Double Take: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

M.I.A.’s /\/\/\Y/\ is a good album. I disagreed with the reception it received, and was tired of reading the same complaints reworded slightly in reviews and comments, so I scribbled 8 Reasons Why /\/\/\Y/\ Is Better Than You Remember. It’s understood people have different tastes, that reviews are just opinions, but blind consensus can get in the way of both of these things. Once the of-the-moment dust settles it’s worthwhile revisiting collections, even albums that weren’t initially overly praised or slammed. In the digital age there are definitely more voices out there, but weirdly (or not weirdly), I find there being less originality and distinct critical opinions. Which is why I decided to start Double Take. For the first installment I figured I might as well begin with one of 2010′s biggest music-related stories, the critical tongue-bath given to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. You’ve already heard too much about the record, so I’ll keep it brief.

MBDTF is a good album, no doubt. I’m not here to say it isn’t. I am here, however, to say people got out-of-hand in their praising of it, especially folks who don’t listen to much rap otherwise (and who ostensibly got on the bandwagon because such a bandwagon existed). Was it actually perfect? Was it really The Best? Or was it more that West grabbed the most headlines, had the biggest promotional budget (i.e. the right journalists eating out of his hands, the lame “square” journalists like Matt Lauer spitting in his face) and the pull of pop culture on his side? I thought carefully on it and couldn’t find a place for it in my Top 50. (Right, it was the No. 1 on Stereogum’s Top 50 of 2010, but I tried convincing Scott, Amrit, and Jessica to replace all uses of the words “Kanye West” with “SALEM.”) Then again, I’m not a huge rap guy. Then again, neither were a bunch of the people and publications who ranked it so high. This isn’t meant to be contrarian: I’m genuinely curious about the pull. (And the free pass: People who were up in arms about the violence of King Night, as one for instance, seemed OK with West’s dicier lines and that “Monster” video, etc.)

A couple of weeks ago MBDTF lover Jon Caramanica wrote a thought-provoking piece in the NYTimes that looked at some of the “unimaginative group-think” surrounding the album:

Having such strict agreement among critics is a bit like letting the blind judge a beauty pageant: the results are sometimes unreliable, and even less translatable to the world at large.

That’s a good point. Outside of the 10.0′s and multiple stars and A grades, what did you think of the record? Was it an album that was shoved down your throat? Or did you (and your grandmother) accept it willingly?

My main issue with West is that for all the charisma of the man, and the gloss of the productions, his music feels empty. The hooks are there, as are the clever rhymes, but despite what he wants you to think (“heart” on designer sleeve), the tracks lack an actual pulse. In the Times piece Caramanica made a reference to the fact that, via Twitter and etc., we’ve discovered West’s inner-self is basically the same as his public persona. It goes back to the helpful cliché of “all style, no substance.” I feel that with his music, even when he’s in mourning or offering open-heart surgery: All surface, no core. (Logorrhea, gold teeth, and half-digested visual art tropes do not a genius make. I don’t mind vacuous celebrities, but I also don’t have much use for them in my record collection.) If the Internet’s taught me one thing, though, it’s that at the end of the day, people want to belong to something bigger. In 2010, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy seemed to hold the key to that clubhouse.

I have my (cynical) thoughts on why it happened — what’s your take? If you believe the album really was that good, please convince me. So far nobody’s lifted their criticism to the supposed height of West’s production. If there’s one thing I appreciate about the man, it’s his work ethic: At the very least, his fans (paid or unpaid…) owe him a similar effort.

Send your suggestions to future installments to tips@stereogum.com

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Comments (185)
  1. Me and my Grandmas thoughts exactly, love you guys.

    • Yeah, old people are the dumbest and have to die! Also anyone with a different opinion! Even though there’s a chance they’re right! Love you and your grammy Zack!

      • everyone who posts under this line is a homo

        ________________________________________________________________________

        • This is probably a good place to post then. I think everything you mentioned is true, at least in part, and I have a feeling that was what Kanye intended the whole time. He acts like an asshole to attract attention to himself, and, subsequently, his music. I loved the album before it came out, but it got kind of boring after that. I still find myself coming back to it, just because it’s so damn catchy. But it doesn’t feel new after each listen, which is how I judge truly great albums. I think there are some really fresh concepts in there, just no subtlety. Like it or not, I think this album is going to be a major influence on the next generation of music.

          As for Kanye being an asshole, I think that’s part of his charm. He recognizes his faults and accepts them, and is able to communicate that through his music.

  2. It’s got some great tracks, but a lot of that album is forgettable. Plus, he’s an asshole, and who wants to heap praise on an asshole?

  3. Anyone who thinks the Salem album was anything more than audible diarrhea has an irrelevant opinion.

    • I think its moe than audible diarrea, i think its a cool groove record , now how is my opinion irrelevant?

    • I also think that the Salem album was terrible, but that’s still sort of an ad hominem attack.

    • “but I tried convincing Scott, Amrit, and Jessica to replace all uses of the words “Kanye West” with “SALEM.”"

      Laughed so hard, not because I hate Salem: Kanye & Salem were my number 1 & 2 of the year, so this comment strikes right at home for me.

      SALEM is NOT audible diarrhea. It is a band trying something new. If you aren’t feeling it, shit and get off the pot.

      • new does not equal good…SALEM are sublimely mornoic, on record but especially live. They have no real talent and hunt around for purpose in their everything and the kitchen sink sonic stew and come up empty everytime…

  4. I guess arguing with somebody about whether or not they should like an album feels silly to me. I agree that music and music journalism suffer from Group Think, but I happen to think this is a fantastic album, and I tend to think that it has a LOT of heart — which I find to be missing from most music these days, whether it’s pop or indie or whatever. So yeah, I wholeheartedly disagree that it’s all style or that it’s hollow, and I disagree with the sentiment that people overreacted and inaccurately praised it. But I guess at the end of the day I love this album and you don’t, so that’s about all there is to it! Free country and all that.

