Editor’s Note: Yeezus, it’s been forever since my last post. I’m not even going to try to touch what’s been going on with Kanye in the last few months, aside from the tiny bit of summing-up I do in the following paragraphs. Instead, let’s just dive in. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, though, here’s where you can catch up on the series so far: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. And here are the posts made since this one: 10 11 12 13. – Z.H.
Tomorrow, Kanye West will release his first new album since 2013’s Yeezus. He’s been teasing this record since late 2014; releasing a trickle of singles (if only to drop them from the final track list), and announcing a seemingly endless array of working titles: from So Help Me God to SWISH to WAVES to, as of just this week, T.L.O.P., an acronym for something he’s keeping “secret” until release day. I’m excited for this album. I’ve been following its progress from the beginning; it’s the reason why I decided to invest what is rapidly becoming a full year’s worth of my writing to chronicle the ins and outs of Kanye’s catalogue to date. And yet, in the month immediately preceding the release of
So Help Me God SWISH WAVES T.L.O.P., a curious thing happened: people, myself included, started looking backward when you’d expect them to be looking forward–all the way back to Kanye’s 2010 album (and, for many, his masterpiece), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
This was no coincidence. At the beginning of the year, along with the announcement of a release date for the album then known as SWISH, we received word (from the admittedly very 2016 source of Kim Kardashian West’s Twitter account) of the return of Kanye’s legendary promotional runup to Dark Twisted Fantasy, the “G.O.O.D. Fridays” campaign of free weekly online music drops. As it turned out, the rebranded “#EveryFriday” series suffered from distinctly diminished returns, offering only two new tracks before petering out, presumably to give Ye more time to work on his actual album (/get in Twitter fights with Wiz Khalifa). But the second and best of those tracks, the Kendrick Lamar collaboration “No More Parties in L.A.,” called back to Kanye’s 2010 in yet another way: it used a Madlib beat dating back to–you guessed it–the sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Does all this mean that T.L.O.P. will be another M.B.D.T.F.? Probably not–though it apparently has almost as many words in its title, so that’s something. And it makes the idea of revisiting that album on the eve of Kanye’s next musical statement seem that much more relevant.
As we said last time, Kanye went unusually–if understandably–quiet after his disastrous appearance on the VMAs. But he wasn’t completely out of the public eye: at the very least, the beats and features he’d already recorded for other artists kept him on the radar during his self-imposed hiatus. The first of these, released just two days after the fateful broadcast, was “Sky Might Fall” for his protégé Kid Cudi’s debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day. An arctic glacier of a synthpop track, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if “Sky” had started life as an outtake from 808s & Heartbreak. Whatever the specifics, though, Ye’s frigid arrangement and Cudi’s anxious, paranoid lyrics were undoubtedly a better fit for the producer’s mood in the closing months of 2009 than their previous collaboration, the bouncy, lascivious summer jam “Make Her Say.”
Somewhat less appropriately timed was “History”: a Jay-Z track intended for The Blueprint 3, but ultimately destined for the More Than a Game soundtrack. With its processional synth-strings, triumphal vocals by guest Tony Williams, and Jay’s incessant requests for the audience to put up their “light-ahs,” it’s an almost painfully ceremonious song: I can guarantee that at least one graduating class petitioned to walk across the auditorium to this one the following spring. But as pompous as it sounds already, it becomes even more incongruously so when one considers that its co-producer was by the time of its release living out a public-relations hell as the most hated man in America. Kanye’s inexhaustible bravado may have worked for him before, but on “History” it just came across as hollow.
Perhaps a more suitable role for Kanye in the fall of 2009 was the one he played in the lyrics and music video for Mr Hudson’s “Anyone But Him”: an odious asshole. Sort of a PG-13 version of “The Girl is Mine,” “Anyone” finds Hudson and Kanye squaring off over the affections of a woman, with Hudson playing the “good guy” foil to Yeezy’s well-worn image of the high-flying hustler. For our purposes, we’ll leave aside the queasy racial politics of pitting the clean-cut, whiter-than-white Hudson against Kanye’s swag-rap caricature of Black hypermasculinity; we’ll also respectfully understate the fact that Hudson comes across less as a nice guy here than as a “Nice Guy,” alternating between pleas to look past his rival’s “leather, dash, and rims” and lurid, spiteful sexual fantasies (he’d rather “you have the whole football team / Than have to watch his filthy lips on your skin”).
Instead, let’s focus on Kanye’s role in the song as a knowing play on his long-established “douchebag” image, telling Hudson to his face what he’s going to do with his girl: “I see your girl want me, I’m filling up her glass / Feeling on her ass, feeling so upper class / And your boy so fresh, I might even flash cash / So at the end of the night, you ain’t even gotta ask.” It’s the same kind of tongue-in-cheek boast verse Kanye had been writing since at least 2003; but coming out in the context it did, with the music-listening public all too ready to accept Kanye’s self-characterization as an arrogant prick at face value, it may have worked a little too well.
On his last recorded appearance of 2009, however, Kanye wasn’t even interesting enough to offend. “Whatever U Want,” a feature with G.O.O.D. Music labelmates John Legend and Consequence, was probably the weakest song to be associated with the imprint to date; it effectively goes in one ear and out the other, somehow managing to rip off both T.I.’s 2008 hit “Whatever You Like” and Ye’s own “Grammy Family” beat along the way. Fortunately, Kanye’s first release of 2010 was a lot more interesting–and, though the producer himself didn’t appear on the track, oddly more personal. “Fuck the Money” by rising-star feature rapper/recently self-outed Flat Earth conspiracy theorist B.o.B. is actually just a rehashed version of Kanye’s unreleased 2005 beat for “Crazy” by Clipse, based around a simple piano line and pitch-shifted vocal sample from Joni Mitchell’s “River.” But where the original version was perky and pop-friendly, with a hook written by Static Major and sung by studio singer Taura “Aura” Jackson, its 2010 incarnation was positively world-weary. Mitchell’s mournfully sung promise to “make a lot of money / And… quit this crazy scene” never sounded as apropos as it did coming from a producer who appeared to be living out her words in real time.
But appearances can be deceiving. In reality, Kanye’s radio silence was only an exile in part; he had taken a few months off after “Swiftgate,” but he was recording again by the beginning of 2010, holed up in Honolulu’s Avex Recording Studio–the same place where he’d recorded 808s & Heartbreak–with the usual suspects, including Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean, Kid Cudi, Plain Pat, and No I.D. The sessions were kept tightly under wraps: Kanye posted a series of 8 1/2″ by 11″ “commandments” on the studio wall that included “NO TWEETING,” “NO BLOGGING,” and “NO PHOTOS,” along with the more direct “JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP SOMETIMES.” But they were remarkably prolific, even by his standards; West had all three session rooms block-booked 24 hours a day, often crashing on the studio chairs and couches in 90-minute intervals as he worked through the night.
