Camp” Kanye held in Hawaii, and it still casts sharp relief on most other artists’ collaborative processes, where phoning in disposable sixteens is the most economic choice. There are lines that still smack you in the face with each listen– “What’s a black Beatle anyway, a fuckin’ roach?”, “First things first, I’ll eat your brain,” “Gettin’ Tupac money twice over”– all of which make for a lyrical workout that favors punchy, memorable one-liners over rambling and conceptual musing. All of that heady, ambitious work is left to the actual music, which is much more essential to the album’s character than the words that inhabit its walls for a few seconds at a time.
Sampling credits on Kanye’s albums have always been a good indicator of the vibe he’s pursuing. His first two LPs’ warm, crackling charm come from the R&B and soul that classic hip hop was built on, albeit treated with more care than usual. Graduation‘s use of Elton Joh, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Daft Punk, and Can highlights its wide-eyed, all-over-the-place sound. MBDTF gets its most adventurous characteristics from the world of progressive rock, most of which was created in an era when technological advancements and jazz influences turned blues-based rock music on its head. We hear the voice of Yes’ Jon Anderson on the first track, King Crimson’s Greg Lake on track three, Manfred Mann’s synths on “So Appalled”, and the proto-prog of metal gods Black Sabbath on “Hell Of A Life.” In addition to providing the sonic backdrop for the album, the story of that genre is a nice metaphor for what West sought to do with MBDTF: take his genre to compositional heights it had never previously reached. The mid-70s were an era of technically masterful supergroups, of epic-length tracks, and improvisation, and Kanye– with his dream team of producers, tastefully baroque suites and extended outros– mirrored that. It was a time-consuming, bold, and expensive move, but luckily, we’re talking about one of the most confident men to ever live.
MBDTF is the moment when Kanye’s ego became an integral part of the music, not just something you accepted because of his talent. Sure, Graduation had gratuitous moments like the line on “Glory” when Ye claimed he could wear a Speedo to the Grammys and still “Be looked at like a fuckin’ hero,” but that’s one line on one (honestly not-that-essential) song. MBDTF, on the other hand, is an hourlong examination of his self-confidence, which had been burned to the ground on 808s & Heartbreak but returned as if it had delivered Obi Wan’s “Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine” speech to Taylor Swift on VMA night 2009. This is a nastier, more honest Ye. (Although it bears few stylistic similarities, Future’s unapologetic rebound from Ciara might be the closest trajectory that’s followed it.) The statement of purpose is found a few lines into “Dark Fantasy”:
“Me drown sorrow in that Diablo
Me found bravery in my bravado”
By way of patois, Ye explains that he quelled emotional strife by acting upon his darkest impulses, and reclaimed his much-touted arrogance (which was sorely lacking on 808s) with a boldness that eclipsed everything that preceded it. “POWER,” the first taste we got of the album, condenses MBDTF‘s overarching conversation between self-exaltation and self-hate into five minutes. Demands for haters to kiss his “whole ass” are tempered with criticism and suicide fantasies, which are some of the first signs that Kanye’s letting his most immediate, unbridled impulses take the reigns here. As a result, we get the usual dose of face-palm bars that he’s known for (and have kept him out of most “best rapper alive” debates); would-be jokes like “You short-minded niggas thoughts is Napoleon” and awkward jumbles (“She can’t get that dress from Oscar de / La Renta, they wouldn’t rent her, they couldn’t take the shame”) keep the whole thing from being a master-class in lyricism, but the silver lining is that they usually fit into Kanye’s blinders-on, guard-down mentality on the album. He obviously spent a lot of time thinking about what he wanted to say on MBDTF, but the genius move is making a good deal of it sound like the podium rantings of a fame-drunk egotist. He may fit that bill on occasion, but as implied by this album’s title, he’s using some horrific fantasy of his ego as his muse, so the result often seems as nightmarishly caricatured as the original “POWER” artwork. Plenty of people hated Kanye at this point in his career (many still do), and he indulged them by emphasizing and embellishing the worst aspects of his personality.
The term “opus” gets thrown around a lot whenever rappers release albums that are epic in scope and hyper-personal in content, but this is one of the few that checks both boxes with ease. Is good kid, m.A.A.d city, the best-received album since MBDTF, Kendrick Lamar’s opus? Its conceptual framework definitely fits the bill, but musically, it plays by the rules too much, synthesizing a bunch of previously-existing sounds (very skillfully, we’d be foolish to forget) into a more down-to-earth product. If you combined its cinematic Compton parables with the more ambitious instrumentation of To Pimp A Butterfly, it might qualify, but on their own, the two albums are either too self-contained (GKMC) or scattered (TPAB). The argument could be made that both are more perfect albums than MBDTF, or even that this isn’t Kanye’s most spotlessly consistent album, but this gaudy, gratuitous monster is more compelling because its faults are inextricably linked to its concept.
Let’s put it this way: it’s doubtful that Ye will ever count his VMA outburst as one of the proudest moments of his life, but it’s still one of the greatest and most memorable live TV events of our lifetimes. Similarly, he ranks Yeezus and 808s over MBDTF. Especially after becoming a father, his fantasies may not be as dark and twisted anymore, but those demons that he conjured up five years ago will continue to seduce everyone who admits to having a dark side to their psyche. The inner douchebag/asshole lurks inside all of us, even if we’ve never fallen in love with pornstars or taken someone to Ghetto University, even if we know that the hangover is usually worse than the pain, even if “Family Business” still brings a tear to our eyes. The exorcism of Kanye West was simultaneously the most and least relatable thing he’s ever attempted, and that’s why it’s an inscrutable classic.