    • My thoughts exactly. If you like an album, you like it. Its what YOU like. How can someone else convince you of what you like? My mom tried to convince me to like beets. No dice.

      With respect to Jon Caramanica, i think its pretty naive for him to assume that he now knows Kanye’s “inner self” based solely on what Kayne (or someone with access to Kanye’s account) chooses to post on twitter.

      • AGREED, why would Caramanica think that Kanye’s twitter account is anything but an extension of his over-the-top persona? It’s another form of advertising/self-promotion, not necessarily a window into his soul.

  5. After reading the first sentence, I came to the conclusion that the rest of the article probably holds absolutely no merit. MAYA was an abomination.

  6. Personally, I don’t like rap singing. Between the mere lack of sing-iness in rapping, and English not being my native language (so I can’t “catch” everything), the album loses points for me. However, I absolutely love the background music. This is why I liked West’s previous album a lot: it had very little rap, and lots of beautiful hooks and actual music. I feel that the hooks/music are present in the new album too, but he went back to rapping too…

    As for being hollow as the editor wrote, I don’t think so. I don’t think the album sounds flat or anything. Maybe his lyrics are, but I can’t be sure of that, since as I said, I can’t catch everything. But music was nice.

  7. re: mbdtf-it’s enjoyable pop music with an edge. it doesn’t change my life and i prolly won’t be listening to it in a year, but for now, it’s nice.

    re: double take-don’t you think you would get some more meaningful opinions if you had waited a bit longer before reassessing, and in turn, asking readers for their reassessment? i’m all for offering opinions, but i think it’s more advantageous to wait a while before coming back to evaluate an album.

    i guess this whole exercise is just a product of where we are as internet critics. not only are we evaluating music before it is even released, but we are giving a second evaluation before it really has time to marinate.

  8. Thanks for writing this. I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts since it dropped. It’s definitely a great record. But the critical element got super out of hand I thought. Your point of non-hip-hop listeners gravitating to it, is def an important one. In the end I felt like without Kanye’s public persona/twitter account/drama antics, this would be a great little hip-hop effort. But with a well produced album and one of the most publicly accessible personas, it’s suddenly a masterpiece of confessional music. I wouldn’t go as far as saying the record is soulless, but Runaway, for example, is a pretty emotionally manipulative song. It’s shallow contemplations laid over a dramatic production. I think the bottom line, is MBDTF isn’t going to change the game, despite the 10.0s and A+s, etc. And there are much more interesting and uniquely personified “confessional” hip-hop records out there: Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, etc.

  9. I went to a New Years party downtown with two distinct groups of friends. It was awkward as fuck. Half of them were on the main floor, half of them were upstairs doing their own thing. For about two hours.

    As we one group came down to leave, someone put on “Power.” Everyone in the entire apartment (about 15 people) gathered around the computer and sung all the words (and the sample) together in what was literally the only successful unified activity of the entire night. And then “Runaway.” And “All of the Lights” was the agreed upon First Song of 2011. It was the best moment of my whole night.

    I was going to name a bunch of more stories, but I feel like that’s the most important one. All over Chicago, northside westside southside whatever, whether I’m kicking it with art school kids or people who have never even heard of Pitchfork and didn’t graduate from high school, you put on Ye and there is no greater response. And it’s -always- been like that with Kanye. From The College Dropout on, no one has connected with us like he has. If you don’t like it, that’s cool (of course!), but Kanye’s success and power is much much bigger (and more important) than a critical consensus.

    • so, were you upstairs or downstairs?

    • my sentiment exactly. Here in the U.K. where we don’t give a fuck about taylor swifts or the lauers. This album still brought people together in a way I haven’t seen a hip hop album do in quite a while. And I’m talking about a demographic of listeners who are pretty much not music publication readers except maybe the odd article or review in the guardian.

      I have friends who hardly listen to music and are intimidated by the sight of a muso (they might listen to some radio) who were calling up to ask if I had heard this album (when it leaked, before the reviews and the critical ass tasting) reciting the lyrics and all. Here in the U.K. there wasn’t even a proper single released except maybe POWER. I haven’t seen an album transcend such demographics as convincingly in recent times.

      To be honest I don’t think it mattered what the critics were saying, it seemed (esp at time of leak/release) that the album encapsulated some crazy alluring twisted party whereby perversely Nicki Minaj is a world beater, Bon Iver fueling a stadium ready anthem juxtaposed with a gil scott heron coda. It was thrilling stuff.

      Having said that I do agree there has been a critical predilection for it’s inclusion with some outlets. Which is a shame because it’s detrimental to people’s future perception of this album. It’s now susceptible to the hyperbole bin.

      And if you really are averse to it’s overexposure. Stop talking about the damn record, or at least wait longer than 7 weeks! Because right now the overzealots are still burgeoning just as much a over-haters. I like the idea of this column. Just need to more astute with the timing. Next November maybe?

  10. The Roots’ How I Got Over was just as good if not better than MBDTF.

  11. Just listened to this for the first time over the weekend. It’s a very good record, for sure, and it would be hard for anyone to argue otherwise. But that’s just the opinion of a lapsed casual rap enthusiast who’s mostly unfamiliar with Mr. West’s other music. It’s far from perfect (for my tastes), and I’ve heard better (as far as mainstream rap goes, I thought Kid Cudi’s new album was better), but I can *understand*, having listened to it, why critics might super excited about it. To me, it makes more sense than, say, Rolling Stone’s obsession with every new Bob Dylan album.

