November 2010. This was the moment in time the world bore witness to Kanye West’s fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF). An album that has been dubbed by some music aficionados as West’s magnum opus. Although, before we dissect MBDTF, let us reflect on Kanye as the producer, musician and human being he was at the time and why he felt isolation was his best means of recording this life-changing work.
Prior to MBDTF’s production, West was amid a two-year hiatus from music. During this time, he was not only grieving the loss of his mother, Donda West (a pivotal figure in his musical endeavours), but also the end of his 18-month engagement with designer, Alexis Phifer. Although, it was public scrutiny over his outburst during the 2009 VMA’s that truly set the scene for the events proceeding. West’s profile began to tarnish… fast. His disapproval of musician, Taylor Swift, being awarded Best Female Video at the 2009 VMA’s instead of Beyonce, painted him as a ‘jackass’ by many, including the then President, Barack Obama.
The hostility and lack of remediation from West led to his public profile being furtherly tainted as the world began to see him, not as a musician, but someone who was self-absorbed and unempathetic.
In an article written by Complex’s Noah Callahan-Bever, West admitted in an email that the mass criticism had exhausted him and diminished his sense of self, forcing him to retreat to Hawaii in a self-imposed exile.
It was here, in his new isolated reality, that West birthed MBDTF and his road to redemption began. Stating in a Q&A with The New York Times, this was West’s ‘backhanded apology’.
It was here, in his new isolated reality, that West birthed MBDTF and his road to redemption began.
Further reports from Callahan-Bever said of West, in his Hawaiian studios, that the producer was so focused on his album that he only ever took power naps and never properly slept. Callahan-Bever also mentioned that West would book three studios for 24 hours a day, bouncing between each of them, whilst making sure that all artists working on his project were wholly committed. Studio room posters would read: ‘TOTAL FOCUS ON THIS PROJECT’ and ‘DON’T TELL ANYONE ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING WE ARE DOING’.
One common theme in West’s producer work that carried over to MBDTF was his use of samples. In his earlier work, West tended to opt for more RnB and soul songs including Chaka Khan’s Through the Fire on his 2004 track, Through the Wire. However, in MBDTF, West’s genre of samples changes as we hear in tracks such as Gorgeous and Blame Game. Gorgeous samples the Enoch Light and the Glittering Guitars cover of the 1968 rock track, You Showed Me by The Turtles, whilst Blame Game seamlessly samples Aphex Twins’ Avril 14th, a modern classical song, to expand the sound of hip-hop.
This leads us to look at the 9th track on the album, Runaway. It is here that West openly accepts his narcissistic behaviour and reveals to us his insecurities. Runaway samples the 1992 song, The Basement by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, using their drums with the voices of Rick James and James Brown from their tracks Mary Jane and Funky Presidents, respectively. The combination of these songs included in Runaway alongside the track’s jarring piano chords (which are the only sounds heard for the first 37 seconds) represent West’s isolation and remorse for his actions. This isolation is reinforced by the voices of James Brown and Rick James repeating the phrase ‘look at cha’ over The Basement’s steady drum lines. The distortion of James and Brown’s voices adds to West’s alienated state, with Brown’s voice stating, ‘ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together’ and West’s verse beginning thereafter, that the musician’s only resolution to regain redemption was to confess. In his first verse we hear West accept this as he understands that those closest to him ‘had been puttin’ up with [his] shit just way too long.’ We then see him use irony to acknowledge his ‘jackass’ behaviour as he states in the song’s chorus to ‘have a toast for the douchebags’. It is in West’s second verse that his fragility is exposed as he admits that he does not know how he would manage without his loved ones and his fans ‘if one day [they] just up and leave’.
Another thing to point out about this track is that whilst it being the 9th track on the album the song is also 9 minutes long, making it the longest track on the album. From a biblical sense and understanding West’s devout Christian faith, Jesus died on the 9th hour and appeared 9 times to his apostles after his resurrection. The song’s length and track listing could also be interpreted as the death of West’s ego and an awakening of a new West that is less self-absorbed and more understanding.
West’s alienation is emphasised further in MBDTF’s 11th track, Lost in the World. In true Kanye fashion, the song samples 4 tracks, most notably, Bon Iver’s Woods. The confronting vocals from Bon Iver front man, Justin Vernon convey his mangled state. The original song Woods was written at a time when Vernon’s band had just split which led him to move into a cabin alone in the woods to digest this loss. Similarly, we can see parallels in West’s retreat to Hawaii to deal with his loss of identity. However, West manipulates Vernon’s lyrics to fit his own narrative. Instead of being ‘lost in the woods’, he is ‘lost in the world’. And this detachment from society is only further reinforced by a sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s voice repeating ‘who will survive in America?’.
Maybe, we could learn a thing or two from West in our time of isolation and self-reflection.
Overall, MBDTF showcases the evolution of West’s sound in comparison to his album prior by incorporating different genres, textures and artists. This album not only exposed him to a wider listenership, but it allowed him to redeem himself in a sense as he was able to confront and accept his obnoxious and narcissistic behaviour through tracks including Runaway and Lost in the World.
To end, regardless if you love or hate the man, there is no denying that his wordplay and production in MBDTF, above all, is definitely commendable, and, maybe, we could learn a thing or two from West in our time of isolation and self-reflection.
Written by Malvika Heman
Art by Nina Canala