The Anniversary

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Turns 10

Kanye West is drunk. It’s Sept. 13, 2009. Kanye and his girlfriend, the model Amber Rose, are seated in the front row at Radio City Music Hall, where the superstar rapper is nominated for several MTV Video Music Awards. Dressed in a black leather short-sleeved button-down, jeans, and sunglasses, with elaborate designs buzzed into his hair, Kanye is working his way through a bottle of Hennessy he’s been nursing since the red carpet.

We all know what happens next because it instantly becomes a huge news story and soon moves beyond history into the realm of myth and meme: The night’s first award for Female Video Of The Year goes to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” over clips from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and Beyoncé. Kanye, compelled to defend the honor of “Single Ladies,” leaps from his chair, rushes to the stage, and grabs the microphone from 19-year-old Swift just as she’s settling into her acceptance speech. Beginning a sequence that will be quoted more often than most of his lyrics, he says, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish,” then turns to the crowd and announces, “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!” Then he shrugs, returns the mic, and exits the stage as Swift stands there looking sad and embarrassed, literally and figuratively speechless.

The fallout from this event is immediate and extreme. Seemingly everyone in America rushes to clown and/or condemn Kanye. Already known as a loose cannon thanks to his infamous outburst about George W. Bush during a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon in 2005, in the aftermath of the VMAs he’s widely ridiculed as a self-righteous buffoon — or a “jackass,” to quote President Barack Obama, who feels compelled to weigh in on the situation that has monopolized the national conversation. The stage-crashing incident punctuates a spiral that seemingly began with the death of his mother from a plastic surgery gone wrong and a nasty breakup with fiancée Alexis Phifer, as documented on 808s & Heartbreak, his polarizing 2008 dive into Auto-Tuned desolation. He’s become a punchline and a pariah, and to some observers it seems like his moment of pop cultural dominance is over.

***

My heart is racing. It’s Oct. 20, 2011, and I’m driving my ’03 Honda Civic down drizzly Ohio backroads, getting ready to propose to my girlfriend. She’s riding shotgun on the way to a state park where we’ve decided to hike before hitting up a gargantuan small-town festival called the Circleville Pumpkin Show. Although the weather is not ideal, my plan is already in motion and will not be abandoned, even if it means kneeling in mud when I pop the question. The ring is in a box in the pocket of the raincoat I borrowed because I’m too much of an idiot bachelor to own a proper raincoat. I keep worrying I’ll lose the diamond in my seat cushion or bungle the proposal in some other way. I’m pretty sure she’ll say yes, but the unresolved tension is paralyzing.

I opt to channel my nervous energy into music criticism because that is my own perverse brand of neurosis. As Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy blares from the car stereo, I hold court about what a mammoth achievement the album is, filling up every bit of empty conversational space with my rapturous opinions about the music and its place in the pantheon, regurgitating talking points I’ve internalized from countless rave reviews. The album’s splendor has become gospel; it’s an unimpeachable masterpiece, or so goes the story, which I am eager to recite as an outlet for all this pent-up agitation. Track by track, detail by detail, I mansplain this music’s glory with an oppressive enthusiasm — one woman-lecturing blowhard proclaiming the brilliance of another.

I will later learn that my wife-to-be finds this one-way discourse enormously off-putting (go figure) and that in this moment she is thinking to herself, “I don’t know if I can put up with this for the rest of my life.” Mercifully, we arrive at the park before I can fully undermine my own cause, and within minutes the mood has shifted from annoyance to joy. She says yes; I put a ring on it. The conversation shifts to our future life together. I save the rest of my profound observations about MBDTF for a 10th anniversary retrospective.

***

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy accomplished its purpose. Released 10 years ago this Sunday, the album was not just a smash hit, it elevated Kanye to new heights of prestige and critical acclaim. This was by design. Kanye explained as much in a New York Times interview around the release of 2013’s rawer and more confrontational Yeezus, describing MBDTF as “my long, backhanded apology” and “the album where I gave people what they wanted.” He elaborated, “It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: ‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.'”

A lot of people had My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on their shelves. In the US alone, the album sold 496,000 copies in its first week and has since gone double platinum. This was an undeniable success, but objectively not a major uptick from 808s & Heartbreak‘s first-week haul of 450,000. Pervasive as the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy singles were — and you can trust that “Power” and “Runaway” and “All Of The Lights” and “Monster” were pervasive — none of them cracked the Hot 100 top 10, whereas 808s sent “Love Lockdown” to #3 and “Heartless” to #2. MBDTF was not really a comeback at all, commercially speaking. Kanye arguably didn’t need one; there was no real flop to bounce back from, unless an album that sold nearly half a million copies in its first week and sent two singles within sniffing distance of #1 counts as a flop. Despite many people’s confused reception to 808s, Kanye was still making hits and moving units — maybe not on the level of his first three albums, when this visionary megalomaniac was remaking the rap mainstream in his own image, but enough to maintain his stature as one of the biggest stars in music.