    The judging of the album came to a mistrial, because the jury pool was tainted with opinions before the trial could start. Hell, the main reason I listened to it, aside from recommendations from friends, was just to see what the big deal was about. Now, any review, any discussion, any comment will come under (justifiable) suspicion; if you like it, you’ll be bandwagoning. If you don’t, you’re being cynical. And for Kanye, that’s a boon. But on the other hand, it’s still good;

    • Kid Cudi’s album is definitely not mainstream rap. Its barely even rap. I absolutely love Cudi’s album but it’s not a rap album. That’s not a diss, just a fact.

  12. Fantasy is a fantastic album, there’s no way to deny it. I do listen to hip-hop and rap, I worship Cannibal Ox, and I can still definitively say this album was bordering on a masterpiece. But it wasn’t.

    MBDTF is not a ten. It is not an A+. It should not be Time’s album of the year, nor Stereogum’s, nor Pitchfork’s. You want a ten? Listen to Hospice. Listen to Boxer. THOSE are tens. This album was good, but vastly overhyped. Stereogum, I agree.

  13. It wasn’t too high on my list either. Good album, but I just didn’t dig it too much. And I felt there were a lot better albums that came out last year. I gave it a good number of listens, though, and I’m proud of the fact that I judged an album after listening to it so many times. I simply did not see the “magic.” Maybe one day it’ll hit me. Maybe it’ll never hit me. Oh well…Moving on.

  14. I truly believe that when you listen to this album start to finish. Or if you watch the Runaway video, start to finish with headphones on and the lights out. You are transported to another place. A part of Kanye’s creative mind is infused in our minds as we listen. Sure, “Hell of a Life” “Gorgeous” and “Devil in a new Dress” don’t have that staying power as his bigger tracks, unlike say the Beatles White Album which has no wholes in it. But I do think this album, 20 years from now will still have relevance as the culmination of Kanye’s music. It has the emotional flair of 808s, the high gloss production of Graduation, the realness, guest list, and sample strength of both Late Registration and College Dropout. Kanye is the most prominent rapper of the 21st century.

    When everything he’s done; whether that be T-swift, George Bush, all this crazy tweeting etc. etc.; is past and forgotten, people will remember this album.

    • haha ‘transport you to an another place’…that’s a good one. ‘let’s hear it for the assholes!!’

    • Kanye has learned to create complete, fleshed out songs. My favorite thing about the album is how almost every song has a coda, and for me that gave all the songs staying power. The end of “Gorgeous” where the beat changes up and Raekwon raps is something I always look forward to, as well as the end of “Hell of a Life,” which I would probably use as an example to counter the argument that the album doesn’t have a pulse.

    • I agree with you… except I think “Hell Of A Life” is the only track that doesn’t have the steam to standup to the big tracks… however, that’s my wife’s fav song on the album so it could just be a matter of opinion… but I think “Gorgeous” is one of the best songs on the album, and “Devil in a New Dress” is killer too. Those songs give us a reprieve from the bombast of an album full of HUGE tunes.

  15. When such an astronomical number of people think that something is “the best”, especially with something this subjective, you know there’s something wrong. It would be different if the album just showed up in everyone’s top 10, but it was #1 all over the place. Nothing is that good in such a finite unanimous kind of way.

    • there have definetly been criticaly populaur albums before . how can critical popularity affect how god music is?Are you insane maybe a little?Im quite sure if no one ever heard tis record but me it would be exactly the same, no?

      • I’m not saying that popularity affects how good the music is, rather that popularity affects people’s perception and opinion of the music. Twisted Fantasy is not the first time it’s happened, I wasn’t saying that either. Just that, like the article says, there’s a bit of “unimaginative group think” going on. The album’s good, there’s no denying that, but after so much unanimous praise, the articles start to invalidate each other. What if Arcade Fire was #2 on everyone’s list? That would be a little weird right? You might start to wonder how so many people came to the conclusion that Suburbs was the 2nd best album of the year; how so many people could agree on something so subjective.

        Not saying this is true fore everyone either. You may very well whole-heartedly love the album and that’s totally cool.

        • I dont even like it that much certain moments are intresting and I can see a progression hes develoed with this type of music thats the kind of thing i THINK about when i HEAR this record not how many year end lists it made that is not at all a function of the music.

          Many people share the same opinion that you do with records like srgt peppers or Ok Computer , half inteligent critics like jim derogatis. do you not realise it is you who is letting critical consensus affect the music not the people who love it.

  16. It was eccentric and accessible enough for my list [what, with so many points of interest: guest spots (Bon Iver, Nicki Minaj, Elton John), killer samples ("Avril 14th", "21st Century Schizoid Man", the riff in "Gorgeous"), and a lot of solid hooks composed using both of these]. Kanye himself delivered some of the best verses we’ve ever heard from him (“Power” being the most hard-hitting, “Runaway” is up there with ’808s’).

    Anyway, I wrote more on it on my blog.

    http://whotohear.tumblr.com/post/2524848733/albums-2010-pt4

  17. I am sure there were plenty of people who jumped on the bandwagon because of all of the reviews and such but in the world of leaks, most people were heaping high praise upon Kanye’s music before a single review was released, and way before he was on top of anyone’s Best of 2010 list. I personally really really love the album, it is probably the most listenable set of tracks of the year and has a lot of memorable lines and hooks, thus explaining why the majority gravitated to it so early on. Usually when something gets this much praise people think that something is wrong or people are just following trends, I just think that Kanye West is good at making music that a lot of people really like to listen to. That’s it.

  18. I like the 3 minutes of auto-tune humming over the end of Runaway personally. It really ties the whole thing together.

