Once a month, I'll be taking an in-depth look at a landmark album in the music industry. This month, we dissect Yeezy’s magnum opus; a 13-track, 68 minute pop-culture Goliath. Directed, produced and orchestrated by the mad genius of modern music, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the zenith of the ever-evolving phenomenon that is Kanye Omari West.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the greatest rap album in modern history.
This is my explanation.
If you know me, you are well aware of my uncontainable love for Kanye West. That being said, it would be easy to trace my opening statement back to personal bias. All preference aside, I think I do a great job of staying impartial in my evaluation of music as a whole, so before you criticize my dubious proposition, hear me out.
I do not love every Kanye album.
I thought Ye was somewhat underwhelming. Graduation, as polarizing as it may seem, is maybe my least favorite Kanye album. Yes, 808s & Heartbreak is one of the most influential albums of the 2000s, but much of the project is forgettable in my opinion.
What i'm trying to get across is that, while I do believe that Kanye is arguably this generation's greatest artist, I am by no means blind to Kanye's musical faults.
That being said, I will take to my grave the personal testament that Yeezy's 5th studio album is undoubtably the best piece of rap music created in the past half-century.
Let's rewind to 2009.
After a handful of public outburst and media mishaps, Kanye West sent himself on a self-imposed exile, traveling to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Secluding himself for around a year, Mr. West meticulously crafted a project that was meant to be a screenplay rather than a standard album.
Question, what do these people have in common?
Raekwon, RZA, Pusha T, Rick Ross, Charlie Wilson, Big Sean, Cyhi the Prynce, Swizz-Beatz, Dwele, Nicki Minaj, T.I., Drake, Common, Jay-Z, John Legend, Fergie, Rihanna, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Elton John, M.I.A., Justin Vernon, Seal, Soulja Boy, Beyonce, Kid Cudi, Mos Def, Santigold, Alicia Keys, Elly Jackson, Tony Williams, Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Madlib and Pete Rock.
No, this isn't a greatest artists of all-time list.
Believe it or not, this is every single artist Kanye had out to his Hawaiian compound to culminate My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I'm dead serious.
So, when I say that MBDTF is a screenplay, I mean it. In essence, this album was Kanye's grand spectacle, proving to the music industry that the music world is in his palm, and with the flick of a switch, he can assemble the greatest cast known to man.
On November 22nd, 2010, the seats of the theatre filled from front to back.
Critics, fans and naysayers lined the rows, eager for the performance to come.
The credits rolled, the curtains opened, and the spotlight pointed to the center of the stage, illuminating a man who, eight years into his illustrious discography, had nothing left to prove except perfection.
All at once, a hush fell over the metaphorical audience.
The albums opening track, "Dark Fantasy", opens with a female voice. It's Nicki Minaj. Setting the scene for the first act, she exclaims:
You might think you've peeped the scene
You haven't, the real one's far too mean
The watered down one, the one you know
Was made up centuries ago
They made it sound all wack and corny
Yes, it's awful, blasted boring
Twisted fictions, sick addiction
Well, gather 'round children, zip it, listen
According to Genius annotators, this introduction is an alteration of Roald Dahl's take on Cinderella, from his book Revolting Rhymes. Much like the story of Cinderella, Kanye's eminent vision of setting for MBDTF is a grand ball. Similar to the glass slipper, this was his opportunity to prove critics that he is the chosen one. Other challengers can try fitting the shoe, but in the end, it's meant for one man only.
Enter Teyana Taylor and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver's frontman).
In dramatic fashion, the duo repeats the line, "can we get much higher?", a question that will definitively be answered over the course of the next sixty-or-so minutes.
The beat pivots, and in walks Kanye West. His opening bar sets the stage for the entirety of MBDTF, as he raps, "I fantasized 'bout this back in Chicago."
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does not have an identifiable sound. Rather, it's a culmination of every inch of Kanye's sound to this point. Yeezy knew this time was going to come, it was just a matter of "when", not "if". His beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy is finally coming true right before his eyes, a vision he's dreamt since his earliest work in his home city.
