The fifth studio album that Kanye West decided to release ten years ago is a comeback for the ages. But that's only on a surface level. The grandeur within My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is birthed from an inability to be understood. To understand the magnitude of the project itself is to fully comprehend the odds that were against him. The new low that Mr. West hit within the public eye had inspired him to create an album experience that's arguably his magnum opus. Kanye has always been a talented musician, but he has never intended for his artistic vision to be limited. The deeper you dig into the music, the more you realize he aimed to create a masterpiece across all mediums.
Act I: The Dream Inspired by the Nightmare
If the album's theme originates from any single moment, it would be from the infamous night of September 13, 2009. Kanye charged the VMAs stage and interrupted Taylor Swift's award acceptance speech in front of millions. (For the record, Kanye's opinions on Beyonce losing still holds truth; his choice of expressing it was just terrible. Kendrick definitely got cheated out of a Grammy for GKMC< but hopefully, no one is going up to Macklemore to tell them that.)
Many would immediately conclude that the closely gripped Hennessy bottle was to blame for the incident. In reality, the VMAs event was really the kettle pot releasing the steam it could no longer hold. Whatever it may have been, it was a public disaster as many viewed his actions to be arrogant and misogynistic, and the media shredded him for it.
Due to the level of controversy and inability to get away from it, he threw himself into exile. He cancelled his scheduled tour with Lady Gaga amidst the backlash Kanye declared his retirement from music and would be taking time away to rethink how he'd move forward. His travels to Japan and Rome would turn out to inspire him in ways his inner artist couldn't deny. Once his made way back to America, he retreated back to Hawaii and got back to work.
Choosing to reside in Hawaii again proved to be an important factor for the making of MBDTF. This is where he chose to hide away after dealing with the passing of his mother and break-up of his fiancé. The built-up aggression led him to create arguably his most innovative project to date, 808s and Heartbreak. He had returned under more public scrutiny than ever and it was time for Kanye to go above and beyond anything he'd ever done.
For someone as unapologetic as Yeezy, the errors in his actions lays in his approach rather than his actual truths. This struggle challenged Mr. West to create a body of work that strikes harmony between peak expressionism and socialistic vulnerability.
Another reason behind Hawaii's significance is this was where he began to take more of a collaborative approach for song crafting. 808s proved that Kanye's a maestro using the strengths of other artists to set the tone for discovering unpaved territory sonically. The ambition behind MBDTF would be enough for him to summon a supergroup of elite singers, rappers, and songwriters unlike anything we've ever seen.
Act II: The 5,000th Hour
The big bang moment for MBDTF's conceptualism is the rap camp from the legendary Hawaii sessions. Kanye set out to create his most eloquent project yet and flew out a list of his favorite musicians to embark along his quest with him. What makes these month-long sessions so mythical is that were done in total secrecy. The group would not only blend their sounds as one, but they would even move as one spending time on the island. Legendary producer RZA has expressed in the past about the laser-sharp focus that West moved with from day one.
Rules were enforced in the studios to promote maximum productivity and minimal leaks.
"No Tweeting. No pictures. Total focus on this project at all times. All laptops must stay on mute. Don't tell anyone about anything that we're doing. No acoustic guitar in the studio. No blogging. Just shut the f**k up sometimes. No hipster hats. No tweeting... please."
Kanye had his eyes on achieving nothing less than what he considered perfection. Striving for this would require him to work rigorously and ask more from collaborators than what they thought they could give at times. Aspiring for a fulfillment that seems impossible would even force West to check his own abilities and ego. He was in full control but choosing to rely on everyone’s contributions is what makes the music next-level.
The success behind this ideology isn't more evident on the album than the sixth track "Monster". The song was a lead album single but was originally a free deliverance from that was courtesy of GOOD Fridays. As he was finding his stride back in the studio, he became more open with his creative process as he took full advantage of the blogging era that reigned supreme at the time. His GOOD Friday collaborations with the artists he enlisted would be the first hint of how large the project truly was.
"Monster" would only be the second release along a line of free songs dropping every Friday. The song itself is a star-studded joint featuring West and veteran MCs Rick Ross and Jay-Z as they furiously battle for second place against then-newcomer Nicki Minaj's iconic verse. It would take nearly a dozen times until Nicki and Kanye would strike a final version. His refusal for settling led to arguably one of the most groundbreaking verses ever written.