    • not auto-tune actually
      Not trying to be a dick, just informational.
      He actually is using a vocoder, which is in fact another form of voice manipulation.

      Also in your response to tying the whole thing together, I’d like to mention the rug that that chinamen peed on, now THAT brought the whole (room) thing together.

  19. Agreed with you on your re-visit to /\/\/\Y/\ but can’t say i’m necessarily on side here. You mention the production, which is undeniably on point, in my opinion, and creates an album which is as much a soundscape as it is a 14-song record. Lyrically, it is quite indulgent, but what it does, probably better than any other record this year, is create somewhat of an emotional time-capsule, in terms of both West himself, and the pop culture as it now (then) stands. West is clearly an egotist, and his lyrics reflect that, but the sheer scope of the music is stunning. It’s certainly not my album of the year, though it would make top 10. Sir Luscious is another strong mainstream rap record, funkier for sure but what it lacked, and what Twisted Fantasy oozed, was the ability to cross a number of genre-laid boundaries, which is testament to the artist Kanye West is, and is, I suggest, the reason the music-criticising world got so excited about it. It might not be perfect, but it’s damn close. I reckon if others were to re-visit their reviews they might agree with me.

  20. maybe it’s because maya still sucks

  21. Deserved all the hype. AWESOME album.

  22. I believe the theory you are ignoring is critical consensus.

    The people who really put hours into listening to and evaluating music end up preferring much of the same things because they truly are the best. Personal opinion and taste will always cause for a differentiated list, even if slightly, but I would be more likely to dismiss a list that DID NOT include MBDTF because that list (and it’s creators) are either 1. making a point to leave it off just to be ‘that site’ 2. didn’t get the brilliance that so many managed to understand, and therefore I can’t really identify with their opinion.

    • what about all the good intresting records you did not hear this year? what does that mean best? how can you tell me tis album is better than te 20 drone records i bought this past year? are you insane?

      • Best, most liked, favorite, whatever. But, typically the cream rises to the top. If you discovered the cream, put it in your list and get people into it. If you can’t it’s probably not that good even though you have a personal connection to it.

        • certain music has a certain glass ceilings of popularity there just isnt a mass audience for the majority of music out there, you are very typically trapped in the modern mainstream internet based indiegeekverse where lists are somehow intresting and important to you. Consensus is bullshit always has been, music on this planet is virtually infinite you cant tell me shit about the real creem in this new modernage its very obvious that no one can and its very obvious that kanye west was gonna have the number one album in the mainstream press you know mainstream like pitchfork stereogum rollingstone all that sorta rubbish

  23. Yes, Mr. West can only hope to someday make a record with the emotional gravity of SALEM. Yeah, no.

  24. I like the idea of this column, I hope it continues!

    I thought Fantasy was great, and I still do. I think it does have a heart, tracks like “Runaway” and “Blame Game” are definitely guarded, aching, flippant, and sincere all at once.

    I also did like the NYTimes piece on the album, it was a thought provoking article about culture & criticism. I think a lot of the “backlash” or detractors are focusing on Rolling Stone and Pitchfork declaring it the album of the year. The two are polar opposite in the music criticism world, but somehow met at the same conclusion.

    Is it a perfect album? Who the hell cares? Music is ART and art isn’t rated on a god damn number scale. I appreciate the fact that we purchase it so quality does come into play when money is involved, but to criticize or backlash art based on a pair of pretentious reviews is ridiculous.

    So back to this column, thank you for asking our thoughts. I think it is important to come to your own conclusion on the work, and isolate the hype. I loved it and still love it now.

  25. I think he made the music without a “pulse” on perpouse. If you look at his tweets and what he said about the his aulbum he always mention that he wanted to just make what came to him what he would think is good with out the push to make it into what others expect.

  26. Just want to say that I love the idea of this ‘double take’ feature. As stated, it might be difficult to make it something other than just a contrarians view of prevailing opinion, but I think the notion of ‘reviewing reviews’ and opening a critical dialogue is important and lamentably uncommon (maybe I’m just visiting the wrong sites). In any case, I hope to see more of this in future. Bravo, Stereogum/Brandon.

  27. Sometimes actors or directors receive an Oscar less because of the quality of the specific film up before the Academy, but because a general consensus forms that it is “their time.” The most recent example off-hand is Scorcese for The Aviator. No one puts that movie in the top five, or even ten, of his career, but he’d never won an Oscar before, and got screwed with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, etc., so the Academy gives him his statue, more as a lifetime achievement than anything else.

    Kanye managed to capture a similar zeitgeist in the press/blogosphere. I think critics just felt it was his due time, and if you look at the traditional career trajectories of major artists, it makes sense – mega-popular hits (Late Registration), to “difficult, insular” period (808s), to career summation back at peak form (MBDTF). So I think that explains the unanimous praise.

    Here’s the thing though – I really think it’s that good of an album. And it is a career summation, in the best possible way, tying together all the disparate threads of the Kanye musical universe in one coherent package.

    For one, it’s a perfectly sequenced album, especially for a hip-hop record, which are usually horribly front-loaded. There’s a relaxed pacing to MBDTF, with the first two tracks easing you into the album, and Power kicking off a truly monstrous mid-section. Things settle down a bit with So Appalled/Devil In A New Dress/Blame Game and then you get the big finale in Lost In The World.

    Second, sonically it’s a richly detailed record. I’m still picking out strange nuances after like a hundred listens. It speaks to an impressive dedication to sonic craftsmanship.

    But overall, I appreciate Kanye’s ambition in adapting the work of musical outliers – outliers at least to total mainstream pop music – into a chart pop framework (the Aphex Twin sample on Blame Game, and the Fripp-esque vocoder solo at the end of Runaway, etc.). That formula – adapting experimental music into the pop realm – is what made the Beatles so great, and very few, if any, megastars even attempt it today.

