Celebrating 10 years of MBDTF, and the dark, twisted celebrity of Kanye West
It’s been ten years since Kanye West released a record so indisputable, it saved him from pop culture villainy and reinstated him as music’s most controversial star.
It’s been ten years since Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
I’m not going to say that it feels like yesterday, but still, ten years? I guess time really does fly when you’re listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Over this last decade, the world has changed in almost every way. I mean, think about it – back then, Avatar was the highest-grossing film, Julia Gillard had ascended to the nation’s highest office, swine flu was the scariest virus out, and for the most part, Kanye West was pop culture’s public enemy number one.
Fantasy was the effort that helped West return from his self-imposed exile, but beyond mere repatriation, the record pushed him into another phase of his artistic career. It’s often pointed to as the delineation between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Kanye, a distinction West himself acknowledges, but the nature of the division is subtler than sound or style. The change in Fantasy comes in West’s relationship with himself, and the recognition of his nigh-ubiquitous position in the cultural dialogue. In fully embracing the fuel of his own fame, West centred his celebrity in a way that would change the very nature of his work.
That change was less transformation and more evolution, the seeds of such an insular perspective quietly growing over the five years prior. In a sense, Fantasy fused the arena-based spectacle of Graduation with the deeply personal confessions of 808s & Heartbreaks, pitting West’s celebrity egotism up against that punishing introspection. If 808s was transparency on Ye’s own terms, Fantasy found his hand forced by an indignant public, one truly incensed by his high-flying arrogance.
It makes sense that the story of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would begin at the nexus of celebrity and artistry, and looking back, it’s amazing how well MTV’s Video Music Awards straddle that same line.
The strangest thing about the VMAs is just how little they actually matter. Cast your mind back to the days of yore, when Madonna kissed Britney and Christina on stage, Lady Gaga wore a dress of literal meat, and Miley Cyrus twerked on a Beetlejuice-styled Robin Thicke. These potent moments of pop culture capital are a few of the VMA’s most iconic, but they make for a mixed bag, courting controversy and inspiring acclaim in equal – and sometimes simultaneous – measure. If those episodes are anything, they’re memorable, the kind of flashpoints that fuel our modern cultural dialogue. That’s more than you can say about the awards themselves.
No cheating: who won Video of the Year in 2010, when Gaga rocked her bloody dress? Who won in 2013, when the television audience shot off 306,100 Miley-related tweets per minute? Who won on the night of Madonna’s three-way PDA? If you let out an audible “who cares?” right now, that’s exactly the point – not the viewers, not the media, and certainly not MTV. That’s hardly surprising, seeing as MTV is famed for trading their musical mission for celebrity worship. Why would their VMAs be exempt from that unfortunate pivot?
There are exceptions to every rule. In 2009, when Kanye West stepped on stage to snatch Taylor Swift’s microphone, he might’ve momentarily turned the audience’s gaze to the statuette itself. "Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you,” said West, his tone so distinctive the very quote conjures it. “I'mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!" That this became one of the most identifiable moments of 21st-century pop culture has little to do with the quality of the take – the Single Ladies video is as definitive as the interruption itself – and everything to do with the outright cruelty of the act.
The 32-year-old superstar raining on the 19-year-old’s biggest triumph has been enshrined as a titanic moment of arrogance, the sheer insensitivity of which turned West from a wild card prodigy to a true pop culture villain. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can rightfully be seen as a culmination of West’s decade-long ascension, but if any single moment precipitated the record, it was that one.
A booing crowd was just the beginning. As West returned to his seat, a furious Pink chewed him out, and he was soon ejected from the venue by MTV themselves. The public’s response was so fierce that some point to it as a foundational moment for Twitter, then just three years old, and a haphazard apology briefly posted to West’s site hit the flames like oil. Donald Trump called for a boycott of Kanye, accusing him of “grandstanding to get attention.” Obama called him “a jackass,” which might not be as shocking now, but was pretty wild in an era that still prized presidential decorum. West fled the country, heading to Europe before relocating to Hawaii, where he set up a peerless ‘rap camp’ and worked tirelessly on his upcoming album.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy might be just a decade old, but it exists in a tier that few records occupy. There’s almost nothing new that can be said of it, owing to just how dissected it’s been over the last ten years. Popular music podcast Dissect spent their nine-and-a-half hour second season discussing the record, and a curious amount of hip-hop Twitter is simply fans ranking and re-ranking tracks from the album. That’s a futility well in keeping with the album.
There’s a harmony to how Fantasy fused the worlds of celebrity and artistry, taking the world’s most prominent A-lister controversy and turning it into an all-encompassing moment of creative fulfilment. That these two worlds collided so completely is more than just some timely coincidence, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy rooted in the fallout of that moment, one West understood with crippling clarity.
In the hands of another artist, that awareness might breed penance and apologism, but even as West confronts himself on wax, he does so with an unassailable gall. The arrangements are irresistibly aggrandizing; the guests imbued with a contagious audacity; and West’s deliveries more confident than ever. The counterpoint comes in the frantic lyrics that careen from performative confidence to earnest despair, sometimes flipping over the course of a single bar.