Enter Kid Cudi and Raekwon.
Building off of the album's opening record, "Gorgeous" is Kanye emphasizing his vice grip on all major media outlets, letting the listener know that now that the industry is his, it's unlikely that he'll ever let it go. On this track, Yeezy enlists two of his earliest mentors for production, Mike Dean and No I.D. The result is an extravagant, anthemic, guitar heavy beat that bends the conventional boundaries of the use of strings on a rap instrumental. "Gorgeous" is quite possibly one of Kanye's best coordinated songs to date. The lyricism from Kanye is unmatched, standing as some of his best wordplay to present. Kid Cudi provides an electric choral segment, and Wu-Tang legend Raekwon takes on the final verse, blasting into the listener head first.
Like many other tracks on MBDTF, "Gorgeous" is an example of Kanye's "creative CEO" method, as he recruits fellow music titans to go above and beyond what's expected from the Chicago native.
The stage turns to darkness. There's shuffling around the curtain, but audience members can't quite make out what's transpiring. The lights burst back on.
The crowd can't believe what they're seeing.
What was once an empty stage is now filled from end to end. Gladiators and peasants are battling on each corner. Nobles kneel at the foot of a grand pantheon, the stone pillars and golden statues towering over their heads. A marble staircase sits in the center of the spotlight, goddesses and fallen angels sit in distress at each step leading up to the top.
At the peak sits Kanye West. Anchored by a glowing chain of the Egyptian deity Horus, Yeezy stares blankly through the grand battle ensuing. The sharp end of a sword levitates above his head, pointed directly through a halo and at his infinitely complex weapon; the mind.
Kanye raises a fist.
The battle stops and turns to the crowd.
Kanye slams his fist down, and in an instant, the speakers that surround the theatre explode into an African chant.
The crowd goes wild.
"Power" is one of Kanye's greatest ever musical accomplishments. This is nothing new. Fittingly, Kanye is the sole performer on this behemoth record, and with samples from King Crimson and an African tribal call, "Power" feels less like a song and more like message for living beings hundreds of years into the future. Like Kanye says, "every superhero needs his theme music."
This is Kanye's theme song. At the end of the second verse, Kanye raps:
Reality is catching up with me
Taking my inner child, I'm fighting for custody
With these responsibilities that they entrusted me
As I look down at my diamond encrusted piece
Kanye knows he carries the torch for rap music. He knows the industry trusts him. He sees the massive chain hanging from his neck.
He knows he has the power.
The song screeches to a halt. The crowd is in awe. The sword that hovers above Ye's cranium plunges through the halo and into his head.
Kanye's eyes widen
The curtains close.
Enter Elton John and Chris Chorney.
A dimly lit platform appears on stage. The crowd is hushed.
In perfect unison, Elton John and Chris Chorney perform an interlude to "All of the Lights". Serving as a preempt dramatic for the upcoming record, both performers play the piano and cello in perfect harmony, flawlessly reciting the choral pattern that Rihanna will soon sing. In delicate fashion, both artists conclude their interlude and leave the stage.
In an instant, the stage bursts into a blinding beam of light. A choir sings "Turn up the lights in here baby..."
The crowd jumps to its feet.
Enter Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elly Jackson, Fergie, Drake, Alicia Keys & Elton John
Much like "Gorgeous", Kanye acts as the composer for a plethora of talented artists, setting the background for a larger-than-life record that pierces the eardrums without hesitation from start to finish. On "All of the Lights", Kanye raps a tale of a man who has a series of financial and familial blunders. Although his story is fictitious, Fergie's third verse is quite real. on the final segment of the track, Fergie raps of her money troubles she experienced after The Black Eyed Peas fell from grace. All in all, "All of the Lights" is yet another ensemble coordinated by the man himself.
The stage is empty. The backdrop turns a menacing red, and a demon paints the entirety of the screen, its eyes piercing the soul of each and every crowd member.