    Kanye could have kept churning out Gold Digger revamps, but he hasn’t, and whatever your take on the man’s persona, his body of work clearly shows he’s someone driven to make the freshest music he can. That kind of ambition is rare enough in the indie world, and it’s dame near non-existent in the pop world.

  28. Thanks for this, Brandon. I read Caramanica’s piece a while back, and I’ve been thinking about his argument quite a lot. Certainly there’s a bit of critical groupthink at play here, and it seems to have something to do with a vague idea of “innovation” or “progress.” As Caramanica argues (and as you reiterate), it also has something to do with the release’s timing – perfect for end-of-year list consideration and reflection on The State of Music in 2010. There’s not been a lot of critical depth in the album’s reception because of that timing (Kanye’s a genius! Time to make lists!), nut it seems to me that these accolades are rooted in some musical truth.

    We’ve all heard quite enough about West’s genius as a producer, but he really ups the ante on MBDTF. The thing that is so powerful about the majority of the production on the record is how modular it is. West layers elements quite skillfully, and his productions are never static. Horn stabs and string pads appear and then are gone. Snares, kicks, and hi-hats weave in and out of the textures. He is able to give very long tracks a sense of motion and progress. The drama and narrative – even within individual tracks – is quite compelling and powerful.

    As an example, take a fresh listen to Nicki Minaj’s universally lauded verse on “Monster.” I’ve heard lots of commentators say that she “steals the show,” but at least half of the spark of that verse results from the interaction between the vocal and instrumental parts. Steven Hummel (in his really nice piece linked above…thanks, Steven!) remarks that West gives her some space, dropping out the groove and letting her come to the fore. That’s partly true, but so much of the shape of that verse results from accompanimental changes. Every 8 bars, an element is added or taken away. When the hi-hat kicks in, the whole verse changes gears. As she changes between her babydoll singsong and gravelly howl, the track echoes her changes perfectly. When Minaj’s voice starts ping-ponging across the stereo field, the whole verse comes to a perfectly surprising conclusion. That interaction between vocalist and producer is rare and special.

    Hummel (thanks again, Steven!) is really smart is pointing to West as “casting director” on the record. His guest verses and hooks are all perfectly orchestrated, and this has the added benefit of making West’s own vocal performances (through the first half of the record, anyway) recede into the ensemble. His voice is simply in of the crowd. He adds to this impression through the subtly use of a lot of vocal effects and performance styles. The subtle EQing of his voice at the start of “So Appalled,” for example, made me double-take. Is this Kanye? Or is it one of the many guests? Throughout the album, he sings – sometimes with the full benefit of auto-tune (ooh that extended solo in the middle of “Runaway”!), and sometimes with it utilized with a bit more subtlety (like the ad-libs in the first half of “Runaway” or the hook on “Hell of a Life”). The internal dialogue throughout “Blame Game” is another obvious example, but my point is that this vocal schizophrenia is something that’s orchestrated across the album.

    Hummel’s 3-act structure (Seriously! It’s a great piece! Thanks Steven!) is also something I’ve thought about, but what makes MBDTF special to me is that the album’s narrative breaks down in multiple, overlapping ways. You can read varying stories across multiple tracks – from “Dark Fantasy” through “Monster,” for example, or from “Power” through “Runaway,” or “Devil in a New Dress” through the end of the album. The album invites multiple readings and interpretations, and it generates narrative in a different way than many hip-hop records. No real skits here to create groupings of tracks or give brief breaks in the action (that’s not how the Chris Rock bit functions). It’s actually a much more conventional approach to creating coherence across an album – storytelling that seems to extend through multiple tracks, musical contrast to generate dramatic push-and-pull, and a real sense of a narrative and musical “journey” from beginning of the album to the end. I think this is why there have been so many non-hip hop bandwagon jumpers (as you mention in your post); this album takes a lot of lessons from rock albums and applies them in a hip hop context in a way that hasn’t been done before. It makes sense as a musical statement for hip hop heads and rock listeners alike. That may be MBDTF’s greatest achievement.

    This isn’t an avant-garde manifesto by any means, but few such manifestos are so loved for their substance. Instead, they are appreciated in the context of the ideologies and schools of thought that they eventually spawned. What West has done with this album is to show mastery over two or three distinct idioms, and he has applied disparate elements in subtle, thoughtful, musically intelligent ways. He’s given us something that stands up to argument, disagreement, “double-taking,” and real discussion. It’s a pop product that reveals layers of depth. It has something for a wide range of listeners to grab onto, and it has enough collage and disjunction to surprise and confuse us all. It’s an album that rewards close engagement, and it works just as well in the context of a dance floor as on headphones. It’s an album that presents a unique (and uniquely warped) worldview that also allows us to see ourselves in these rantings of a narcissistic celebrity. That sounds like art to me.

    Thanks again for a great idea and for the discussion.

  29. I agree I think this album is overrated. If you listen to a lot of the lyrics there are points where they get silly and pointless in nearly every track. The stylistic approach is commendable but clearly overdone (especially at the end of Runaway, it drones on and gets too caught up in itself). It’s a great album, it’s fairly original, but not even close to the best album of 2010. 2010 was one of the better years in music in a long time.

    Also, anyone else find it similar to Death of Adam by 88-Keys? I always think of it when I hear the album.

