Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Jeff Bhasker, Bink, DJ Frank E, Emile, Jay Z, Kyambo Joshua, L.A. Reid, Lex Luger, Mike Caren, Mike Dean, No I.D., Gee Roberson, RZA, S1
Features: Kid Cudi, Raekwon, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, Swizz Beatz, Jay Z, Pusha T, Prynce Cy Hi, RZA, John Legend, Big Sean, Beyonce, Charlie Wilson
When Kanye West delivered Graduation, it felt as though we were witnessing an artist at his zenith. His musicianship was polished, his rapping vastly improved, his vision clear and (relatively) concise, his aesthetic dialed and sharp. But the reality is, Graduation was his Rubber Soul. And as all true Beatles fans know, that album is simply where things started to get interesting; that’s where things started to get weird.
The turmoil and pain that Kanye would endure in the following year, with the death of his mother and the end of an engagement, would fuel 18 months of touring and the production of 808s & Heartbreak, an album of singing that alienated his rap base, but still scored massive radio hits like “Heartless,” and a tumultuous relationship with Amber Rose.
However, neither the masochistic schedule nor the gut wrenching album nor charged romance salved his wounds. And his unwinding came to its head in a drunken, if totally awesome, interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Awards. Perhaps by accident, or perhaps as an unconscious machination, Kanye had created a situation where for the first time he was embattled by both the mainstream, livid over Swift-gate, and his core hip-hop fans who felt abandoned by 808s Auto-Tuned stylings. And so he absconded.
Holed up in a Hawaii recording studio—surrounded by the hip-hop legends who had inspired him, like RZA, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and his most compelling contemporaries, like Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and even Jay Z—Kanye poured himself, with complete abandon, into the music. His aim: An undeniable piece of art, so compelling it would eclipse all his perceived missteps and reassert his prominence in, his absolute necessity to, the culture. And he was successful. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy articulates his gnarled narrative, lining up and addressing all his detractors and distractors in short form. The album’s overtly triumphant lead single “Power” lets it be known in no uncertain terms that his is a talent that must be dealt with, a talent we must cherish and be grateful for. He delves deeper into his feelings of abandonment and alienation from America on “Gorgeous” and “Lost in the World" (and its outro) reflecting further, and less specifically, on the social climate that cast him out, before careening back to the self; to his personal life. Songs like “Runaway” and “Blame Game” walk thin lines between the raw and the refined, the candid and the grotesque, humanizing Kanye’s most inhumane impulses as he works out his love with Rose.
By the album’s conclusion it’s quite clear that while Graduation was certainly an exquisitely-cut jewel—so precious in its tidy perfection—it only scratched the surface of what Kanye West can create. Off-kilter and uncomfortable, and created under a unique duress, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a messy masterpiece, far more interesting and involved than anything Kanye had done prior. And it set the tone for everything that would follow. —Noah Callahan-Bever