The same can be said for Pusha T's verse on the nine-minute tour-de-force "Runaway". The Virginia MC stated in his 2010 RapFix Live interview that the finished product took four attempts to reach.
"I'm writing a verse, I come back to the table and it's something [a verse] that I'm feeling, and he's like, 'Naw, but I need more douche bag.' And I'm like, 'All right, man, c'mon.' So I go back, and he's like, 'Naw, more douche bag!' He's screaming at me 'more douche bag' at this point... What he didn't know was [that] I was going through my own relationship turmoil at the time. I was being a douche bag."
The polish glossing the entire track list comes from the work ethic that Yeezy approached the project with. Veteran producers and engineers like Mike Dean would occupy the entire Avex recording studio for 24 hours a day. Artists that accepted the invitation would work around the clock to help bring Ye's dark fantasy to life. West would later boast that songs like “Power” would take as much as many as 5,000 man-hours to make. From the way they recorded to the way they exercised and ate breakfast together, the renowned group from the Hawaii sessions found a way to move as one under the beat of West's drum. Anything seems possible when that level of ambition meets equal levels of manpower.
Act III: Yeezy, the Player-Coach and the General Manager
The music produced was a radical clash of his past sounds unlike any other. The production drew inspiration from each of West’s albums to luxuriously curate them together. Yeezy took the samples of College Dropout, the lush Late Registrationinstrumentals, the stadium-filling inspiration from Graduation, and 808’s infectious drums to mesh them together with some narcissism and Ricardo Tisci.
Kanye became more concerned about delivering the best music by any means rather than caring for radio singles. The album itself marks a shifting point for the way West would approach projects. The maximalist production throughout the LP provided solace for prime egotistic ‘Ye to unadulteratedly express his truths. His songwriting would be more sophisticated and over-the-top than his previous efforts. If he wanted to reach full artistic expression while still making it commercial digestive, the writing would have to sit on a pedestal as high as the production would.
This would mark the first time he would blatantly disregard the need for a traditional album layout. A bulk of the album isn’t rap at all but it’s these moments where the production shines and unrolls the red carpet out for the next person to grace the track. Mike Dean’s guitar solo does exactly that for sixty seconds before Rick Ross inhumanly closes out the Smokey Robinson-sampled “Devil in a New Dress”.
How Rozay emerges into the beat epitomizes the opulent Maybach Music that has become his signature. A similar approach was taken on the transition between “POWER” and “All of the Lights”. The dramatic finish behind the album’s third track plays like an epic battle between man and mind until the peak becomes lifeless. Elton John then proceeds to slowly bring the picture back to life in an interlude as his piano makes a grand introduction for the chorus to come.
All of the talent at his disposal and the previous sounds he was drawing from caused West to play a much larger role in the album’s creation: the composer. MBDTF is able to play seamlessly because of his abilities to grab the dozens of free-flowing ideas on the LP and synchronize them into one. Many of the album’s shining moments originate from the vocal-layering and the collision of genres. Within these moments, the project begins to develop its larger-than-life appeal.
“Dark Fantasy” is an intro that’s a testament to the overall album concept. Powering the instrumental is the Shakespearian-like mashup of sounds that sparks the christening of West’s power trip. A chorale regally emerges from the shadows of piano keys and reassures the journey is only beginning after the question is asked: Can we get much higher?
Elegant piano keys and monstrous drums are enough to grab your attention, but it’s the choir of stars that makes the track musically unforgettable. If anything, the song certifies his producing abilities forerunning his hip-hop peers like Q-Tip and ascending to the likes of Quincy Jones. The LeBron of Rhyme putting up all-star numbers while simultaneously managing a star-studded team and drawing up the plays. Do the rap and the track, triple double, no assist.
Act IV: Realization of an Unforeseen Fantasy
He was humiliated (completely warranted) for his outbursts and instantly misinterpreted for the new sounds 808s made way for. Errors in the messages he would try getting across would lie in his execution. The blunders leading him into seclusion would become his drive for avoiding misconstruction this time around. What Kanye intended for this project is something still unprecedented. The overall concept is literally the idea of an outspoken black artist having full-fledged expression at the pinnacle of their careers. Usually, the media makes you choose: it’s either your voice or your career.
