When Kanye West composed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he had gone through some turbulent events in his life. His mother had passed away owing to complications from cosmetic plastic surgery, something that would have never happened if he hadn’t become famous. His longtime fiancée left him. After a drunken gaff against Taylor Swift, he was lampooned for months and even labelled a “jackass” by Barack Obama. It seemed like the tide of public opinion had turned against him: “They told me I’d never work in show business again.”
What the hell do you do when it seems like you’ve hit rock bottom?
He fled to Rome and Tokyo in exile, finally finding solace in Hawaii to record the album in strict secrecy. MBDTF was released in November 2010 after a series of singles were published on the Internet in order to help win back the public’s approval.
The whole album is a meditation on the “big” themes – death, love, lust, wealth – but its most compelling element is the Faustian bargain of success. Throughout each of the tracks, Kanye revels in the pre-eminence and achievement he’s enjoyed. But at the same time the question “at what cost” lingers noticeably, presenting a dichotomy between success and internal strife.
Take ‘Power’, the bombastic set-piece. West professes at length the high he feels from being wealthy and triumphant, though at the end of the song he openly contemplates “a beautiful death, jumping out the window” to escape failure.
In ‘So Appalled’ West lists the perks of the ridiculous lifestyles he enjoys. He even sneaks in a passing reference to Donald Trump in Apprentice-era 2010: “Baby you’re fired, your girlfriend hired, but if you don’t mind I’ll keep you on call.” And yet, as the title implies, he still can’t get past being unnerved by his own behaviour.
In the wonderfully layered ‘Devil in a New Dress’ he describes the descent of a relationship from sweet to sour in the course of a couple of verses. Kanye realises this woman doesn’t really appreciate him: “You love me for me? Could you be more phony?”
Throughout the album’s first half we unravel the truth: Kanye strives for new meaning, a chance to break out of the repetitive, unfulfilling box he’s created for himself. His frustration is most succinctly exemplified in the outro of the song Runaway, which is arguably his greatest song to date.
After a lengthy six minutes of confessing his inability to accept his own and others’ imperfections, he plays an amazing trick. He sings through a vocoder filter, which distorts the sound of his voice to the extent that you aren’t able to properly make out what he’s singing. The raw, transfixing emotion is all there, despite the fact that you can’t hear any real words. It’s an amazing technique because it demonstrates everything: grief, unease, melancholia, anguish. Words simply don’t exist or everything Kanye’s trying to convey, but the trick renders any superfluous.
The album’s latter half chronicles his conscious pinpointing of what’s wrong in his life: instant gratification and untrustworthy people. By the time we get to the penultimate track ‘Lost in the World’ we see him finally resolve to restructure his life. He pledges to turn his back on the superficial trappings of his lifestyle and embraces the prospect of having loving relationships – a prescient promise in 2010, given that he would shortly start a family with Kim Kardashian.
In the first track ‘Dark Fantasy’ everything is certain: money, fame, status, pleasure. Fast forward to ‘Lost in the World’ and this complete paradigm is split as the artist chooses an uncertain future.
MBDTF is rated the 2010s’ best offering because it takes you on an ever-present journey, with audio so well crafted and so sincerely mastered that it almost feels visual. Everything has a purpose. The lyrics are decadent for a reason. The guest features – most notably those of Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj – exist for a reason. The tracks flow into each other to form a cohesive narrative: a descent into an inferno and then back out again. Production on songs like All of the Lights and Hell of a Life is expansive, all-consuming. There’s an earnest drama injected into the album that makes it seem almost like show-tunes.
It’s my favourite album because of all these things, but also because of the fact that the underlying sentiment somehow comes off as oddly relatable, despite the absurdities of Kanye’s individual circumstances. Everyone wants to believe they can make their life better, after all.
Before “cancel culture” was even a term, Kanye West’s career nearly died in 2009. Returning to the stratosphere with a flourish, he created this album ten years ago to remind us of what he was capable of, and to tell us where he was headed.