Instead, the album’s redemption arc mostly had to do with perception and narrative. The VMAs incident had evolved into a fable about Kanye’s ego-driven downfall, so he responded with a grander, more opulent fairy tale about his own genius and resilience — the type of conventionally ambitious epic that sends egghead critics like me into rhapsodic fits of hyperbole. It topped so many year-end lists. Until Fiona Apple came along this year, it stood for nearly a decade as the last new album to receive a perfect 10 from Pitchfork. Although Kanye has always been steamed about the Grammys overlooking MBDTF, the album is too cool to qualify as Grammy pandering. Spiritually it feels more like a Hollywood blockbuster that doubles as Oscar bait. Not only did it cement his reputation as an auteur and win over a vast spectrum of tastemakers, it also catered to the rap fans who wanted nothing to do with sad-robot Kanye.

Whereas his experiments on 808s helped send hip-hop spiraling off in new directions, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy served up “the old Kanye” on steroids. He had already been escalating the scope of his sound with each new installment of his opening trilogy: The College Dropout‘s big bang, Late Registration‘s orchestral sprawl, Graduation‘s full-blown widescreen pop immersion. Now, after stepping out of that trajectory with 808s, he blew out his sample-driven style to Godzilla proportions, projecting himself and his struggles on a larger-than-life scale.

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He accomplished this both in the substance of the album and the fanfare surrounding it. It began in the months following the VMAs, when Kanye cancelled a planned tour with Lady Gaga and invited a staggering array of rappers, singers, and producers to join him at Avex Honolulu Studios in Oahu. A Complex cover story described these sessions as “Rap Camp” — a dream team working around the clock to bring Kanye’s grandiose vision to life, breaking only for lavish breakfasts, pickup basketball, and conceptual brainstorming sessions. A sign in the studio read “What Would Mobb Deep Do?”; Kanye also posted rules such as “No Tweeting” and “No Hipster Hats.” He’d repeat this process with every subsequent album, in locales like France, Mexico, and Wyoming, marshaling cataclysmic energy from a buzzing mass of talent. You can see why he took to the format considering the results of those sessions in Hawaii — I mean, this shit is fuckin’ ridiculous.

The sessions were so productive, in fact, that they yielded a wealth of outtakes that some listeners treasure more deeply than the album itself. Kanye held the hip-hop world’s rapt attention for months leading up to MBDTF‘s release with a series of weekly song drops known as G.O.O.D. Fridays, a parade of posse cuts that succeeded in ramping up anticipation for MBDTF to a fever pitch. Kanye West knows how to turn an album release into an event, and he understands how to stretch an event into an era. With G.O.O.D. Fridays, he trotted out a deeply impressive collection of songs, many of which didn’t even end up on the album, and reminded a skeptical audience why they gravitated toward him in the first place. You can sense the joy of creation in songs like “G.O.O.D. Friday” and “Christian Dior Denim Flow”; truthfully, they were so much fun that they made more sense as part of an ad hoc singles series than a meticulously crafted epic like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

This is an album that sounds like dozens of people labored over it, in the best way. More than even Late Registration, MBDTF is a world unto itself, vast and immaculate and locked in a state of perpetual night. Those maximalist, ego-centric tendencies that would later obliterate Kanye as a musician and public figure? They work to perfection here. Layers of sound pile up — samples, beats, orchestration, guitars, keyboards, a small army of vocalists — until the songs tower over you. Some of the source material is culled from progressive rock records — most famously the King Crimson flip that, when paired with a sped-up chant from Continent No. 6’s “Afromerica,” lends lead single “Power” its apocalyptic edge. This led to a “prog-rap” tag, which makes some kind of sense, even if the album borrows more from prog’s pageantry and bombast than its maze-like compositional structure.

Every song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sounds IMAX huge. Awestruck oohs and ahs and a majestic choir introduce “Dark Fantasy” as Nicki Minaj’s narration ushers the project in on a fittingly fantastical note, and suddenly we’re cruising a busy neon cityscape with Kanye, his swagger so impeccable it can’t even be undone by references to Celine Dion and Steve Urkel. Kanye and associates build out the boom-bap foundation of “Monster” until it sounds like a wild Halloween party in a nightclub the size of an arena. The woozily soulful “Devil In A New Dress” redefines luxuriant, while “Runaway” invents a new kind of power ballad. The triumphal “All Of The Lights” crams in so many stars (Rihanna! Elton John! Kid Cudi! Alicia Keys! Fergie! La Roux! John Legend! Charlie Wilson! The-Dream!) that some of their voices are imperceptible in the final mix — and it might have been even more crowded had Kanye not excised a verse from his young disciple Drake that appeared on an early version of the song.