The abbreviated video for Power might just be Kanye’s egotism at its most artful, casting him as an embattled king – complete with the dangling Sword of Damocles – surrounded by supermodel harpies in an opulent Renaissance fresco. West’s lyrics both play into and recede from the set dressing, images of superhero entrances pressing up against suggestions that SNL kiss his ass. In the bars that follow that iconic quip, West loosely alludes to his self-imposed Hawaiian exile, feeding into and expounding upon his place in the popular dialogue:
“I embody every characteristic of the egotistic
He knows he's so fuckin' gifted
I just needed time alone with my own thoughts
Got treasures in my mind, but couldn't open up my own vault…”
This popular dialogue is more than just a contextual clue throughout Fantasy – it’s a steely point of reference, one by which West orients his repentance, rebuttals and various veiled replies. On Gorgeous, Ye extends a hand to seize fickle fame, interweaving images of mass incarceration and systematic racism with audacious self-comparisons to outspoken leaders and cultural pioneers. He closes his verse on an Ali parallel, but not before channelling Malcolm X:
"This is more than just my road to redemption
Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention..."
As defiant as these moments sound, there’s an implicit acknowledgement in the “road to redemption” itself, one that finds West in the shadow of the gaffe heard around the world. On Power, the duelling threads of condemnation and confidence come to a head with Obama’s round criticism of the hip-hop titan:
“Lost in translation with a whole fuckin' 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, goddamnit, I'm killing this shit
I know damn well y'all feeling this shit
I don't need your pussy, bitch, I'm on my own dick
I ain't gotta power trip, who you goin' home with?”
West aligns that voracious self-confidence with drink driving, the reckless and irresponsible act of a self-centred egotist. It’s a consequence that West can acknowledge if only through the song itself, with the record’s loose narrative tracking through the resplendent highs of power and the crushing lows that lie beyond the artifice. It’s no clearer than on Runaway, a withering self-assessment that suggests for all the lucidity at play, the patterns of behaviour are nigh unbreakable.
Rick James’ “look at ya!” vocal aggressively pans from left to right, the disorienting chorus of accusatory slights setting the stage for a voyeuristic reckoning. Kanye admits to dodging blame, vividly sketches his vices and considers the damage he’s done to his relationships, but the most intimate admission comes in that titular lyric: “baby I got a plan / Run away as fast as you can.” The song traces a general thread, but when West invokes the “picture of his dick,” he’s pulling from a real 2010 controversy.
The relationships on the record are also thrust into the public domain, as West’s high-profile breakup with Amber Rose seized the imagination of listeners and critics. A lack of detail seems like a deliberate ploy, leveraging the interest of gossip columnists and social speculators with a shoe that fits any and every ex. His vague lover gone, West falls into Blame Game, where we find him at his lowest, confronting his own culpability in the breakdown of his relationship.
The Runaway admission – “I don't know how I'ma manage / If one day, you just up and leave” – resolves on that desperate track, with West’s frantic attempts to reconcile with his partner culminating in Chris Rock’s incredible tragicomic bit, an intimate moment caught on an accidental phone call. It might seem at odds with a track such as Monster, which prides itself on notoriety – “everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster” – but there’s a subtlety to how it feeds into West’s greater reputation.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy marks the moment at which West’s media narrative became an inalienable element of his art, feeding into his creative process even as that process itself stoked commentaries and exposés. Graduation had hinted at shades of navel-gazing celebrity tales – Flashing Lights is a harsh condemnation of the paparazzi; Big Brother the outline for West’s auto-biopic – and 808s had shown him at his most emotionally transparent, bearing his soul over deeply personal trials, but Fantasy eclipsed them both. It’s a tale of two Kanyes: the one we all know, and the one even he struggles to understand.
The power that brings out West’s greatest work is the same that underscores his worst impulses, and though Fantasy looked to articulate that conflict, it didn’t close the book on it. He waltzed back into the good graces of celebrity culture, reconciling with a public that had cast him away, and those same conflicts raged on. They would fuel records such as Yeezus, The Life of Pablo and Watch The Throne, each mired in the experience of being Kanye West, infamous braggart and self-ordained pop culture antihero.
The idea that we should take Kanye West as a handful of delineated roles – first as an artist, then as a visionary, then as a political activist, and so on – hasn’t reflected in his work for some time. His recent art plays on our cultural understanding of West just as it does his actual self, tapping into news stories and overarching media narratives with provocative effect.
That’s not to say that these records are devoid of substance – Yeezus, Pablo and Ye all hold moments of seething criticism – but many of these are framed through West’s singular lens. If tracks like Crack Music, Heard ‘Em Say and Jesus Walks play independent of West’s stature, and cuts such as I Wonder and Homecoming use celebrity allusions to colour personal tales, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy operates on the very assumption of exposure. West’s reputation is the key to unlocking the record, and even as the trials within break from the shadows of that one controversy, they remain tethered to the infamy it provoked.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy marked the moment that West fully committed to the role of celebrity antihero, and even as the cowl grows more divisive and controversial, it seems Kanye may never give it up again.