Kanye West. The words alone are charged nowadays — and have been for some time. Few other figures in public life have such a record of fame and infamy — often at the same time — in the 21st century as this highly visible musician. He continues to find new ways to keep himself in the headlines, as in recent years with his high-profile (if confused and short-lived) embrace of President Trump, his seemingly more durable conversion to Christianity . . . and his repeated struggles with mental illness. With Kanye, it seems, it’s the whole package.
Thus it has been for a while. And thus it was near the end of the 2000s, when a string of controversies — most notable though hardly alone among them, his tirade against fellow musician Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards — sufficed to place him in one of the many troughs that his surprisingly extensive career has so far featured. His response was to go into a sort of exile, in Hawaii, and to produce My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which just turned ten years old, and which was recently named the 17th-greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone.
Unlike the case with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, another album that turned ten this year, I had no connection or existing fondness for Kanye’s Fantasy — or much for Kanye himself, really, whom I tended to regard as an interesting, if sometimes insufferable, curiosity. I also lack much of an interest in hip-hop. But on the recommendation of a friend, and in recognition of the album’s tenth anniversary, I decided to give it a serious listen. I emerged with a greater appreciation for Kanye’s abilities and a greater understanding of his durability as a phenomenon.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, in essence, an invitation to participate in the myth of Kayne as a world-historical figure. The lyrics of its songs are full of his trademark bombast, as when he compares himself to Muhammad Ali (“If I ever wasn’t the greatest nigga, I must have missed it!”), exalts himself as a visionary (“I’m living the future so the present is my past / My presence is a present kiss my ass”), and pats himself on the back so hard that he probably gets bruises (“At the end of day, g**d**mit I’m killin’ this s***”). The lyrics and bars throughout are not merely self-aggrandizing (though they are certainly that), but often caustic and witty, full of wordplay and unfathomably apt rhymes (who else would have thought to set sarcophagus and esophagus against each other?). Many of these lyrics assume the feeling of a seamless, well-considered argument for Kanye himself, as airtight in its reasoning, in its own idiosyncratic way, as any logician’s treatise.
Yet it is either a paradox, a testament to Kanye’s skill as an arranger, or both that the album is full of collaborations with famous musicians such as Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj, and Jay Z. All of them get their chance to shine, such that they are ultimately indispensable to the final product. Even if Kanye ultimately intended the album as a tribute to his own genius, it says something revealing about his own method that he saw fit to accentuate that genius with considerable help from others.
The result was something that one cannot fairly describe as merely a hip-hop album. Its songs contain a striking diversity of instrumentation and genre; as one small example, “All of the Lights (interlude)” is a wordless string instrumental. And Kanye shows a genuine gift for crafting catchy rhythms and melodies that are sometimes (deliberately) repetitive but never boring or stale. Songs such as “So Appalled” and “Devil in a New Dress” are built on the foundation of underlying melodies likely to stick in your head long after an initial listen. And the choice of samples is exquisite, only reinforcing and never distracting, even when drawn from so obscure a source as pioneering progressive-rock band King Crimson. It all suggest a man who doesn’t only create music, but also knows the music of others exceedingly well.
In the years since Fantasy’s release, Kanye’s own music has reached the stature held by some of what he sampled, and arguably an even higher one. Its omnipresence is such that, though I had never listened to the whole album start to finish, I had, in fact, heard many of its songs, in one way or another. “Power” is a staple of commercials and movie trailers. Often have I heard it asked, “Can we get much higher?” as “Dark Fantasy” does. And often have toasts been proposed to the same ignominious crowd that “Runaway” toasts. In a sense, actually listening to this album was a catching-up for me, enabling a fuller understanding of a pop culture that clearly bears its imprint.
It has some flaws, however. After a raucous start, it seems to slow down and drags a bit near the end. It’s vulgar, though not noticeably more so than much of hip-hop. And if you don’t buy into the Kanye myth, it’s possible to see how this album wouldn’t appeal to you; though the whole thing amounts to a pretty solid argument for his own greatness, it’s possible to remain unpersuaded and thus uninterested.
After listening, I’m not 100 percent convinced. But I’m willing to be persuaded. For My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy shows an artist willing to pursue his muse relentlessly. It has taken him to some great places and to some not-so-great ones. In this respect, he is a striking contrast with his VMA antagonist Taylor Swift, about whose music I cannot speak, as I do not listen to it, but whose public persona seems to conform ever more to the expectations of a modern celebrity while Kanye continues to defy even the expectation of expectations for himself. He did it ten years ago, has done it in the time since, and will probably keep doing it. Whatever comes next, it is sure to be interesting, at the very least.