Aubrey wasn’t really in need of a showcase by that point, but MBDTF did function as a launchpad for a number of other burgeoning careers. Minaj, whose Pink Friday debuted the same day, set the world on fire with her ferocious, bug-eyed “Monster” appearance, instantly canonized as one of the greatest verses of all time. After Clipse had been largely consigned to hipster purgatory, it was wild to see Pusha T grabbing the solo spotlight on “Runaway” and outshining the field on the diamond-hard “So Appalled” (granted, he was competing against oft-ridiculed bars from CyHi The Prynce about God’s iPod, but still). Most surprisingly, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon — an indie-folk sensation at the time, but still two years away from winning Best New Artist at the Grammys and being mimicked by Justin Timberlake on SNL — became the spirit that haunted the album. Vernon’s presence throughout the tracklist culminated in a sample of his digital chorale “Woods” that powered the “Lost In The World” / “Who Will Survive In America” grand finale.

No matter how many characters shuffle through the frame, though, you never forget whose beautiful dark twisted fantasy this is. The album is designed as Kanye the antihero’s journey toward an absolution that may never be coming. He lets himself get messy against the exquisite backdrops, whether firing off his trademark clunkers, hurling accusations, settling scores, singing off-key, or depicting his own raw, unflattering actions. On “Power” he lashes out at SNL and dubs himself “the abomination of Obama’s nation,” while the smoky “Gorgeous” takes aim at the South Park braintrust and a government that allegedly works to make sure Black people get AIDS. The darkly belligerent “Hell Of A Life” offers a window into the hedonistic lifestyle he was living at the time — a narrative that takes a darker turn on the musically elegant, lyrically disturbing “Blame Game.” There, over a piano sample from Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th,” Kanye puts his ugliest behavior on display then veers into absurdity: a profane Chris Rock monologue praising a sexual partner who has nothing to say for herself except, “Yeezy taught me.” (“I’ve never ever seen this part of pussy town before! It’s like you got this shit reupholstered or some shit!”)

MBDTF‘s sorry-not-sorry ethos is best summed up by “Runaway” — one of Kanye’s most iconic songs and the centerpiece of an ornate 35-minute art film accompanying the album — on which he laments and celebrates his own worst tendencies all at once. Like the album as a whole, it is sort of a mea culpa and sort of the author’s monument to himself. The legacy of 808s looms large here, from Kanye’s impassioned who-cares-if-I-can’t-sing hooks to the three-minute wound-licking vocoder solo that closes out the track. Somehow, he makes “I sent this bitch a picture of my dick” work in the context of a stadium anthem. It peaks with Kanye’s bittersweet and hilarious refrain: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags/ Let’s have a toast for the assholes/ Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/ Every one of them that I know/ Let’s have a toast for the jerk-offs/ That’ll never take work off/ Baby, I got a plan/ Run away fast as you can.”

Instead, the world rushed back to Kanye. He was the conquering hero again. As Jay-Z foretold on “So Appaled,” it wouldn’t last. Kanye kept making hit records for a while — “Niggas In Paris” from 2011’s even more lavish Jay-Z team-up Watch The Throne, “Mercy” and “Clique” from 2012’s G.O.O.D. Music label showcase Cruel Summer — but by the time Yeezus rolled around in 2013, even as the music world continued to worship him, the general public started to pay closer attention to his tabloid family life with Kim Kardashian and grandiose rhetoric about his own ideas. His goodwill with critics, stans, and the industry at large ensured a breathless reception for his work up through 2016’s The Life Of Pablo, but as he disappeared further and further up his own ass, eventually the music started to degrade too — first slowly, then rapidly — to the point that it’s hard to imagine anyone breathlessly awaiting a Kanye West album like they once awaited My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

It’s just as hard to imagine Kanye putting MBDTF-level effort into a new musical project, especially given the half-assed last-minute rush-jobs he’s been serving up lately. For years he’s seemed preoccupied with his Yeezy apparel brand, his grievances with the fashion industry, his plans for futuristic housing and water bottles — anything except contributing another landmark release to his catalog. The energy that once fueled incredible music is now directed elsewhere, and whatever musical highlights he has generated in recent years (Kids See Ghosts, I guess?) have been overshadowed by mental breakdowns, many chapters’ worth of Taylor Swift drama, a religious awakening, ignorant statements about slavery, an endorsement of a villainous president, and a pathetic half-serious presidential campaign of his own. A decade on from MBDTF, Kanye West is a laughingstock once more. To many, he feels like a hopeless case.

At the outset of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the choir poses a question: “Can we get much higher?” In hindsight, the answer feels like “no.” This is by no means a universal consensus. Some fans believe Kanye peaked with Yeezus. Others say he never topped early highlights like The College Dropout or Late Registration. His discography is too stacked to cohere around any one obvious peak. But to me, MBDTF is both the most mesmerizing work he ever released and the beginning of the end of his glory days. Some of us who were enraptured by the album, who bored our loved ones to tears analyzing it to death, are still holding out for another triumph of this order, but with each passing year it feels less likely. Kanye has had more professional success than most of us could dream of. He’s a parent of four beautiful children. He has seemingly infinite resources and as big a platform as he could ever desire. Yet 10 years on from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he still seems lost in the world. When I think about who Kanye West is now, the filthy rich fashion designer who feels more and more detached from reality, my mind is drawn not toward the first question on the album, but the last: “Who will survive in America?”

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