  30. I thought it was pretty good. That’s about it. Honestly, I liked two of his earlier albums more (Graduation and Late Registration). It’s still a good album, but after going through it a couple of times, I haven’t been replaying it much outside one or two of the songs occasionally. It was without a doubt, 100% overhyped, but it’s still a good album. Not his best, and certainly not the best of the year, but a good album nonetheless. Kanye, while he may be an asshole and a self prophecized tortured genius, he is a guy who can absolutely create great hiphop/pop hooks in his sleep, and for that I’m not sure there is anyone else on his level at the moment.

  31. Here’s what irritated me: West took the spotlight away from Big Boi’s towering achievement in Sir Lucious Left Foor. I held onto that album from day one and never stopped listening to it. I still think its rhymes are funnier, tighter and just plain better. I think the production equals and in many instances surpasses Kanye’s. But somehow that album dropped out of the discussion so we could endlessly question the Kanye mythos. In a way, it’s exactly what Kanye wants: now all the talk is about him, mission accomplished.

    • Sir Lucious Left Foot***

    • Peter: I totally agree with you here. Big Boi’s rhymes on SLLF are amazing, and the productions are the best of the year. The sequencing of that record is awesome too. But I still get the sense that SLLF is conceived as a relentless series of jams, not as a singular “vision” that the listener is supposed to take as a unified statement, like a film or a novel. MBDTF fits that model of “cinematic” album, and the old-school vanguard of rock critics (and their successors) definitely prizes that kind of cohesion.

      I don’t mean to say that the Big Boi record is “less” of an achievement or anything; those are two totally legitimate and successful ways of organizing a record. I’m just saying that the critics do seem to see the MBDTF model as the template for a “Great Album.”

      • Completely True, SLLF did not have the emotional impact that MBDTF had. While SLLF was very good, MBDTF was an event unto itself, emotionally(not stylistically) similar to in In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.

  32. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  33. Two things: First off, I couldn’t agree more with your take on both Kanye’s and M.I.A.’s albums from this past year. It feels refreshing to hear a level-headed critique of both. Secondly, I am really excited for this new feature. Music is a part of life and life changes. As life changes our opinions and tastes grow and change. We shouldn’t disregard our initial reaction to something but it is valuable to look back, reassess and look at what’s changed. There is beautiful freedom in allowing yourself to rediscover things that were once disregarded or move beyond things were once held dear.

  34. Thank you for writing this. It bores me to tears how lock-step and militant some of the best criticism can be, under the guise of free thought and openness. Like you, I’m mystified by “less originality and fewer distinctly different critical opinions,” even when Twitter and such should be raising the level of that stuff. It’s dreary and monotonous to read all that agreement, even in this flood of information and perspectives. Out there it’s been a swamp of different voices, but when all of the intelligent ones say the same thing it’s not worth walking through. So I love the idea for this column!

    And your first target is a good choice, I think. I’ve thought for a while that Kanye West deserved a critical take-down. Aside from all the ickiness in his personal life, his tendency to be an asshat, etc., the critical adulation (Stockholm syndrome? Or every critic trying to be the first with an unlikely, almost unthinkable, 180-degree critical re-appraisal?) is undeserved: this year’s album just wasn’t that good. Ambitious maybe, but it’s hollow and needlessly self-centered (cleverly within a diary-entry treatise on self-centeredness), and it keeps a sneering, gloating tone that I just can’t put up with. “Blame Game” is the smartest lyrically; “POWER” and “Monster” have some decent grooves; but I cannot find a single song that’s irreplaceable.

  35. Is anyone else sick of all the MBDTF praise? The best album of the year? Seriously? Don’t get me wrong, I jumped on the band wagon and bought the cd and thought that some of it wasn’t half bad – but the best album of 2010? Nope. Not a chance. There is no soul behind it – none of that heart-wrenching pull that Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs had for example. It’s one dimensional. Sure it has the clever rhymes, amazing beats/samples, etc., but what’s behind the music? This isn’t a shot at rap in general by the way – from my own experiences I’ve heard some rap that has captured the emotional dimension of a song better than indie or the other stereotypical genres that are associated with concept albums. But enough of this MBDTF stuff. We get it – Kanye is a big deal in pop culture, and rightly so. We all listened to the music, we all read the reviews, and, undoubtedly, we all disagreed a little bit with the critics. So enough already, and get MBDTF out from number one on the top fifty lists please.

  36. Ten years ago zines like Pitchfork were the anti-critical consensus, right? Weird how things change.

  37. Why is it that none of these arguments were made against 2009′s unanimously praised record Merriweather Post Pavillion?

    • racsim! white liberal asshoules like yourselves will always hate black people like me and kanye deep down

    • Actually, I was just thinking the opposite. MPP and MBDTF were both hugely hyped, but there were no shortage of people two years ago saying they didn’t ‘get’ Animal Collective’s music and putting forward well thought out reasons why.

      The conversation around MBDTF has either been heaping praise on the music or writing Kanye off as an asshole. If people don’t like this record, they attack Ye as a person, not as a musician. I think that’s a big difference between the two releases. With AnCo, the debate was entirely about the positives and negatives of the music. With Kanye, the negatives of the music and the positives of his personality don’t really get mentioned. His celebrity has tainted the conversation.

      • “His celebrity has tainted the conversation.”

        Um… isn’t that the subject of most of his lyrics? And wouldn’t that make him just a wee bit culpable?

    • I heard MPP before I even knew Animal Collective were popular (random disk a friend gave just after it was released), and I immediately thought it was fantastic. A few weeks later, when the hype machine started talking it up, I had to listen to it again just to make sure I really thought it was as good as I remembered. It was, fortunately, but at least I was able to form an opinion before the discussion went from “is this good?” to “this is the best”.

    • I certainly felt there should have been such arguments! Not only because I personally felt that it pales in comparison to Here Comes the Indian, Sung Tongs, and Feels, but simply because no review fully convinced me of why they gave it such high marks. But these days, if you imitate Brian Wilson, you have a good chance of having an Album of the Year.

