A Milk Crate Full Of Records: Kanye West – “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010)

It was probably one of the most anticipated releases of 2010 and it turned out to be one of the best releases for the year. The often controversial Kanye West had returned to the spotlight he had craved and felt he deserved since first emerging onto the music landscape.

The album was never meant happen. He was done. Kanye West disappeared from the public eye after his much publicized and criticised outburst during the 2009 VMA’s where he stormed the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to proclaim Beyonce deserved the award more. He placed an self imposed exile on himself and retreated to Hawaii to do some soul searching. The result was the catalyst and backdrop for a new record.

Originally titled “Good Ass Job” the title was changed to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” a month prior to release. West’s record label fronted the artist the money to record the album. It ended up costing them $3 million over the 12 months of the recording process. The gamble paid off with current sales of the album at 1.2 million in the States alone. And Kanye certainly didn’t sit around looking pretty. He spent those twelve months working and working hard.

Breakfast time in the studio

“I was supposed to be there for three days. I ended up staying a month.” – Pusha T

West reportedly “worked through the night and napped in the studio, and recording engineers were present behind the mixing board 24 hours a day”. West, apparently hired out three studios with no end date booked. If he got stuck on one track, he’d simply move into the next studio and start another until he could return to finish the previous track. He repeatedly asked for everyone’s opinion in the room at the time. Weighing up the input before ultimately deciding where a song was heading. Surprising, the man known for being egotistical, was quite humble in the way he created this record. Sometimes for artists who make a personal record, and for my mind, this is a personal record for Kanye, they don’t appreciate or accept input and just go head first into to creating their album. What West managed to do was make it personal but taking away the complete hedonism out of it by seeking the advice of the support staff around. And the artists he invited in were just that, support staff. When look at the list of credits there are some twenty on musical collaborators and almost twice as many producers and engineers. Artists such as Raekwon, RZA, Pusha T, Rick Ross, Charlie Wilson, Big Sean, CyHi Da Prynce, Swizz Beatz, Dwele, Nicki Minaj, T.I., Drake, Common, Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne, John Legend, Fergie, Rihanna, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Elton John, M.I.A., Justin Vernon, Seal, Beyoncé Knowles, Kid Cudi, Mos Def, Santigold, Alicia Keys, Elly Jackson, and Tony Williams all help out in either writing or performing or just to bounce his ideas off.

[H]e’ll go, ‘Check this out, tell me what you think.’ Which speaks volumes about who he is and how he sees and views people. Every person has a voice and an idea, so he’s sincerely looking to hear what you have to say—good, bad, or whatever. […] when he has his beats or his rhymes, he offers them to the committee and we’re all invited to dissect, strip, or add on to what he’s already started. By the end of the sessions, you see how he integrates and transforms everyone’s contributions, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a real wizard at it. What he does is alchemy, really. —Q-Tip

West was determined to make a record that would be better than his previous efforts. Up in the walls of the studio were “The Rules”, some were strictly to be adhered to (Laptops Must Be On Mute) while others were clearly set as a gag.(Just Shut Fuck Up Sometimes) But the one thing West could never keep away from was controversy. The record cover came under a lot of criticism. The portrait by artist George Condo was one of nine he created for West. West chose the one of a black nude made (him) being straddled by a naked white female with wings and no arms because he wanted the cover to be banned.

The cover art

The album once dropped, was lauded as masterpiece by music critics who compared the record as a “Greek Tragedy”. Described it as  “egocentric, contrite, wise, stupid and self-mocking”  and  “the exhausted cry of one who’s always new in town, chasing whatever goal or girl is in the room, fueled by consumer culture’s relentless buzz, but finally left unsatisfied” Reviews were glowing and the album made many end of year best of lists. The exiled king had return triumphantly.

Lyrically, West takes a good hard look at himself, flaws and all and bears them on display, quite unashamedly in a quest to find his place in a world that he feels he is to big to endure. He reflects on fame and celebrity, touches on pop culture references such as Michael Jackson’s death, King Of Leon’s “Sex On Fire”, he talks about relationship breakdown in tracks like “All Of the Lights” and “Runaway” and the often blurred lines of reality and fantasy, whether it be sex, love, drugs, fame or religion and race.

“Power” is the anthem West needed to write and needed to unleash as the first single to return to the lofty successes of previous albums. The song basically is him describing the torment he went through mentally and emotionally from the fall out of the VMA incident and how it has made him a stronger man. This is probably one of the first times (but not the only time on this record) where you get a glimpse at the human, behind the persona, behind the celebrity.  “Blame Game” does the same thing. It shows an insight into the man. Here, West outlays a broken heart, possibly stemmed from his break up to long time partner and finance Alexis Phifer. Here he blames himself, then blames her, then himself again in a to and fro many people could relate to when a relationship breakdown. But before you start to feel sad for Yeezy, he ends the track with an overheard telephone conversation between the girl in the song and her new lover and her new lover has to thank Yeezy for showing this girl how to fuck. (How did your pussy game come up so much/I was fucking parts of your pussy I ain’t ever fucked before!/’Yeezy taught me’… ) It’s hilarious and suits the Kanye West we all know.

The rules in the studio

But it’s the second single “Runaway” which is the stand out track on this record. Clocking in at over nine minutes and accompanied by a 35 minute promotional video/movie written by West, the track encaptures everything that is Kanye West the musician and artist and taps into the persona of the man we know. Opening with a bleak and simple piano refrain before backed by a hip hop beat, samples and Kayne’s story retelling, the song stands alongside “Gold Digger” as catchy, pertinent and the most melodic of all the tracks on the album. He toasts all the scum bags and arseholes in the world, including himself and manages to make you feel empathic to his persona. It’s clever, manipulative and a masterpiece.

It easy to write off the man. Hell, I always thought Kanye was a douche, but this album is probably one of better commercial hip hop albums released this decade and will serve be a classic in the annals of time.

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