hip hop by August Prum November 22, 2017
On November 22, 2017 Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a perfect album of maximalist production, ridiculous brags, and a rolodex of the biggest artists in contemporary music.
It is perhaps Kanye’s greatest work to date. Kanye aesthetes disagree over what is Kanye’s best album, ranking West’s albums has become the subject of debate in and of itself. Some may appreciate the naïveté of College Dropout, the ‘real hip-hop’ artistry of Late Registration, the seminal sadboy record 808’s and Heartbreaks, or the dystopian Yeezus. But Twisted Fantasy is quite simply a flawless record.
It is Kanye’s magnum opus, crafted during a self-imposed exile in Hawaii, working alongside artists and producers inspiring his work and creative process. Kanye is a true post-modern artist, jamming together different aesthetics and styles in collage. His vision is always unified and concrete, but the way he achieves that vision is through a tour of different forms of art.
Only Kanye West could sample The Turles, King Crimson, Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, and Aphex Twin on one album.
Pusha T said of Kanye’s work in the studio,
“We could easily be working on one song, thinking we’re in a mode, and he’ll hear a sound from someone like [producer] Jeff Bhasker and immediately turn his whole attention to that sound and go through his mental Rolodex to where that sound belongs on his album, and then it goes straight to that song, immediately. Now, mind you, his album is a collage of sounds. It has one consistent theme, but you really have to be some type of weirdo to be able to do that. It’s like turning on the drop of a dime, in a car. A Maybach on a two-lane highway making a fucking U-turn.”
Kanye is indeed some type of weirdo and Twisted Fantasy is the ultimate representation of one of the most fascinating and mercurial artists in modern music.
From the outset of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye weaves his story of contemptuous celebrity, simultaneously anomic and boastful. He’s pissed off by fame and power, but he also wants you to know how that he’s also the greatest, but there’s discontents in being the best.
Kanye raps some of his most poignant bars of his career on “Gorgeous”,
“And what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?
I guess that’s why they got me sitting in fucking coach”
This is Kanye at his most Kanye. He’s eloquent, sentimental, and petty all at the same time.
MBDTF is the album that most explains Kanye’s art and his goals with his art. Everything about the album rollout, the production, the features, the accompanying album artwork and short film is meticulously crafted, revealing Ye’s obsessive focus on his work.
There’s the “Runaway” film that Kanye directed with writing help from music video titan Hype Williams.
For the album artwork, Kanye enlisted visual artist George Condo. The pair listened to MBDTF together and Condo came up with a series of five designs. They settled upon the drawing of a Black man (Kanye) being straddled by a white sphinx without arms and a monstrous face as the final artwork for the album.
Condo told Vulture about the sphinx straddling West:
“She’s a kind of fragment, between a sphinx, a phoenix, a haunting ghost, a harpy. And then Kanye is also in some sort of strange 1970s burned-out back room of a Chicago blues club having a beer — so far away from the real Kanye West that it’s just a scream… I was challenging him with the imagery as well. He said, ‘I’m shocked, but I like it, and I gotta go with my gut feeling.'”
Perhaps Kanye’s greatest skill is not his own musical ability, but what he’s able to draw out of the artists he works with. This is the case with Williams and Condo, each artist doing some of the most evocative work of their careers alongside West.
It is also true of the musicians that appear on MBDTF. Never has Pusha T sounded so furious, so spurious, and raw as when he raps over the metronomic keys of “Runaway”.
“Monster” shows Nicki Minaj rapping like she’s never rapped before, or since. This was 2010, Nicki Minaj hadn’t reached the soaring heights of her now illustrious career.
Her verse on “Monster” became a sort of certification, from both Kanye and hip-hop as a whole. (We don’t need to talk about Jay-Z’s verse on “Monster”.)
Has Chris Rock ever been funnier than his monologue at the end of “Blame Game”?
Rick Ross on “Devil In A New Dress” briefly left his own rotund body and became rap royalty in his verse. It is one of the greatest verses in contemporary rap music.
Just recently, Ross spoke at ComplexCon and described going to Kanye with his initial verse for “Devil In A New Dress”, but Ye encouraged him to keep working on it:
“When I recorded that verse for the first time, he came in, heard it and he told me he thought I could do better and he walked out. And then I wrote another one and the second verse I wrote is the one you hear on the album which a lot of people consider one of Rozay best verses. Shout out to Yeezy.”
This is a testament to Kanye’s perfectionism. The fact that he’s able to get so much out of the artists he surrounds himself with, the fact that they’re willing to bend and manipulate their own processes for Kanye, trusting in his vision.
But the ultimate gift of MBDTF is the production. This record sounds like no other hip-hop record ever made.
There’s the apocalyptic maximalism of “POWER”.
The growling production of “Monster”.
The twinkling, haunting keys of “Runaway”.
The throbbing synths of “Hell Of A Life”.
The sprawling “Lost In The World”.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may not be your favorite Kanye album, but it is unequivocally his best. It is the ultimate representation of post-modern hip-hop, and it displays an artist in full control of his abilities and able to guide those he works alongside to elevate their own art.
Yeezy taught us well.