    • Well, it’s not really up for debate–MPP was an unqualified masterpiece. MBDTF, while excellent, has some cringe-worthy lines, as well as “The Blame Game” and Chris Rock’s terrible skit at the end.

      Though, along with Will Menzies, I really think your memory is quite selective–there was a significant backlash against MPP and all the praise heaped upon it.

      • what if I think that any record made after 1959 is complete bollocks infact the only good records are recorder completely live on one track. well that would make MPP complete shite in my estimation now wouldnt it? fucking brainwashed fools

    • That album sucked too.

  38. as someone who listens to quite a bit of rap music and felt that kanye’s other albums contained a few good songs with a lot of filler, I have to agree with the majority and say that this album is absolutely amazing (a reaction that i had immediately upon listening to the album, before reading any reviews, and continue to have after it’s been on near-constant rotation for several months). the production shouldn’t work – it’s all over the place, and team kanye throw in everything but the kitchen sink: bad r’n'b choruses, sped up/slowed down vocals, crappy canned beats, you name it. but somehow it all congeals, helped in no small part by kanye’s lyrics, which, even when absurd or melodramatic, manage to eloquently tell a story and/or convey meaning in a manner that’s rare. and the guest turns are almost uniformly strong; for me, nikki minaj’s verse on “monster” is the best of the year.

    as a big fan of stereogum, i have a great deal of respect for the contributors, but i do think that anyone championing “maya” (such an obvious cash-in attempt by a distracted artist bereft of ideas) and salem needs to revisit the definition of “style over substance.”

  39. this site sucks so many lame jerks , never coming here again

  40. @ Brandon- Although I believe your general sentiment to be valid. I have to disagree with your right to judge the album. One should listen to the genre to understand a particular albums position in the overall genre. I listen to rap and hip hop. I also listen to indie and mainstream pop, I have an electric taste. MDTF is a great album. It’s production is unparalleled in terms of innovation. Kanye’s style of rap has shifted to fit his dark twisted beats. I actually purchased this album, (It’s sad music is in such a state where this actually constitutes a reverent statement) the first day it was released. The album was leaked, however most of the album had been released via G.O.O.D fridays. MDTF is a cohesive album. From my viewpoint MDTF is a companion(not a sequel) to 808′s and Heartbreaks. I think we should also remember the original title of this album was ” Good Ass Job” which in my mind would be a companion to the college series aka his first three albums. I’m a kanye fan. The album is a ten in beats and unique choruses/Hooks. Although I didn’t feel satisfied with the rhymes on this record. They were all quality and poignant. The album is different than what I wanted or expected from him and as a fan I’ve come to terms with that. As an avid music listener, I don’t think we want are favorite artist to be our own personal puppets but avatars of qualities we enjoy. Hip hop is in chaos because It’s an art form in the midst of change much like a country in civil war. Although I’m not in love with MDTF, I’m fond of it because it is one of the most quality releases of 2010 even if it’s reception is overhyped. It’s not perfect and I don’t think it should ever be considered a classic but there has to be a place to appreciate a solid/above average effort without criticizing it or overhyping it. I hope I was respected in my thoughts.

    • His right to judge an album? If you wanted a review of MBDTF that takes into account the past, present, and future of hip-hop as a genre, you’re probably at the wrong blog. Ultimately, the only review of an album that matters is your own.

    • you think indie mainstream pop and rap and hip hop means you have ecletic taste? poser.
      i bet you have no idea why you think this ablum is unparralled production wise, what is so innovative?

      • @ James Koman: How does a person have the right to judge something without receiving the facts surrounding and involving the case ? A classic album which MDTF has been declared is usually considered a classic because it representative the genre at the time or innovated the genre. These aren’t my standards these are traditional standards for critiquing Music. I Know this isn’t a hip hop blog but I would expect fair and relevant reviews on the music, artist and alums reviewed. For example: Should a race car driver really lecture a med student on new medical research ? No, most likely you’d want the opinion of an expert in the given field.

        @ Matthew Ritacco: You call me a poser because I listed three of the main of the genres I listen to ? Most people only listen to one. Most people suffer from group think,you are probably one of these people. Kanye’s MDTF is innovative because it is a Kanye album after all. The man in an innovator is music and pop culture. He has tireless work ethic and is brilliantly creative. The beats are stellar they mix so many samples crossing genres of music. All of this is done flawlessly. This is a successful experiment in the beat lab. I’m a Kanye fan because he produces Quality. It’s not my favorite Kanye West album but it definitely quality and better than pretty much anything out in the hip hop genre, beat wise ! Get a life Hipster

  41. I really like this ‘Double Take’ column, keep it up. It’s a great complement to ‘Premature Evaluation’ and allows more viewpoints on these really important releases. Loved brandon’s column on the M.I.A. album.

    I still love Kanye’s album, both for the music and all the pop culture baggage that comes with it. There’s so much stuff that goes into listening to an album: The music and lyrics, yes. But there’s also your personal experience with the record. Memories of a live show, a music video or album artwork, comparing the way the artist uses an instrument to how you play, memories of a friend who hooked you onto the band, the store you bought the album at, and more.

    It is very hard to listen to the music and the music alone. If Kanye’s album isn’t the “Number 1″ album of the year (and God, who cares if it is), it is certainly one of the most important albums of the year. It was the culmination of a year’s worth of official and unofficial publicity by West himself, the most influential popular music maker right now. All you need to ask yourself is, did it pay off?