For those of us who weren’t privy to the Avex sessions, though, Kanye’s early 2010 output continued to offer us scraps. “Real as They Come” by 2 Chainz (then on the cusp of retiring his original “Tity Boi” moniker) and Lil Wayne is basically “Maybach Music 2.5”: driven by a spacy horn sample from the same Dexter Wansel track that powered Rick Ross’ 2009 hit (1978’s “Time is the Teacher”), with a similary Auto-Tune-drenched hook. It’s a solid song, but a little workmanlike, coming as it did from a man who was four months into recording a no-holds barred artistic tour de force at the time of its release.
Even West’s higher-profile productions during this period hinted more at where he’d been than where he was going. With its distorted drum-machine beat and simple, koanlike synth-R&B hook, “Find Your Love” by Drake betrays its status as an 808s leftover. “Show Me a Good Time,” released the following month on the Canadian actor-singer-rapper’s debut album Thank Me Later, comes closer to Kanye’s new sound, pairing a gritty, overdriven vocal sample with a typically elegaic Jeff Bhasker piano line; by the time of its release, however, it was already overshadowed by the first real product of the Avex sessions: a vicious comeback single called “POWER.”
One of the perks of going through Kanye’s body of work chronologically is that it throws his stylistic shifts, detours, and returns to form into much sharper relief. “POWER” would have been an excellent song in any context; but coming as it did after an almost year-long fallow period followed by an eight-month exile, it was a revelation. The song’s beat, crafted primarily by Strange Fruit Project founder Symbolyc One with input from West, Bhasker, Mike Dean, and others, sounds unlike anything else Kanye had released: opening with a tribal-sounding chant from “Afroamerica” by Afro-French disco group Continent Number 6, then lurching into the second verse with a heavily distorted sample from King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”– a song with which Kanye, perhaps understandably, seemed to identify.
But it’s Kanye’s own contributions to the song that truly impress. He claimed to have spent 5,000 hours tinkering with the song, breaking his usual habit of not writing any of his lyrics down; in his cover story on the making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Noah Callahan-Bever of Complex describes Yeezy “literally go[ing] around the room asking everyone there what ‘power’ means to them, throw[ing] out lines to see how they’re received, and work[ing] out his exact wording with whomever is around to help.” But the result, as Callahan-Bever notes, is hardly a case of songwriting-by-committee: “POWER” could scarcely have been written by anyone but Kanye West, veering audaciously from the usual G.O.A.T. grandstanding (“I’m living in that 21st century, doing something mean to it / Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it”) to social commentary (“The system broken, the school’s closed, the prison’s open / We ain’t got nothin’ to lose, motherfucker, we rollin’”) to pettiness, lashing out against “the whole cast” of Saturday Night Live for mocking him after the Taylor Swift incident (“I’m an asshole? You niggas got jokes”).
With its constant vacillations between self-aggrandizement and self-recrimination, the song feels like a deliberate throwback to 2007’s “Stronger”–only this time, the self-recriminating side is far more prominent. There’s a distinct undertone of resignation beneath the apparent defiance of lines like “Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music.” Even more telling is the way the line “I got the power to make your life so exciting” echoes in the mix until it sounds like he’s repeating the word “suicide”; the next thing we hear is Dwele crooning about the tantalizing possibility of a “beautiful death”: “I’m jumping out the window / I’m letting everything go.” Since the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye has frequently intimated that he contemplated suicide in the immediate aftermath of his public shaming after the VMAs, when he was still reeling from the 2007 death of his mother; “POWER” may sound at first blush like typical Kanye braggodocio, but it’s really the sound of a fragile ego building himself back up from rock bottom.
On a less poignant note, “POWER” also signalled a shift in Kanye’s relationship to the art world. Certainly, he’d always been conscious of the artistic context in which his work was presented: commissioning Murakami Takashi for Graduation’s cover art; unveiling 808s & Heartbreak with a listening party designed by performance artist Vanessa Beecroft; and of course, frequently posting inspirational works of art and design on his now sadly-defunct blog. With “POWER,” however, he began to make his influences from contemporary art a more integral part of his own work. The single’s cover art (see above), by neo-Surrealist painter George Condo, presents a striking visual interpretation of the song’s lyrical themes: Kanye as a crowned tyrant just after being beheaded, a sword buried in the side of his still-screaming face. Its music video, one of installation artist (and Demolition Man director!) Marco Brambilla’s trademark “moving paintings” (see, for example, his “Megaplex” trilogy of three-dimensional video collages), begins on a closeup of Kanye’s soon-to-be trademark scowl before slowly pulling away, revealing an ever-more-opulent tableau of occult-inspired imagery; about halfway through the video, it’s revealed that the Sword of Damocles is hanging over the rapper-god-king’s head (see Video 9 in the playlist above).
But for all his burgeoning high-art aspirations, Kanye was still a mainstream rapper at heart. Thus the next song to emerge from the sessions for Dark Twisted Fantasy (or, as it was still called at the time, Good Ass Job) was “Live Fast, Die Young” by that most mainstream of rappers, Rick Ross. According to the Complex piece, by late March it was still up in the air whether Kanye would keep “Live Fast” for himself or give it to Ross; for my money, his final decision to pass on the track was the right one. It’s not a bad song, by any means: Kanye’s verse skillfully and humorously rides the line between “on top of the world” and “out of control” that would become Dark Twisted Fantasy’s thematic center, describing what sounds an awful lot like himself unapologetically throwing a coked-up groupie out of his sports car before announcing that he’s “back by unpopular demand.” And the production is a perfect distillation of the ever-so-slightly art-damaged hip-hop beats that would define the album’s sound, mixing a snippet of Rick James stage banter (later to reemerge on Kanye’s own “Runaway”) with a chopped-up groove from the Bar-Kays’ “If This World Were Mine.” In the end, though, it just isn’t as strong as the tracks that did make the cut–which says more about the rest of the record than it does about “Live Fast.”
