These days Kanye West seems to be known more for his provocative statements and shaky political aspirations. But there was a time when the Atlanta-born, Chicago-raised rapping producer was simply heralded a musical phenomenon who had the keys to pop culture’s kingdom and every piece of music he touched turned to Gold (or Platinum).
With his 2004 debut album, ‘The College Dropout’, Kanye broke down barriers with his brand of nerdy blue-collar rap with which he stared down the onslaught of East Coast gangsta rap that, led by 50 Cent and G-Unit, was running both the streets and the charts. Selling almost 2.5 million copies in the US by the end of the year, Kanye’s debut signalled the arrival of a new sound, one that would later be adopted by the likes of Drake, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar.
His second and third albums, ‘Late Registration’ (2005) and ‘Graduation’ (2007), preserved the relatable themes of his debut: family, religion, sexuality, materialism, self-consciousness and excessive self-belief. Sonically, each album continued the trend of old soul samples and knocking boom bap beats, although an electronic element began to creep in on ‘Graduation’, exemplified by lead single ‘Stronger’, which saw Kanye utilise a vocal sample from Daft Punk’s ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’.
While Kanye’s fourth studio album, ’808s & Heartbreak’, pioneered what we now know as emo rap and experimental R&B, it divided fans in part to its sparse, electronic sound and auto tune vocals. It wasn’t a flop – and has since enjoyed something of a reappraisal – but it did underperform in comparison to his previous releases, moving just over a 1.5 million copies in its first five years of release in the US.
It was around this point that Kanye’s popularity began to take hit, losing himself in a period of public and legal controversy which was amplified after his petulant outburst at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Rushing the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, Kanye snatched the microphone from the stunned singer and proceeded to tell the audience that Beyoncé had “one of the best videos of all-time”. It was the moment that spawned a million memes.
Hip-hop’s golden boy became public enemy number one overnight, his face sprawled across newspapers worldwide with both fans and fellow artists calling him out for his unruly behaviour. Even then-President Barack Obama, in an off-the-record portion of a television interview called him a “jackass” for his attack on Swift. Amid the widespread negative response to his behaviour, Kanye then cancelled his scheduled tour with Lady Gaga without explanation. This was, at the time, rock bottom for the Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella artist.
Marred by these controversies for the next 14 months, Kanye found redemption – though it proved to be relatively fleeting – with his next release, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, a critically-acclaimed, audiovisual masterpiece that was released on November 22, 2010, and has since been crowned one of the best albums of the decade. The staggeringly accomplished record turns 10 years old today.
Created during a self-imposed exile in Hawaii in 2009 at Honolulu’s Avex Recording Studio – the same studio in which he recorded some of ‘808s & Heartbreak’ in – Kanye’s no-holds-barred musical extravaganza brings together the best of the best, with producers Mike Dean, No I.D., Jeff Bhasker, RZA, S1, Bink, and DJ Frank E all helping to lace his magnum opus.
With Kanye abandoning the stripped-down approach of ‘808s’ in exchange for a maximalist aesthetic, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is a blast of surreal pop, jam-packed with grandiose ideas, prog-rock samples and cinematic soundscapes. Here he cherry-picks elements of his previous albums and turns them into an all-encompassing hip-hop epic. It’s the ultimate realisation of a troubled genius with a lot to get off his chest.
On ‘All Of The Lights’ he uses the story of a dysfunctional family as a metaphor to detail his own struggles with fame. He also mourns the loss of Michael Jackson: “Something wrong, I hold my head/ MJ gone, our n***a dead,” he raps, in-between the chattering, carnival-like drums and triumphant horns that also play host to an all-star cast, including Rihanna, Elton John and KiD CuDi.
Other themes include race, consumer culture, the American Dream and the extravagant lifestyles of the rich and famous. Infidelity is also put under a microscope on ‘Blame Game’, which treads a line of duality when pain and upset is curbed by a side-splitting closing monologue from Chris Rock.
Kanye explores his self-proclaimed status as one of the most influential people of the 21st Century on ‘Power’. In the opening lines of the King Crimson-sampled track, he claims he does “it better than anybody you ever seen do it”. He regularly visits his polarising celebrity status throughout the 13-track blockbuster.
Highlights include Nicki Minaj’s scene-stealing verse on ‘Monster’, where she outshines the fellas. “Just killed another career, it’s a mild day,” she raps on a track that features Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Kanye and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. ‘Devil In A New Dress’ plays like an unreserved love letter immersed in religious imagery and lustful heartache, backed by the manipulated falsetto of Smokey Robinson’s ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’
But more than the music, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is a visual wonder that carries out like a high-definition dream sequence. The album, which features artwork from contemporary visual artist George Condo, is paired with a short film for ‘Runaway’, the project’s standout moment, with its unmistakable key arrangement and mushrooming bass tone. The chromatic spectacle blends storytelling with high-end art and grand fashion designs, proving itself the perfect companion for an already impressive audio showpiece.
‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ helped shine a light on the avant-garde sub genre that is art rap. The term itself, a direct response to the sub-genre of art rock, was coined by fellow Chicago native Open Mike Eagle, who wondered why rock had a genre where they could “do whatever the fuck they [wanted] to do”. Let’s look at some of its identifying characteristics: left-field, forward-thinking production; unconventional song structures and cadences; songs written from the perspective of fictional characters and absurdist metaphors and similes. If ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ isn’t that, what is?
The album sold almost half a million copies in the US in its first week and went on to spend 115 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart. It won Best Rap Album at the 2012 Grammys, although it was snubbed for Best Album without so much as a nomination. ‘All Of The Lights’ took home the gong for Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. In 2018, it was reported that the album had been streamed one billion times on Spotify. There could be little doubt that West turned around his reputation with the record – and then some. You have to wonder if he could do it again.
Kanye’s personal legacy might be a sinking ship right now, but his musical legacy can rest easy on the shoulders of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. They say that time is the father of truth, and 10 years on, it’s obvious that Kanye’s fifth album is his most accomplished (regardless of the hypebeasts who swear ‘Yeezus’ is better).