  42. Maybe it’s because I don’t read reviews or talk to much about music with my friends, but I can’t help but feel like you’re overestimating the power of this whole group think thing again. For sure, critics will time and again start shooting out the same tacky description for an album. Even as someone who doesn’t read reviews, it’s hard to miss. How many times have you heard “The Social Network” and “21st century” together in the past 6 months? Or if not heard, read on the side of a bus? The shit is pretty rampant.

    Still, I don’t feel like it was shoved down my throat. Maybe for people who read more blogs and magazines it was. Maybe they felt some pressure from everyone they know picking it up. And that’s fine. But I think that’s where it stops. After that, I trust people to make their own judgments about things. Suggesting people just want to love on an album to feel a part of some sensational wave is kinda insulting.

    As for me, I liked it. If I was a list making type, it might land in my top ten albums of the year, closer to the 10 end. I think all the “perfects” and “10.0′s” are a little over the top (How can an album with a multi minute Chris Rock outro be perfect?), but then again, they usually are.

    Information and hype are powerful forces, especially in the internet era. But maybe, despite their controversial creators and the people’s crazy expectations, Maya and MBDTF generally got the kind of reviews they deserved.

  43. As a person who doesn’t listen to much hip-hop/rap I took to this album very easily. In 2010 I found myself listening to a lot of interesting, new hip-hop music. The Roots came out with How I Got Over which I felt was refreshing in comparison to all the other rap albums that had come out the passed year. Now when we come to Kanye, I was always just a casual fan. With my first mp3 player I had a few of his singles (“Gold Digger”, “Touch The Sky”, “Stronger”.) Then Kanye performed “Runaway” at the MTV Music Video awards, and I was a bit taken back. The song was strong, and blunt. Not to say that other rap songs aren’t, but this seemed to be aggressive without all the aggression. It’s accessible, and I think that’s why it captivated so many people. I think it would be okay to say that it’s sort of a hip-hop beginners album. Many of the tracks have a heavy R&B vibe too. “Blame Game” is an example of that. A torn West detailing a relationship from the past (very 808s-esque minus the auto-tune.) When listening to it in it’s entirety you can tell it’s an ode to Kanye. It seems he made the album for himself, and decided to put it out for a few bucks.
    Speaking about this from a “what-is-art?” point-of-view this album is a real piece of work. The lyrics are vivid. Kanye is telling a story, it might be a bit pretentious, and somewhat “douchey”, but it’s something the hip-hop world needed. An album that doesn’t sound like another, and Kanye has been able to do that since the first album. Now speaking about critic views, and whether or not you should like this album there’s not really much to say. Opinion is opinion, and the album is going to strike the listener in whichever way it will. It’ may seem a little preachy to some, maybe disgusting or repulsive, or it might seem like a masterpiece. If anything, I think this album should be placed in a neutral zone when coming to critic thoughts, and reviews. It may be a little brash, but I’ve said this before, I believe this quality should be the standard for modern hip-hop. I think the phase of the widely popular gangster rap is coming to an end, and listeners are looking for something new, and I think Kanye knows this, and is delivering it.

  44. I had received an advanced copy of the LP and remember being shocked at how good it was, and was actually relieved when the rest of the world began feeling the same way. Like “ok, i’m not crazy here.” There’s something about how weird it is, and yet how accessible it is at the same time. So few other people can do that with as much potency. It really feels like art that is addressed to culture. Sure, there are other albums that represent their genres with more dead-on precision and perfection, but there’s something to the fact that I don’t even notice when there’s singing or rapping going on. The whole thing flows so seamlessly together and in such a complete package. I’m still impressed by it for being so forward thinking

    • yeah i remember liking it too and being like “oh shit, is this gonna have to be one of my guilty pleasures like kesha?” “must i be a fan of the underdog?” “must i defend him at the macy’s day parade?”

      i think this is a sign i can trust my initial instincts and not have to re-examine if they were tainted by the conspiring influential music media world.

  45. Coming from a Kanye fan, I was pretty hyped about this album before hype really flooded in, and I really just enjoyed seeing how Kanye could re-evaluate hip hop so smoothly. My thoughts are that this album is actually pretty amazing, but maybe not in the same way that reviews suggest; it’s pretty novel for sites like Pitchfork and even Stereogum to support a hip hop album as ‘the best album of the year’, ironic even, and so I think to an extent non-hip hop cultured websites and newspapers enjoyed MBDTF as something highly accessible. As a heavy hip hop listener however, I think it works most interestingly in how it challenges popular hip hop ideas, it innovates with the use of autotune once again, and pushes the hunt for samples into regions mainstream hip hop generally avoids. In my personal opinion, if from this album artist’s like Gil Scott Heron, King Crimson, and more modern names like Bon Iver and Aphex Twin get more attention and broaden the minds and ears of generally docile listeners, I will be more than pleased to say that Kanye West had the best album of 2010.

  46. you can’t make everyone happy, but looks like sterogum is trying to.

  47. Ha ha the facebook contingent came out in force.

  48. Your article defending MAYA inspired me to write up a comparison of MAYA with MBDTF just last week, so I was pleased that you found this to be overrated as well.

    For anyone who’s interested:

    http://gutsgutsgotnoguts.blogspot.com/2010/12/maya-owns-dark-twisted-fantasy.html

  49. alright. ive had it. i know that its all edgy to like this album because of pitchfork and stuff, but im so fucking sick of hearing about this album. its totally average, and the fact that every “indie” website on the internet is hyping it is just a pathetic attempt to evade the label of “hipster”. “we SOMETIMES like mainstream music, when its GOOD!” i dont care. on the top of this website it says “indie music news” not “news about indie music and edgy douchebag rappers.” if i wanted to give a crap about kanye west, or lil wayne, or any of those other shitheads, i would read rolling stone.

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