I don’t think I even have to rehash the past week or so of Kanye West news. As a fan, but more so just a human being with some modicum of kindness, it’s unbelievably saddening news. Intellectually I know Mr. West will be back at it soon enough. However, as someone with my own struggles with mental health, it’s really damn wearying to see someone who projects such strength and self-confidence be knocked down by a rogue brain. I think that’s why a lot of people are bummed by this. Kanye, whether he realizes it or not, is a source of inspiration for a lot of people because that strength and self-confidence of his is infectious. If we can love ourselves like “Kanye loves Kanye” we’d all be doing a lot better. I hope Kanye is doing better soon enough.
That said, I suggest it is better to think on past highs rather than dwell on current lows. And today is a perfect day for that because it’s the sixth anniversary of West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a sprawling and chaotic record from a man whose life could be described in much the same way. The record, Kanye’s fifth, is as close to perfect as any mere mortal has gotten in modern music. At the time it took the emotional vulnerabilities of 808s, the pop sensibilities of Graduation, the lush orchestration of Late Registration and College’s Dropout sample manipulations, deconstructed them all and rebuilt them into a new hip hop monolith that we’re still trying to make sense of. Back in 2011, when I was running my old blog, I attempted to explain what makes MBDTF work because I assumed that a year’s time was enough to fully understand the record. It wasn’t. I don’t know if any amount of time is enough because Kanye is inscrutable in so many ways. But I attempted to bring clarity, and I hope you appreciate it. But more importantly, I hope you go back and listen to the record.
[What follows was originally published 11/26/2011]
“Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.” That quote often attributed to Cicero in relation to the story of the Sword of Damocles could just as easily be applied to 2010 Kanye West. Kanye began the year in exile, cast out of the pop culture consciousness after “lashing out” at the 2009 VMAs. Instead of being defiant after such a polarizing moment, West retreated, disappearing into the shadows.
West in similar fashion to the phoenix found in his Runaway film rose from the ashes and made everyone in rap start paying attention, dropping the kingly “Power,” in late May. He then went on a summer/fall tear the likes of which has rarely been seen before. West regained some of that good favor he lost after the Swift debacle by giving away stellar track after stellar track like clockwork each Friday on his website. Then on November 22, 2010, he dropped the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and turned everyone on their heads. On the album, “POWER” hits even harder when surrounded by the angelic opener of “Dark Fantasy,” the rollicking “Gorgeous,” and the beautiful strings of the “All of the Lights (interlude).” With this different version the song descends into a diabolic succession of laughter, showing that ‘Ye himself has gone mad with “power.” Though it is difficult to decipher what that electro voice is intonating at the end of “POWER,” he may as well be saying “get off get off stage,” seeing as how that was what many were demanding of Kanye after his miscue.
What we get after “POWER” is the “All of the Lights (Interlude), which features some of the most well-orchestrated music ever found on a hip-hop album. The real track soon takes over and is in my opinion the greatest thing West has yet laid to wax. With a guest list longer than entire albums, West is grandiose from the get go as Rihanna ethereally sings of all of the lights. Without question these lights are the same West was forced to suffer under. When ‘Ye sings of someone else who often found himself trapped under the same lights (Michael Jackson) he nearly breaks down, recognizing at this stage in the game he’s closer to the hall of mirrors Jackson constructed for himself. West can’t even take solace in heading home, because when he makes it there, he sorrowfully finds he has been “replaced.” Rihanna commandingly croons to “turn up the lights in here, extra bright I want yall to see this,” suggesting that those watching West are somehow amused at the mess he is making of things. “Cop lights, flash lights, spot lights, strobe lights, street lights,” West has been forced under the glare of every last one of them and is dumbfounded as to what to do.
So he shoots them out at the beginning of the banging “Monster,” reclaiming a smidgen of certainty with guests Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj who spit what could be career verses. Things continue with the military drum stutter of “So Appalled,” and the sultry guitars and strings of “Devil in a New Dress,” something both new and old for West as far as beats go.
Everything comes to a head with “Runaway,” which was clearly intended to be the spiritual center of this album. As the lonely piano plunks back and forth, we hear a track more “baroque rap” than “boom-bap.” Having been kept in baited breath with the piano, the drums kick in and the sample comments over and over “look atcha, look atcha,”aiming at West the entire. “I just blame everything on you; at least you know that’s what I’m good at,” declares West, finally coming to terms with himself. In these moments West is coming to the sobering realization he’s never been a perfect person and never can be. Instead of trying to better himself though, he celebrates his faults and painfully tells his love to “run away.” The piano and West entrenched in Auto-Tune continue to weep for minutes more, but when it ends we are still left wanting.
The skuzzy guitar of “Hell of a Life” malevolently crushes the beauty of “Runaway,” and sees West at his hedonistic best. The scintillating story of “falling in love with a porn star,” acts as a metaphor for how his own life has been swallowed up by hollow truths and downright fallacies. All this hollowness cannot last and sure enough, after “falling in love, getting married in the bathroom, and having the honeymoon on the dance floor,” West sees himself divorced at the end of the night, ironically dubbing it “one hell of a night.”
West lashes out once more and plays the “Blame Game,” on the following track which is underscored by elegant violin and twinkling piano from a Aphex Twin track. When West uses multiple voices in the track’s second verse, he again sounds torn apart from the inside-out. His target has done such a number on him that he resorts to playing the “game.” He comes out a loser in this, seeing his faith in love disappear as he equates it to a “lack of visual empathy.”
With all of this pain and confusion surrounding him, West is now “Lost in the World,” and can do little else but run from those aforementioned “lights.” Kanye gives up, letting the poetic words of Gil Scott-Heron take over. Scott-Heron grows more and more intense asking the question “Who Will Survive in America?” This is truly rap as art and should lay to rest any lingering claims that rap has nothing intelligent to offer. With this musical polemic, West has made it clear, in his America no one can survive and they are doomed to live in the Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy possibly forever, though there is always a chance of waking up.
Kanye has always been seen as brash, bold and arrogant. Barring major change he always will be. He’s never been one to say the right thing at the right time and his ego is the only thing greater than his musical vision. In the eyes of many, he’s little more than an idiot savant who has gotten where he is on sheer luck. One listen to this album dispels any of that heresy almost immediately. No idiot could make such a mature album and even the luckiest man in the world couldn’t produce such cohesion. With this record and throughout his career, West has succeeded despite the criticism. He plays the role of anti-hero dutifully and in the annals of popular music few have done it better. So while we scoff and shun, West is free to sit in his rap throne reaping the benefits of an ostentatious album.