Enter Justin Vernon, Rick Ross, Jay-Z & Nicki Minaj
Justin Vernon's voice blasts through the speakers, and in a horrifying tone, he sings:
I shoot the lights out
Hide 'til it's bright out
Oh, just another lonely night
Are you willing to sacrifice your life?
A lion roars.
The crowd hangs off the edge of their seats, like a gazelle hiding from the teeth of the great beast surrounding their eardrums.
Rick Ross appears, cigar in hand, and delivers a short and airtight verse.
The audience is not prepared for the barbie.
Nicki Minaj floats from the rafters like an angel from hell. To this point, Minaj hadn't released a solo full-length, but the verse she spits is still her best to this day. In fact, Rolling Stone magazine named her feature on "Monster" the best feature verse of the past decade. Minaj raps to her doubters, and emphasizes that, despite not having an album, she is indisputably the queen of rap.
Nicki Minaj concludes her verse.
The crowd gives a standing ovation.
The stage returns to regular form, there is nothing special about this next presentation, just polished, razor-sharp bars.
Enter Swizz Beatz, CyHi the Prynce, Pusha-T, Jay-Z & RZA
Once again, Yeezy enlists the help of rap legends for a stylistically heavy record. However, this time is different. The previous two feature-driven tracks were made to be extravagant, but "So Appalled" is not meant to be flashy.
It's rap, plain and simple.
The songs highlights come from G.O.O.D. Music President Pusha-T & Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA, who go bar-for-bar with each other, like a flash from the past to Pusha's days in Clipse and RZA's days in the 36 Chambers. From front to back, "So Appalled" shines as the one tried and true rap record, which comes as a breath of fresh air to the clearly overwhelmed audience members.
The lights dim.
Enter Mike Dean and Rick Ross.
Mike Dean perches himself behind a DJ booth, and without hesitation, cues up a sample of Smokey Robinson's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow". Of all 13 tracks on MBDTF, this is the only one where Kanye West is not credited in production, which is shockingly beautiful, considering it may be the albums best instrumental.
Kanye opens by rapping about a relationship on ice, where Yeezy finds himself battling between true love, materialistic things, and colossal fame. At one point, he rhymes:
I'm looking at her like this what you really wanted huh?
Why we argue anyway? Oh, I forgot, it's summertime.
Kanye is questioning his significant others loyalty, but acknowledges a rather odd thought, is this tension due to the season? An interesting point, nonetheless.
The rapping stops. Mike dean cues a euphoric guitar riff. In my opinion, this chord-fueled bridge may be the albums greatest moment besides the outro of "Runaway."
In surreal fashion, Maybach Music General Rick Ross raps what many consider to be the his best ever verse. This is where the listener begins to see a trend.
Pusha-T, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross and others have the best brought out of them, delivering some of their best bars in their prosperous careers. Kanye is the conductor, and sets each and every feature up for success. There is literally no room for failure, and Kanye makes this clear from the beginning.
Rick Ross bows.
The crowd erupts.
The curtains close.
The intermission has concluded, and starstruck crowd members file back into their seats, unaware of the grand conclusion that's about to transpire.
This is the final act. The coup de gras.
The crowd get silent. They hear a faint key from behind the curtain.
It's a piano.
Over and over, the key repeats like a hypnotic metronome with melody.
The curtain opens.
Before viewers eyes stands Kanye, dressed in an all-red suit, Horus chain hung around his neck. Wearing a crown of thorns, Kanye is fixated on the piano key he can't seem to stop playing. Ballerinas dressed in black circle Yeezy, as if he is their exiled leader.
Kanye stops playing the key. The chord continues. The beat surges through speakers.
Of all the tracks in Kanye's long and extravagant discography, "Runaway" may be the greatest. Love him or hate him, it's impossible to deny the beautiful nature of this 9-minute ode to self-doubt. On "Runaway", Kanye raps of his unavoidable troubles with women, due due his dangerously complex mind. Pusha-T acts as the contrary perspective to this message, rapping of excess in money, women and power. King Push raps:
You should leave if you can't accept the basics
Plenty hoes in the balla-nigga matrix
Invisibly set, the Rolex is faceless
I'm just young, rich, and tasteless, P.