In every way possible, the sounds and visuals of the project were deliberately sculpted out of pure audacity. Even the original album artwork personifies the same psyche as the music. The artwork's image was blurred instantly to avoid being banned from stores. Still, MBDTF’s artwork designer George Condo cited the cartoon as oddly being a good job done. West intended for Condo to create something that would be too vulgar for retail. (For a country as racially-charged as America, it isn't a lot of things that can be more distasteful than relatable images of naked interracial couples.)
As if the album already didn’t have a theatrical feel to it, the visuals gave a better glimpse of the world this project resides in. Music videos that supported the songs were as aesthetically pleasing as the music was. What makes the visuals so captivating is they breathe the same inspiration Kanye first came across in exile. The uber-echelon atmosphere of fashion and culture that Japan and Rome had to offer gave major direction in his newfound phase.
Act V: First of a CEO, Last of a Dying Breed
MBDTF would instantly be met with universal acclaim as critics praised West’s extravagant return to music. Using unrestrictive songwriting methods, West made an audacious masterpiece that features production embodying the luxury craftsmanship he ascended to and the fashion house influences responsible for his artistic rebirth at the time. Against all odds, he reasserted his seat at the table of hip-hop’s summit. As time has passed, it would be ignorant to not acknowledge the album's significance within this past decade. It was at this moment in time that the rapper found harmony between candid creative freedom and musical marketability. The fantasy that he found on this album would not only inspire an entire industry, but even Yeezy himself.
GOOD Fridays was revolutionary with how other artists approached album rollouts. Music was facing a great deal of uncertainty as the Internet dried away the industry’s traditional revenue sources. Kanye was able to take advantage of the self-made free promotion generated from consistently releasing a new song.
The rap camp from the illustrious Hawaii sessions is still unlike a collaborative effort anything music has ever seen. Dreamville Records replicated something similar with ROTD3 sessions but that was just for the sake of making good music; Yeezy did it to execute a concept. Kanye flew out all of his favorite artists and drew creativity from every direction he looked towards. The glimmering final result of MBDTF would be nothing without the collective vision comprised from the talents of his production team. And it’s also hard to imagine elaborate efforts like “All of the Lights” and “Lost in the World” retaining its magic without the group vocals that made them feel so monumental.
As for Yeezy, this album era would be pivotal in his progression of becoming an artist across various spectrums. His time in exile internationally had inspired him to look at his future projects from a new perspective altogether. Rather than making an album that channeled new sounds, he began to seek crafting art pieces containing synchronous themes. The solo projects that come afterwards would be more daring and harder to comprehend upon first entry. Not to say that the concept of MBDTF is easy to decipher, it’s just that the music on the album makes it easier to understand.
Yeezy’s time spent residing in Rome is what also gave direction into his next passion: fashion. It was already clear that high-end luxury played a central muse in the album’s creation. That makes sense considering the fact he was balancing signature shoe deals with Louis Vuitton and Nike prior to MBDTF’s development. As his artistry would grow on this project, so would his passion for fashion as well.
The album inspiration he grabbed being around luxury fashion houses would also translate into his progression as a designer. Eventually, the sequel of his coveted Nike ‘Air Yeezy’ would become the most infamous shoe in sneaker culture. From there would proceed to leave his signature shoe line for his own fashion line.
Coincidentally, MBDTF also cements ‘Ye into a more egotistic version of himself that ages terribly. Due to this, it has caused his public antics to become a lot more outspoken and outlandish. It’s within these moments that has made it hard times to remain a fan and his overall direction. Honestly, the domino effect of events that has happened this past decade has been sporadically sad to watch. Like it or not, one has to admit that Kanye has always managed to express himself undoubtedly.
The album’s biggest significance lies within the effect it’s had on Kanye himself. He set on creating his best album under a visualization he’d yet to see of himself. A black man somehow maintaining a presence on the mountaintops of fashion and music all while being able to disregard standard norms and taboos that come with preserving what he’s built?
Now, that’s a damn beautiful dark twisted fantasy.