We always knew Kanye was a genius. He didn't just make great songs, he pushed hip-hop's boundaries with every new release. He is a perfectionist dedicated to making the exact product he intends to make. But, in the years since the release of Graduation, he hadn't fared too well publicly or privately in matters outside of music. In 2007 his mother died, soon after his long-time girlfriend Alexis Phifer broke up with him, yielding 808s and Heartbreak, an album that alienated many of his fans. He'd become best known not for any piece of music but rather for storming the stage during the VMAs and interrupting Taylor Swift. He became a pariah, was skewered on South Park, and even President Obama called him a "jackass."
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his chance to remind everyone he was so good that he couldn't be ignored. From the beginning it was clearly a big deal, with collaborators speaking of its borderline mythical Hawaii recording sessions in reverent tones. The buildup was tantalizing, with its series of G.O.O.D. Friday releases (has New York Fashion Week ever seemed as important as the time it matched up with Kanye putting out a song about it?), the emergence of Kanye's Twitter, the Runaway short film, and the controversy surrounding the album artwork from artist George Condo.
The result was a blockbuster album that involved countless collaborators and still retained a laser sharp focus. It angrily shoves race, sex, money, heartbreak, and resentment into one jumbled product, showing more of Kanye's edges than ever. Yet it was also his most polished and consistent release. He managed to coax the best out of each of his guests (who saw that Fergie verse coming?!), making the album as much an expert work of curation as the product of a single person's thoughts.
There are dazzling, straightforward rap tracks like "Gorgeous," "Devil in a New Dress" and "Monster." There's the grandiose pop genius of "All of the Lights," which combined the talents of some of the world's most famous pop singers into an unrecognizable blend.
But the album's greatest success is in the way it ultimately channels its greatest frustration inward, showing Kanye at his most vulnerable and fragile. "Runaway" and "Blame Game" perfectly accomplish what 808s and Heartbreak set out to do, pushing Kanye to his ugliest extremes. Those songs find Kanye melting down, their fragile piano notes and angry bravado betraying an underlying self-loathing and fear.
It's bravely delivered and fully accomplished work—true, honest, exactingly assembled art that doesn't flinch at the idea of a negative self-portrayal, giving it the heft it needs to overcome negative perceptions of Kanye. By making himself his own worst enemy, Kanye gave himself the redemption story he needed, and the result was a perfect album. — Kyle Kramer