While on the press run for his sixth album, Yeezus, Kanye West, in conversation with director Steve McQueen, said the album was “the beginning of me as a new kind of artist. Stepping forward with what I know about architecture, about classicism, about society, about texture, about synesthesia—the ability to see sound—and the way everything is everything and all these things combine, and then starting from scratch.” He wanted to abandon most of what had made him a household name over the past nine years. Gone were the ornate orchestrations, cleanly chopped soul loops, and beautiful textures. In their place were uncomfortable sounds abutting one another to create something wholly original. It felt like a new chapter in Kanye’s career, one that wouldn’t include albums like his opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
With that, it may be permissible to divide Kanye West’s musical career into two epochs: pre-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The first saw an expert postmodernist who, as he told McQueen, leaned “on something that people are familiar with and comfortable with to get their attention.” Aside from his impact on the worlds of fashion and sneakers, he bridged gaps, created new lanes, and sought to expand the purview of what a rap record could be. It took all of six years and five solo projects to get to that point and to perfectly hone the craft. Without the earnest gospel and soul of College Dropout or the ostentation of Late Registration or the pop maximalism of Graduation, you don’t get My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It felt like the album Kanye was waiting his entire career to make. It was also the album that would act as a high water mark for the decade to come.
“Can we get much higher?” It’s one of the first phrases you hear on the project. A stunt if there ever was one, with Kanye basically asking, “Can anything fuck with this?” The answer, we’d find out later, was a resounding, “Nah, B.” MBDTF was famously made out of a symphony of pain, confusion, and heartache. And it came out all throughout the album. Still reeling from the sudden loss of his mother and the dissolution of an engagement, Kanye was a little out of control. The apogee of that wildness came as he descended on the 2009 MTV VMAs red carpet with a bottle of Henny in hand and his new girlfriend in tow. The night became infamous when Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift as she accepted her award for Video of the Year. He left the show public enemy No. 1. It was the talk of nearly every news show. Even President Obama opined that he was a jackass. It seemed as though everyone was against him. So he did what he always does when his back is to the wall. He retreated into the music.
Kanye returned to Hawaii, a locale he found comfort in after the death of his mother, to record the project. Over the course of a year, he would fly in a who’s who of rap royalty. Everyone from JAY-Z, Raekwon, and Pusha-T to RZA, Nicki Minaj, and Q-Tip would find their way to the studio to help Ye with his secret project. From the outside, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen. Sure, rappers have long littered their albums with guest features and beats from the hottest producers in the game, but this was different. This wasn’t just Kanye tapping people to make the project hot—this was Kanye leaning on giants to help make a towering piece of work. And that was the goal. As Noah Callahan-Bever wrote, Ye’s true aim was to create “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 did just that. MBDTF is a testament to talent. A testament to talent reigning supreme above all. Despite what we thought about Kanye, the album seemed to portend, we couldn’t dare think he didn’t know how to make music. From the kinetic lead single “Power” to the psychedelic “All of the Lights” to the satin-soft “Devil in a New Dress” to the acerbic self-reflection of “Runaway,” MBDTF put Kanye’s full powers on display. More importantly, he used the album to clearly address the concerns and complaints everyone lobbed his way. He discussed losing his relationships, losing his mother, losing his friends, losing his fans. Never had we seen Kanye so open.
From the kinetic “Power” to the psychedelic “All of the Lights” to the satin-soft “Devil in a New Dress” to the self-reflection of “Runaway,” ‘MBDTF’ put Kanye’s full powers on display.
During the lead-up to the album, Kanye decided to leak a new track every week under the banner of G.O.O.D. Fridays. Some songs were throwaways—sketches that were never going to be finished for an album—while others were songs we’d later hear on the full-length. It made for appointment listening. It also changed the way musicians thought about traditional album rollouts. Remember Timbaland Tuesdays? Yeah, didn’t think so. But it happened. And it happened because of Kanye.
And, oddly, one thing that didn’t change that much was Kanye. The Ye on display on MBDTF is still here. It may seem as if the guy running around with a choir pantomiming gospel songs is a wholly different person, but if you listen to the lyrics, you’ll see that, nope—this is who he’s always been. Just listen to the third verse on “Power”:
Lost in translation with a whole fucking nation
They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation
Well, that's a pretty bad way to start the conversation
At the end of the day, god damn it, I’m killing this shit
I know damn well y’all feeling this shit
Remove the context (and the cursing) and that sounds like something that could have been on Jesus Is King. It highlights a man lost in a world he thought he understood, happy to be the center of the conversation no matter the topic, and in complete belief of his artistic ability. Sounds like 2019 Kanye to me.
Many cite 808s & Heartbreak as the album that influenced a generation, and that may be the case, but MBDTF is the album that influenced the musical output of the guy who wound up being the most important creative of the 2010s. It forced him, and literally every musician, to think about how to deconstruct their art in order to build something greater. Not to mention, it helped put artists like Nicki Minaj on the map and reinvigorated Pusha-T’s solo career—two rappers who had a pretty big impact on the past 10 years. Would the Dreamville rap camp have happened without the Hawaii sessions? Tough to say. But what’s not tough to say is rap would be very, very different without this album. Guess we couldn’t get that much higher, after all.
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