Pusha-T has a companion, but could care less if she threatens to leave him, his line of "hoes" is endless.
Push finishes rapping, and after one last Kanye verse, the beat cuts out.
The piano key returns.
The ballerinas surrounding Kanye form a huddle.
What is to follow may quite possibly be the greatest musical achievement in Yeezy's career.
In a surreal turn of events, Kanye begins singing through a vocoder, turning his voice into that of a distorted guitar, like a ship captain pleading for help through a muffled radio.
According to Rolling Stone, there's no way it should work, but the counter-melody continues flawlessly, lasting for over three minutes.
Rising above his critics and doubters, Kanye executed one of the most unlikely musical progressions in the history of rap, cementing himself to the audience as an unstoppable force in not only rap, but the music world as a whole.
The beat cuts out. Viewers are speechless. It really doesn't feel real.
Enter Kanye West.
His next performance isn't for soft ears.
On "Hell of a Life", Ye chronicles his love for what he calls a "pornstar", which is most likely referring to his current wife, Kim Kardashian.
Over a grimy, synth-driven beat, Kanye showcases his trademark ability to make a hit out of a vulgar, yet humorous topic. We've seen this concept on The College Dropout, and will see it in abundance on his next album, Yeezus. "Hell of a Life" is an incredible song, but despite its raunchy nature, the crowd has fell on deaf ears, still shocked by the unbelievable conclusion of "Runaway".
Enter Chris Rock & John Legend.
At its core, "Blame Game" is a culmination of the three themes of "Runaway", "Hell of a Life" and "Devil in a New Dress": Tension, humor and self-esteem. On this track, John Legend sings of an insult fueled relationship, as well as a love connection at odds. Kanye wittingly incorporates comedy into the outro of the track, as he has Chris Rock recite a conversation with a woman who keeps repeating "Yeezy taught me" in response to each of his outlandish questions.
The crowd is in a daze, soothed by the contradictory love scenarios.
Enter Justin Vernon.
A sole microphone sits at center stage. The end is drawing near.
Using vocal layering, Vernon recites his song "Woods". Vernon's unrivaled production talent leads the audience to believe they are listening to six different singers.
The beat explodes.
The crowd explodes.
"Lost in the World" is MBDTF's penultimate track, and on it, Kanye reconciles for all of his previous struggles to this point, claiming that he's lost and needs guidance above all else. He raps:
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
You're my lies, you're my truth
You're my war, you're my truce
You're my questions, you're my proof
You're my stress and you're my masseuse
In this series of bars, Ye presents a handful of problems and solutions, as well as people and concepts from each end of the spectrum of good verses evil. "Lost in the World" serves as a lead-up to the perfect finale, a prelude of sorts to the conclusion of his grand vision.
Each and every rapper, singer, producer, artist and contributor to Kanye's perfect spectacle come out on stage hand-in-hand
Enter Gil Scott-Heron.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's concluding record is "Who Will Survive in America". According to Genius annotators, this song is an abridged version of Gil Scott-Heron's spoken-word sermon "Comment #1". In a segment of the track, Scott-Heron says:
Us living as we do upside-down
And the new word to have is revolution
People don't even want to hear the preacher spill or spiel
Because God's whole card has been thoroughly piqued
And America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey
Dressed in pastor's garb, Scott-Heron preaches a message of rapid change and adversity in America. Like a congregation of misguided worshippers, the masses rise to their feet in glory.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a masterpiece no one deserved. Over the course of 13 larger-than-life tracks, Kanye West cements himself as one of the greatest to grace the airwaves. Covering topics like self-esteem, fame, wealth, women, money and dreams, Kanye created a 68-minute goliath of popular culture in America, a feat no man has accomplished to this day and beyond. Yeezy has done it. This is his Mona Lisa.
The album comes to a close.
The performers bow.
The curtain closes.
The crowd goes insane.
Bravo Mr. West, bravo.