In fact, by mid-2010 the supply of quality music had apparently grown so plentiful that Kanye had to start leaking it himself. On August 10, he surprise-premiered a new song, “See Me Now,” on New York’s Hot 97, mere hours after Beyoncé had finished recording her vocal track. “I couldn’t be the only person this summer riding around with that,” he explained; and it really was too good to keep under wraps. With soaring vocals provided by both Mrs. Carter and ex-Gap Band frontman Charlie Wilson, plus a lush, gospel-inspired arrangement courtesy of West, Lex Luger, and No I.D., “See Me Now” was the sunniest-sounding track Kanye had released in years. Its lyrical content was similarly lighthearted, with a few choice quips (“I’m Socrates, but my skin more chocolatey”), a shout-out to “Free Weezy,” a sly Step Brothers quote (“First of all, we all know the beats is / Like a mix between Fergie and Jesus”), and a slyer reference to his much-memed VMAs rant (“I’mma let you finish, but I got Beyoncé on the track”). Even more so than “Live Fast, Die Young,” it makes sense that Kanye would leave “See Me Now” off the final record; it is at its heart one of his periodic College Dropout throwbacks, and would have sounded out of place on a project that represented another major step in his musical evolution. But as a surprise track to generate hype for the coming album, it proved that “POWER” was no fluke–and that, as far as he might stray from “that Yeezy we all love,” he could still always come home.
A week after the release of “See Me Now,” Kanye continued his comeback tour with a guest appearance on “Erase Me” by Kid Cudi: the lead single from his sophomore album, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager. Yeezy contributes a traditional rap verse to Cudi’s power-pop song about the perils of celebrities dating “normal” people, spinning a yarn about a fling with a girl named “Aria” that turns out to be nothing more than an elaborate setup for the eyeroll-worthy line, “I hope you die, Aria!”–pronounced as “I hope you diarrhea,” because god damn it, Kanye. Still, it’s all in good fun, and Kanye brings some solid swagger to the music video (Video 12 above), swaying drunkenly in an all-black variation on the gold-laden and crowned ensemble he’d later wear on Saturday Night Live that October.
Much better was his release from later that week: a remix of “POWER” featuring Jay-Z and co-producer Swizz Beatz, marking the beginning of Kanye’s hype-building series of free music releases, “G.O.O.D. Fridays.” It starts out unremarkable enough: just a straightforward rehash of the original song, with some added synthesizers and a verse in which Hova does what Yeezy seemed to have been pointedly avoiding and calls Taylor Swift out by name. But then Kanye goes all the way in on an epic series of verses, carrying on through a beat switch (to the tune of “The Power” by ’90s Eurodance outfit Snap!) and burning through flows as quickly as he can adopt them. It’s a remarkable, hyperactive, even virtuosic performance by an artist who tends to get short shrift for his abilities as a rapper; and, on a personal note, it contains one of my all-time favorite Yeezy couplets in, “keep my bulletproof hater coat on / Looking at some photos that I’m looking crazy dope on.” As Swizz puts it at the end of the song–an interruption, it’s worth noting, of the music industry’s most notorious interrupter–“chill, Ye, chill, shit’s burnt up already.”
Next up was a significantly weirder remix: Kanye added a few rap verses and ad-libs to the international club hit “Alors on danse” by Belgian house musician Stromae, presumably just because he could. It’s far from earth-shattering stuff–basically just the 2010 Eurotrash version of Ye’s earlier work with the Teriyaki Boyz–but it’s hard to begrudge the man for taking part in such an idiosyncratic detour. The same, to an even greater degree, could be said for his remix of “Runaway Love” by teen-pop heartthrob Justin Bieber (!), released on the G.O.O.D. Fridays website (though actually posted on a Monday) at the end of the month. In what could only have been a metatextual joke, Kanye begins the mix with a verse by Raekwon, set to the RZA’s classic beat for “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit,” before dropping in Bieber’s crystal-clear, barely post-pubescent vocals for the hook. Then he steps in with a verse of his own, beginning with the solid gold line, “Last name West and my teeth diamonds”–a reference to his recent replacement of his entire bottom row of teeth with a diamond-encrusted mouthpiece. The whole thing is kind of a mess, but for me at least, it works out of sheer audacity.
Audacity was also the driving force behind Kanye’s other G.O.O.D. Friday release in the last week of August 2010–and eventual single for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy–the aptly-titled posse cut “Monster.” Today, “Monster” is best remembered for its song-stealing verse by Nicki Minaj, then still a rising mixtape star on the cusp of releasing her (disappointing) debut album. But Kanye’s own contribution came in a close second, and was more pertinent to Dark Twisted Fantasy’s overarching themes. While the other rappers on the track riff more literally on horror imagery (especially Jay, whose verse is basically just a list of famous monsters), Kanye paints himself as a figurative monster, with a chilling verse that throws into sharp relief the ugliness beneath his usual lyrical conceits of fast living and the lust for money, sex, and fame. “I’mma need to see your fucking hands at the concert,” he insists on the hook, sounding at once like a despot demanding tribute and a junkie begging for a fix, before launching into an unusually brutal story about hooking up with a groupie who then claims that he “bruised her esophagus.” He brushes her off with an overdose of megalomania: “I’m living in the future so the present is my past / My presence is a present, kiss my ass.”
Again, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for Kanye; it echoes strongly with the final verse of “Stronger,” for example, in which he reminds a potential conquest that there are “a thousand yous” and “only one of me.” But his more violent language in “Monster”–including what sounds like an accusation of rape, or at least unnecessary roughness in the bedroom–gives the song a much darker tone and a subtext of self-awareness, if not full-blown self-critique. That subtext became the text in Jake Nava’s music video for “Monster,” which was leaked in late 2010 before eventually seeing official release the following year (Video 16). In the video, Kanye raps surrounded by white, apparently dead models, whose lifeless bodies he meticulously poses like a serial killer admiring his trophies. Other shots depict him being pawed through a grating by the now-undead women’s hands, or (in an homage to both George Romero’s zombie films and Bill Stoneham’s allegedly haunted painting, “The Hands Resist Him”) struggling to hold a door closed as they clamor to force themselves inside. The video met with some predictable, not-entirely-unjustified outrage from feminist critics, and was banned by MTV. But it strikes me more as a brutally honest acknowledgement of Kanye’s misogynistic streak than as the uncomplicated endorsement of misogyny its critics seem to think it is. Why else would he spend so much of the video being haunted by vengeful female spirits?
