On this day 10 years ago, Kanye Omari West gave to the world one of the most influential, celebrated albums of the decade, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF). The rapper's maximalist fifth record marked the moment that his reputation became entangled with his art. In the intervening years, Kanye West has become known as one of the most provocative pop culture figures. But first, let’s talk about the old Kanye.
Prior to MBDTF, West had carved out a lane of nerdy blue-collar rap and DIY production. In fact, for a long time, his industry peers respected him more for his beats than his raps. This all changed with his 2004 debut album The College Dropout, which put the Chicago-raised rapper on the map with his quirky backpack raps. His subsequent albums, Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007), and 808s & Heartbreak (2008), only solidified the certainty that Kanye was onto something great.
However, things suddenly and radically changed with one disastrous outburst at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards that we all saw unfold. In perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments in pop-culture – which made the phrase “Imma let you finish” legendary – Kanye took to the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, snatched the microphone from the stunned singer, and proceeded to tell the audience that Beyoncé had “one of the best videos of all-time.” It was the moment that spawned a million memes and almost destroyed Kanye’s career.
“Though it wasn't a term back then, he was essentially ‘canceled,’ at least for the time being,” said Cole Cuchna, the host of Spotify’s Dissect. Through the serialized music podcast, Cuchna goes in-depth on hip-hop’s most radical bodies of work – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the series' pièces de résistance. The album, in Cuchna’s words, is “Hip-hop's Palace of Versailles.”
Before his VMA interruption put his career in jeopardy, Kanye was still reeling from the recent death of his mother, Donda West. In an interview following the VMA incident, Kanye issued a tearful apology, admitting to needing some time off to emotionally recover. Whatever mix of emotions led him to that moment, the court of public opinion was still firmly set against him. He would need a blessing, an irrefutable persuasion to make any sort of redemptive comeback.
“I think this mixture of peak talent, emotional vulnerability, and the feeling that this album had to be so good the public had no choice but to accept him back pushed Kanye's creative threshold to another level of excellence. He's literally on record saying that he felt his life depended on the success of this album,” Cuchna explains. In 2009, Kanye left the country, going into self-imposed exile to regroup far away from the paparazzi and the critics. Facing higher stakes than ever to prove his place in music, he set up camp in Hawaii with a roster of all-star artists to create what he intended to be his magnum opus.
“And so what did we get? An album with so many great bars that it pleased hip-hop heads. An album with so many catchy hooks and melodies that it pleased the masses. An album with so much opulence in its production that it pleased producers, composers, and music snobs alike,” Cuchna tells us. “It's hard to make a case against the album. It's bulletproof. And Kanye's ability to actually pull an album like this off and achieve his goal (he did win back the public, generally speaking) speaks to his creative powers, and why he's a level above most working artists today.”
Speaking on the Dissect podcast, Cuchna boldly stated, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy elevated hip-hop into another stratosphere, and cemented Kanye West as one of the world's premier artistic visionaries [...] The irony of Twisted Fantasy's legacy is that while it's influence is often stated, it's rarely heard, as few (if any) have the imagination and skill required to replicate it. Hundreds of years from now, Twisted Fantasy will be among the finest artifacts of the 21st century."
In the ultimate realization of a troubled genius with a lot to get off his chest, MBDTF Kanye abandoned the stripped-down approach of 808s in favor of maximalist production, grandiose ideas, far-flung samples, and, most importantly, sincere storytelling. “What sometimes gets lost in all of Twisted Fantasy's decadence is the very vulnerable storyline that runs through the album, as Kanye examines fame under a microscope, trying to make sense of how everything he worked to achieve could suddenly be taken away.”
MBDTF’s release on November 22, 2010, skyrocketed Kanye from rock bottom to the top of the charts – “I’m back baby” he proclaimed on the album’s bonus track “See Me Now.” While Kanye was still regarded as being kind of a jerk, everyone was unanimous: love him or hate him, he’s great at what he does. And in many ways, the rapper has ridden the wave of this dichotomy ever since.
Listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy below, and head over to Spotify to listen to Cole Cuchna discuss the album on the Dissect podcast.