Indeed, “Monster” marks the first major appearance of one of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s most critically underexamined thematic threads: viewed from a certain perspective, it’s really an album about Kanye’s reckoning with his past and present treatment of women. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic, Dark Twisted Fantasy is rife with references to “white women as objects” and “slut-shaming women (black and white).” For Coates–who, let me just say up front, I am fully willing to acknowledge is smarter than me–these references are “empty,” but I’m honestly not so sure. Obsession is often a sign of struggle, of grappling with hard truths, and on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye truly does seem to be obsessed with sex, and with the women he uses and abuses to obtain it–“sluts” and “objects,” sure, but also often the victims of his monstrous hubris. His put-downs rarely come without a note of self-reproach: when he boastfully asks a conquest if she’s “ever had sex with a pharaoh / Put the pussy in a sarcophogus,” it’s only after he’s described himself as a “motherfucking monster” and admitted to being so blazed that his eyes are “more red than the devil is.” It’s impossible to listen to Dark Twisted Fantasy without, in particular, acknowledging the specters of Alexis Phifer and Amber Rose, the latter of whom he’d broken up with soon after work on the album began; they’re hovering throughout the entirety of the album, haunting him like the zombie models in the “Monster” video, demanding retribution for his misdeeds.
That side of Dark Twisted Fantasy remains at the fore in the next G.O.O.D. Fridays release–and another future album track–“Devil in a New Dress.” If “Monster” casts Kanye’s woman troubles as an aural slasher film, then “Devil” recasts them as a domestic melodrama: replacing the former track’s spooky, claustrophobic beats with a lush, melancholy sample from Smokey Robinson‘s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” In fact, the song’s arrangement by Norfolk, Virginia producer (and Ye’s fellow Blueprint alum), Bink!–the only production on the album for which Kanye did not receive a credit–is so gorgeous that it’s easy to ignore the lyrics, which paint a vivid yet understated portrait of a relationship on the verge of dissolution.
In the song’s second (and, on the original relase, final) verse, Kanye recounts an awkward dinner at a “Jamaican spot” where his order of jerk chicken prompts his girl to sling the venomous barb, “You are what you eat.” “You see I always loved that sense of humor,” he says ruefully, “But tonight you should have seen how quiet the room was.” Later, he adopts a mock-soulman croon, pleading with his lover that she hasn’t “said a word to me all evening”; on the album version, this is followed by a devastating guest verse from, of all people, Rick Ross, who stalks into the song like Kanye’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, rapping from the back of an empty stretch limousine in the future where he’s “sipping Rosé all alone.” Especially in its finished form, with the Ross verse and two fiery guitar solos by co-producer Mike Dean, “Devil in a New Dress” is Dark Twisted Fantasy at its most evocative and cinematic.
The following week’s track, “G.O.O.D. Friday,” took an alternative approach: like “See Me Now,” it feels like a deliberate throwback to Kanye’s Dropout-era sound, with gospel-infused vocals by Charlie Wilson and a piano sample from Freddie Scott’s 1968 R&B hit “(You) Got What I Need” (yes, that one). More than anything, as its title suggests, it’s meant as a showcase for Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music crew, with West, Common, Big Sean, and Pusha T all taking turns on the mic while Kid Cudi does his best approximation of soulful crooning for the hook. It isn’t a grand artistic statement like “POWER,” “Monster,” or “Devil in a New Dress”–hence its absence from the final album–but it is an irresistible, mood-lifting confection of a song, driven by one of Kanye’s most joyous-sounding beats.
Kanye returned to murkier waters with his next G.O.O.D. Fridays release, “Lord Lord Lord” featuring Mos Def, Swizz Beatz, Raekwon, and (again) Charlie Wilson. Built over a slick, futuristic jazz-funk groove from Brian Bennett’s “Solstice,” the song finds Kanye juxtaposing the sacred and the profane like he does best: waxing rhapsodic about hearing “Jesus, bells, strings, and the choir” when he meets a woman, then bragging that he “hit it so deep she need a epidural” and announcing that he “only hang with white boys that like Black sluts.” It isn’t Kanye’s best work, lyrically–and the less said about Swizz Beatz’ guest verse, the better–but it does include a pretty great retort to his haters in the line, “if I’m a douche then put me in your coochie”; and Uncle Charlie’s vocals are something else, seemingly finding a new upper limit to his range with every repetition of the hook.
Another track destined for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “So Appalled” digs more deeply into the central thematic contradiction of Kanye’s lyrics since “All Falls Down”: the simultaneous lust and contempt for the material trappings of fame and fortune. In the first verse, Kanye portrays himself as a sexual version of Donald Trump in The Apprentice, “firing” one lady to “hire” her friend, but keeping the former “on call” just in case it doesn’t work out. He praises “the most fly, Prada” in the same breath as “the most high, Allah” and sits in his luxury hotel room, idly fantasizing about a “bad bitch” showing up as his housekeeper like some kind of low-rent porn setup. By the hook, however, he can no longer contain his self-disgust, calling out the emptiness of his lifestyle for what it is: “Champagne wishes, 30 white bitches / I mean, this shit is fuckin’ ridiculous.”
It would, of course, be easy to criticize “So Appalled” for its apparent hypocrisy; Kanye would later tell Hot 97, without any detectable sense of irony, that he wrote his verse while working with the luxury fashion house Fendi in Rome. The song’s concessions to anti-materialism basically consist of a reference to the aforementioned Trump “takin’ dollars from y’all” and four lines appended to the end of Kanye’s verse: “Niggas be writing bullshit like they gotta work / Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work / That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt / That’s why I’d rather spit something that got a purp’.” And it would be easier still to castigate West, as Ta-Nehisi Coates did, for listing “30 white bitches” as just another material possession to accumulate and then reject. But let’s keep in mind one of the most important running themes of this series: that Kanye’s mass of self-contradictions is a crucial aspect of his artistry, if not the single defining element of his lyrical identity. He may spit lyrics with “purp[ose],” but he doesn’t go about it in the traditional, didactic way of the “conscious” rapper; he lets us in on all of his flaws, cognitive dissonances, and yes, hypocrisies, so that we can work with him through his issues in real time. Watching him go through these motions can be, quite frankly, an exasperating experience; but at his best–and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy absolutely is Kanye at his best–it can also be revelatory, and deeply relatable.
So I’ve made my case in favor of Kanye’s self- contradictions; now, here’s an example of the exasperating side. Ye’s guest verse on Chris Brown’s “Deuces” remix was an obvious promotional move, almost to the point of cynicism: two recently-disgraced urban music stars sharing the spotlight for a bitter breakup record, a mere 18 months after Brown pleaded not guilty to the charges of assault and criminal threats against his ex-girlfriend Rihanna. Unfortunately for Kanye, he was upstaged by André 3000, whose concluding verse was by broad concensus the main reason to listen to the song; also unfortunately (for everyone), Yeezy’s verse turned out to be even more mean-spirited and vicious than the one by a convicted domestic abuser, airing out his grievances against ex Amber Rose with such witty lyrical nuggets as, “You should make your own toilet tissue, ’cause you’re the shit / But all you got is some fucking issues, you fucking bitch.” Kanye would be both crueler and pettier to Amber in the future–most prominently in interviews, but also on his upcoming record; even so, his “Deuces” verse (and, for that matter, “Deuces” in general) wasn’t a great look.
Ye did take one big step in the right direction with his first G.O.O.D. Fridays track of October: “Christian Dior Denim Flow,” featuring Kid Cudi, Pusha T, John Legend, Lloyd Banks, and Ryan Leslie. Viewed in isolation, Kanye’s verse is the definition of fluff: pretty much just a repeat of his leering 2003 mixtape track “Half Price,” but dropping the names of famous supermodels instead of woman rappers. As is often the case, however, West uses the song’s production (a grandiose-sounding cello arrangement, later joined by a stuttering breakbeat from Clarence Reid’s “Living Together is Keeping Us Apart” and Mike Dean’s dischordant guitar), as well as his collaborators, to bring a sense of emotional heft to the track.
The song begins with a melancholy, Legend-led hook, preemptively exposing the heavy heart Kanye’s parade of model paramours tries in vain to disguise: “I got the world in my hands, the master plan / But I don’t know why I keep calling / All of these girls at my shows, they loving me / But I don’t know why I keep calling, why I keep calling you.” From there, the song’s progression of verses seems to depict a gradual shedding of affect: from Kanye’s breathless chronicle of “wilding” with Selita Ebanks and Sessilee Lopez, to Push’s fish-out-of-water story of rocking the VMAs in a salmon-colored suit, Leslie’s darker-tinged tale of a “good girl lost in city life,” Banks’ “hustler’s poem” of drugs, riches, and paranoia, finally ending with Cudi, who comes out and states the thesis outright: “Niggas think they know, only got half of the story / They don’t really know what’s in my head fucking with me.” If nothing else, “Christian Dior Denim Flow” is a potent example of the tendency for the whole of Kanye’s songs to be much greater than the sum of their parts; that he can take four guest verses and god knows how many guest producers, and turn it into something so moving and unmistakably personal, is a clear mark of his very particular talent.
Just a few weeks before the release of “Christian Dior,” Kanye made an even more personal statement, in an even more public forum. On September 12, 2010–almost a year to the day of the Taylor Swift debacle–he made his return to the MTV Video Music Awards, performing a new song called “Runaway.” Dressed from head to toe in red (with a black shirt and a few tasteful gold chains), Kanye stood center stage against a minimalist all-white backdrop, using an Akai MPC2000XL to drop live vocal samples into the mix before grabbing the mic–thankfully his own, this time–and singing the hook sans Auto-Tune, the passion of his performance more than making up for the relative weakness of his voice. Coming at the end of an award show otherwise dominated by empty, overproduced spectacle, Kanye’s performance was by far the most human and thrillingly vulnerable of the night. It remains an all-time career highlight.
Of course, due in large part to the context–including an introduction by Kanye’s friend, comedian Aziz Ansari, that effectively deflated the year-long fallout over the previous show’s stage-crashing–as well as the hook, which famously proposes a “toast to the douchebags,” many in the aftermath of the VMAs interpreted “Runaway” as a song about–even a direct apology to–Taylor Swift. That, however, would be selling the song absurdly short; I mean, do we really want one of the best and most emotionally complex songs of early 21st century pop to be about a year-old public relations gaffe from an “award show” produced for teenagers? Kanye himself maintained that “Runaway” was never meant as an “apology song”–and he let the cat out of the bag on its real subject, Amber Rose, at a tour date in her hometown of Philadelphia the following year, thanking the city “for making the incredible person that this song was made for.”
Really, Amber makes a lot more sense for the subject of “Runaway” than Taylor–though kudos to Kanye for the cleverness of tying his televised bum-rushing of America’s Sweetheart in to the context behind lines like “I don’t know what it is with females / But I’m not too good at that shit.” And while the song is, indeed, not an apology–more of a weirdly defiant public self-flagellation–it does capture Kanye in as contrite a mood as he can muster, confessing that he “could never take the intimacy” of a real relationship, and pleading with his girl to “run away” from him before things get worse. It may be easy to scoff at the song as yet another example of Kanye being “Kanye”: doubling down on his sins in the face of judgment, choosing to portray himself as an irredeemable danger to the women who cross his path instead of actually putting in the work to become a better person. But that’s kind of missing the point; after all, who better than Kanye West to write a paean to the self-loathing, yet incurable asshole?
“Runaway” is like Kanye’s version of Prince’s “Strange Relationship”: an unflinching self-portrait of the artist’s own worst tendencies, the result of a habitual destroyer of relationships looking in the mirror and recognizing that he is the source of his own pain. Maybe it says more about me than it should–full disclosure: “Strange Relationship” might be my favorite breakup song of all time, and “Runaway” is almost certainly in my top five–but for my money, the lines “I just blame everything on you / At least you know that’s what I’m good at” are some of the most heartbreakingly real lyrics written about relationships since Prince’s own “Baby, I just can’t stand to see you happy / More than that, I hate to see you sad.” If you don’t believe me, just ask one of my exes.
Admittedly, in the years since the debut of “Runaway,” many listeners’ patience for Kanye’s cycle of self-recriminations and brutal lashings-out has faded. And that’s fair: the man is 38 years old, after all, so a little growth can and should be expected. Amber Rose herself has recounted being moved by Kanye’s dedication of the song to her, only to be blindsided days later upon hearing him take shots at her short-lived career as a stripper on 2011’s Watch the Throne. In a weird way, however, expecting Kanye to model emotional maturity in his art does an injustice to his undeniable ability to capture what it feels like to handle a breakup poorly. The vacillations in his attitude toward Amber–which continue to this day, both in verse and, much more troublingly, in real life–can be tiresome and difficult to watch; but, for me at least, it’s hard not to recognize just a little of my own past breakups in the way he moves from praising her as an “incredible person” one day to burning her in effigy as a gold-digging succubus the next. On a human scale, such behavior is of course both unfair and unhealthy; but that doesn’t make the feelings behind it invalid–and, as an artist, Kanye’s responsibility is to represent feelings, even (especially!) the unfair and unhealthy ones.
One particularly appropriate case in point: Kanye’s appearance on the remix of “In for the Kill” by London-based synthpop revivalists La Roux. Obviously drawing inspiration once again from his volatile relationship with Rose, Kanye’s verse presents a vision of love that is basically the definition of unhealthy: “I mean what’s the point if it ain’t no scars,” he drawls sardonically, “A little teeth marks, blood on the collar / That’s real love–mm-hmm, uh-huh.” The lines that follow effectively expose the subtext of every pop song ever written about love gone bad: “How could you love someone that hurt you, played you, spoke to provoke you? / How could you love someone that burns you, turns you into a werewolf?” Ye continues to riff on the werewolf imagery, returning to his “Monster” well with rapid-fire self-comparisons to Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, “the Thriller version of Michael,” and, um, Ike Turner; then, he goes out with one of his most chilling couplets: “I gotta feel you, bite your neck to get familiar / And if you die, guess what, I fuckin’ killed you.” In the final estimation, “In for the Kill” actually reads more interesting than it sounds: Kanye’s performance is appropriately unhinged, but he hasn’t yet mastered the larger-than-life, scenery-chewing flow he would perfect with 2013’s Yeezus, and his verse never really feels comfortable amidst La Roux’s electropop bounce. But on paper, at least, it’s another strong example of Kanye’s Dark Twisted Fantasy-era talent for capturing the destructive undercurrents of romantic connection.
Somewhere in the middle of all this soul-baring and self-excoriation, though, Kanye also managed to make time for a project by one of his oldest friends in the industry. GLC’s name has come up more than a few times in this series: he’d been a member of the Go-Getters back when Kanye was still in Chicago heading up Kon-Man Productions, was one of the earliest signees to G.O.O.D. Music, and had guest features on both The College Dropout (“Spaceship”) and Late Registration (“Drive Slow”). His debut (and, so far, only) studio album, Love, Life & Loyalty, came out over a decade after the start of his and Kanye’s professional relationship, but it was clear that not a lot had changed: GLC was still a capable, but largely unremarkable M.C., and Kanye was still an inveterate beat hoarder who saved all his best shit for himself.
For the purposes of this series, Kanye’s work on Life, Love & Loyalty is notable mainly for its facelessness: it’s the least identifiably “Kanye”-sounding music he’d made since, well, the Go-Getters. Not that his fingerprints are entirely absent from the project, of course: the synth-noodling opening track “The Big Knot” sounds a bit like Yeezy’s work circa 2007–complete with a random extended quote from Rich Boy‘s “Throw Some D’s”–mixed with a little bit of Ruff Ryders-era Swizz Beatz. With its John Legend hook, “Pour Another Drink” is also firmly within the G.O.O.D. Music wheelhouse; and, well, “Cold as Ice” includes a guest verse by Twista and a sample from the Foreigner song of the same title, so that’s something, I guess. Of all the tracks on the album in which West played a part, his sound is most recognizable on the single release “Flight School”: a downbeat T-Pain feature that sounds a bit like a smoothed-over 808s outtake, with an appropriately lovelorn verse from Ye–albeit one marred by one of his most cringeworthy lines of all time (OF ALL TIME), “This whole year’s been a haze like Isaac / So I close my eyes tighter than Asian eyes get.”
In general, however, Life, Love & Loyalty feels like an album out of time–and not just because of Kanye’s random racist imagery. GLC seems to have been present at the Avex sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy–see the photo above, taken in Hawai’i in January 2010–but you wouldn’t have guessed it from listening to his own album: even the most “Kanye”-sounding songs, like the chipmunk soul throwback “So Real” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, or the “Slow Jamz”-esque R&B pastiche “My 1st Model,” sound like warmed-over outtakes from earlier (and better) projects. Other tracks, like “I Ain’t Even On Yet” and “Rosanne,” don’t even sound like they belong in the same decade. It seems likely that GLC’s album, like the solo projects of many another ill-fated G.O.O.D. Music artist (see also: Consequence), was the product of a series of delays, probably going all the way back to 2005 (or earlier!). It also seems likely, at least to these ears, that Kanye made the beat for “I Did It” with the intentions of giving it to Young Jeezy. But whatever the album’s provenance, it’s definitely, albeit regrettably, one of the minor entries in the G.O.O.D. Music canon.
If Life, Love & Loyalty suggested that Kanye wasn’t above reheating old beats for a side project, then “Don’t Stop!”, the G.O.O.D. Friday release from the previous week, served as preemptive confirmation of that fact. Credited to Child Rebel Soldier, Kanye’s abortive alt-rap supergroup with Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell, “Don’t Stop!” was released in October 2010 but actually dates back to early 2008–not that that prevented fans of the group’s promising debut track, 2007’s “Us Placers,” from keeping the dream alive for a full-length album. In reality (and ironically, given the title), “Don’t Stop!” was the last we heard from CRS, but it was a pretty great way to go out: just Yeezy, Lupe, and Skateboard P trading dense, wordplay-laden verses over a manic, Latin-flavored beat like the one-upping rap nerds they are. Today, it’s tough to listen to Child Rebel Soldier without pining over the squandered possibilities; the side project might have been an excellent vehicle for Ye and Pharrell to keep their hats in the underground ring, and for Fiasco to stay relevant. But then, it’s also hard to mourn something that never truly existed–and, aside from a few scattershot sessions in 2007 and 2008, that seems to be the best way to describe CRS: a fleeting pipe dream, a shared delusion, the musical equivalent of vaporware. In some alternate reality, perhaps, a full-length Child Rebel Soldier album dropped in 2011, while Watch the Throne was quietly cancelled. But as tantalizing a possibility as that might be, ultimately, I’m okay with the reality we’re in now.
Besides, “Don’t Stop!” was just a drop in the bucket full of great one-off tracks Kanye continued to release in the G.O.O.D. Fridays series. Even the following week’s “Take One for the Team”–a lightweight, casually sexist tune about the wingman’s duty to hook up with the “ugly” girl in the club, seemingly tailor-made for the Jersey Shore era’s “grenade”-dodging zeitgeist–had its charms. Driven by an aggressively lo-fi, distorted beatbox rhythm, Kanye’s hilariously piqued verse finds him holding forth on his pet peeves (including, but not limited to, “pictures of other people’s kids” and “when people’s cribs smell like shit”) like he’s reciting directly from his legendary Twitter feed. It’s hardly album material, but it makes a more-than-solid mixtape track–and the hook by Keri Hilson adds an intriguing dose of pop sugar to the otherwise intentionally grimy mix.
By the middle of October 2010, Kanye was just over a month away from the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But he still had time to indulge in a couple of bizarre vanity collaborations, the first of which was “Ayyy Girl” with South Korean pop group JYJ. More so than any of Kanye’s other features–yes, even Stromae–it’s unclear exactly how the responsible parties linked up; maybe they bumped into each other in Seoul shopping for skinny jeans. The only real clue I have to go by is this quote from Us magazine, which definitely came out of Kanye’s own mouth and not a statement released by his and/or JYJ’s press team: “These guys work the hardest. I’m looking forward to doing more with them.” Whatever the circumstances, “Ayyy Girl” is a wonderfully surreal bit of cultural frisson–best experienced in the form of its music video, with plenty of slow-motion shots of the JYJ boys posing in a neo-Grecian dreamscape to accompany West’s rote fast-life verse (see Video 36 above).
Kanye got back to his regular-scheduled programming with “Don’t Look Down,” a morose breakup song featuring Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco, and Big Sean. Lupe’s verse, a surreal narrative about a female phoenix who flies into the sun, evokes the visual imagery Kanye used for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: including the album cover–another George Condo painting, depicting Kanye as a bestial figure copulating with a winged, naked woman–and the short film/longform music video Runaway (see Video 38), in which Kanye falls in love with a winged bird-woman (played by Cayman-born Selita Ebanks, one of the many models he shouted out on “Christian Dior Denim Flow”) who falls out of the sky and causes him to crash his sports car (wonder where he got that idea). Kanye’s own verse is more prosaic, reflecting on the loss of a lover (Alexis? Amber?) with uncharacteristic vulnerability. Interestingly, however, he raps his verse through the same distorted filter he’d used on “Christian Dior,” prefiguring the more pronounced vocal manipulation he’d employ on the album.
It’s a testament to the gap between 808s and Dark Twisted Fantasy that Kid Cudi released two albums in the time it took Kanye to record one. Kanye had less of a presence on Man on the Moon II than he had on its predecessor, but he did contribute to two tracks: the previously-discussed guest verse on “Erase Me” and co-production duties on the album’s quasi-title track, “Mr. Rager.” It’s honestly hard to pick out Kanye’s specific influence here: the song’s indie-rock textures sound more like the work of Emile Haynie, who co-produced “Runaway” and went on to work with Lana Del Ray on much of her major label debut album; No I.D. and Jeff Bhasker are also credited. You can, however, definitely pick out Kanye in the song’s music video (Video 39): that’s him narrowly dodging a punch from “Mr. Rager” around the 4:20 mark.
What with all the art films and K-pop collaborations he’d been dropping in October, it was high time for Kanye to get back to basics. And that’s exactly what he did on “The Joy,” a Jay-Z/Pete Rock collaboration that sounded in the best possible way like it was exhumed from the early ’90s; or, as Yeezy himself put it, “No electro, no metro / A little retro…ahhh, perfect-o.” Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this song: Rock’s production is the definition of soulful, based primarily on a sample from Curtis Mayfield’s sublime live version of “The Makings of You,” with the vinyl pops left in the mix. And Kanye’s verses are low-key among his best: moving effortlessly from the anxieties of growing old without growing up, to the racial politics of middle-class Black mothers naming their girls after “white bitches,” all the way to the immortal lyric, “This beat deserve Hennessy, a bad bitch, and a bag of weed: the Holy Trinity.” Even the song’s G.O.O.D. Fridays cover art knows what’s up: in place of the usual parade of emaciated-looking models (“Don’t Look Down,” for example, had used a shot from Helmut Newton’s Big Nudes; previous tracks had used images by Guy Bourdin), Kanye chose the iconic 1974 nude photograph of Pam Grier from Players magazine (see above).
Unfortunately, with his next release, “Looking for Trouble,” Kanye went back to repping the skinny bitches. He also went back to rapping unremarkable verses: opening with the line, “I miss the misogyny, bad bitches massagin’ me,” then going on to prove his point with some rude and unnecessary references to “fat bitches swallowin’,” and finally closing with his obligatory high-fashion brand-dropping. It’s pretty much by concensus the weakest link in the G.O.O.D. Fridays chain, but still worth listening to, if only for the blistering verse from up-and-comer J. Cole.
Kanye made a much better showing on “Chain Heavy,” the last G.O.O.D. Fridays track before the relase of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Over a beat by Q-Tip, with a theramin-like synthesizer sampled from obscure psychedelic fusion outfit Albino Gorilla, Kanye turns in his most consciously “conscious” verse in ages, making a case for his love of ostentatious jewelry as an expression of Black pride: “For every inch they cut off the nose of the Sphinx / I make my jeweler add a few more links.” He also compares himself to “the day Ice Cube met Michael Jackson,” and makes reference to his increased propensity for scowling with a line about how his “face always looking like somebody stinks.” It’s a solid performance, though one could make the case that he’s upstaged by guests Talib Kweli and Consequence: the former of whom directly undermines Yeezy’s Black Power-tinged materialism with a pointed reference to rap culture’s addiction to “whips and chains.” In any case, Kanye would further explore his themes from “Chain Heavy”–to greater effect–in his collaborative albums of the following two years.
Back when I talked about JYJ, I said that Kanye indulged in “a couple of bizarre vanity collaborations.” Here, as promised, is the second half of that couple: “Hurricane 2.0,” a remix with Jared Leto’s vanity butt-rock project 30 Seconds to Mars. Kanye’s part of the track was actually recorded in early 2009, but held up from release for a year due to inter-label legal wrangling; that at least explains why his Auto-Tuned hook and verse sound so very 808s & Heartbreak. What can never be explained is why Kanye was appearing on a 30 Seconds to Mars track in the first place.
His next guest appearance, on “Blazin” by Nicki Minaj, made quite a bit more sense: Kanye did, after all, owe Nicki for her verse on “Monster” from earlier that year. With “Blazin,” he didn’t exactly return the favor, but he did handily outrhyme her with an extra-long verse in which he compared himself to Karl Lagerfeld and proclaimed that the only things “higher” than him are the “Messiah” and “notes from Mariah.” Still, one wonders how he would have fared in another track with Onika at the peak of her powers.
And now, here we are at last: Kanye’s final guest verse before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Start It Up” reunited Ye with his “Christian Dior Denim Flow” collaborators Lloyd Banks and Ryan Leslie, along with Swizz Beatz and Fabolous. His lyrics ain’t exactly Shakespeare, but they are pretty damn funny, with priceless zingers like, “Told her beauty is why God invented eyeballs / And her booty is why God invented my balls,” culminating in what is presumably an excerpt from Kanye’s unpublished Penthouse Forum letter: “Told her I ain’t paying tonight, I’m only browsing / She pulled her blouse up, said ‘It’s free,’ I said ‘wowzers!'”
But, okay, enough fucking around. On November 22, 2010, Kanye finally released the fruits of his past year’s labors, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As more than a few reviewers noted at the time, almost half of the final album was comprised of previously-released music: “POWER,” “Runaway,” and “Monster” had been released as singles, while early mixes of “Devil in a New Dress” and “So Appalled” had come out as part of G.O.O.D. Fridays. It didn’t matter: Dark Twisted Fantasy was an album’s album, best experienced in sequence from beginning to end. And the total package, like all things Kanye, was equal parts sublime and ridiculous: the musical equivalent of that aforementioned Condo cover, matted in luxurious deep red with a gold leaf frame (see above).
The opening track, “Dark Fantasy,” begins with a spoken-word narration, copped from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and delivered (inexplicably) by Nicki Minaj, sporting the ghastliest faux-English accent this side of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Nicki promises the listener “twisted fictions” and “sick addictions,” exhorting us to “gather ’round,” “zip it” and “listen” (“I’mma let you finish, but…”). Then the chorus comes in, led by a sample from Jon Anderson and Mike Oldfield’s “In High Places.” “Can we get much higher?” Anderson asks rhetorically, while Teyana Taylor–later to sign with G.O.O.D. Music, but best known at the time for her appearance on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16–answers with a gospel-style call and response. Finally, just when things are threatening to become too grandiose, the beat drops: originally crafted by the RZA, then reworked by Kanye and No I.D, its grime standing out stark against the baroque introduction.
Kanye’s lyrics quickly set the stage, distilling the whole of his tumultuous year into a pair of atypically dense verses. “I fantasized about this back in Chicago,” he spits, before quickly admitting that the fantasy has turned into a nightmare: confessing that “demons still visit me,” his voice artificially processed into a Satanic growl. He briefly touches on his tailspin into depression after the loss of his mother and the dissolution of his engagement, suggesting that his methods of coping with the depression had only made things worse: “The plan was to drink until the pain over / But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” Finally, the song peaks with a surrealistic, fire-and-brimstone bridge, sung by Justin Vernon of indie-folk it-kids Bon Iver with the aid of liberal amounts of Auto-Tune: “After that there was a séance / Just kids, no parents / Then the sky filled with herons / I saw the devil in a Chrysler LeBaron / And the hell, it wouldn’t spare us / And the fires did declare us / But after that / Took pills, kissed an heiress / And woke up back in Paris.” These few lines capture Kanye’s Dark Twisted Fantasy in a nutshell: he knows he’s out of control, teetering on the precipice between heaven and hell, but he just can’t stop giving in to his baser instincts.
On paper, “Dark Fantasy” should not work. Read the paragraphs above with no prior knowledge of the song, and I’m sure it looks like a trainwreck; in many ways, it actually is. And yet it also makes good on every bit of its overweening ambition: it’s an absurd, grand, impassioned overture for an equally absurd, grand, and impassioned album. West himself, never one to mince words when it comes to self-praise, dubbed the song “perfect” in his headline-grabbing 2003 interview with BBC Radio’s Zane Lowe: “‘Dark Fantasy’ could be considered to be perfect. I know how to make perfect.”
Having raised the curtain on Dark Twisted Fantasy in spectacular fashion, Kanye scaled back a bit for the second track, “Gorgeous.” Eschewing the kitchen-sink excess of “Dark Fantasy,” Kanye and co-producers Mike Dean and No I.D. built a spare, haunting beat from an interpolation of the Turtles’ “You Showed Me,” with Dean playing the melody on fuzz guitar. Kanye seemed especially proud of his lyrics on this one, too; he originally debuted them as a “freestyle” on the Funkmaster Flex show (Video 48), and later performed the song a capella in his segment of Ice-T’s 2012 documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Video 49).
There’s a reason why he holds “Gorgeous” in such esteem. It’s a career height for Kanye West the M.C.: weaving his own public rise and fall into a larger narrative of racial inequality, and yet somehow not coming off as completely self-absorbed–or at least, no more self-absorbed than Kanye ever comes off. With “Gorgeous,” Yeezy plays to his strengths, uniting the socially conscious and self-conscious threads of his lyricism into a tirade against his treatment by white America and a radical declaration of self-worth. “It’s not funny anymore, try different jokes,” he pleads with his critics–earlier he’d been even more pointed, threatening to “choke a South Park writer with a fish stick”–demanding an imaginary maestro to “play strings for the dramatic ending of that wack shit” (this being a Kanye West song, of course, the actual strings on the track get louder in the mix at this point). He ends the verse on a pure hip-hop note, quoting from Nas via Main Source with a biting kiss-off: “That y’all, it’s like that y’all / I don’t really give a fuck about it all / ‘Cause the same people that tried to black ball me forgot about two things: my Black balls.”
Building up from the following track, “POWER,” Dark Twisted Fantasy’s operatic side comes back in full force with “All of the Lights.” The song begins with a mournful, minor-key “interlude” with cello by Rosie Danvers and piano by none other than Elton John. This is immediately followed by a blaring horn part and a hook belted out by Rihanna; indeed, the full song features fourteen of Kanye’s favorite vocalists at the time, including Rihanna, Elton, La Roux’s Elly Jackson, Kid Cudi, Fergie (!), Alicia Keys, Charlie Wilson, The-Dream, John Legend, and Drake. And the whole thing is undergirded by an explosive, hyperactive drum-and-bass beat, because why the fuck not.
If you’ve been following this series, you probably know by now that “Operatic Kanye” is my least favorite incarnation of the producer; I far prefer his work when he’s checking his maximalist impulses and doing more with less. So for a while, at least, “All of the Lights” was my least favorite track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Now, however, its audacious charms have grown on me; I even admire Ye’s decision to give the song’s entire bridge to Fergie, because what other serious musical artist would even contemplate doing such a thing?
And the lyrics, once again, are something else. Kanye invests himself fully in a rare non-autobiographical story (his verses may actually have been written by his longtime Chicago compatriot Really Doe–though, to be clear, they don’t reflect Really’s life experiences either): rapping from the perspective of a man whose life spirals out of control after he slaps his girlfriend and ends up in prison. And, somehow, it all ties in to Michael Jackson’s 2009 death, culminating in the beautifully surreal funeral procession visuals that accompanied the song in the Runaway film (see photo above). “All of the Lights” is another whole-greater-than-its-sum song from Kanye: its meaning is difficult to clearly articulate, but once you get on its level it can be deeply moving. If nothing else, it inspires awe through its sheer hugeness: no other pop artist in 2010–and few in any other year–was making music this unapologetically opulent.
On the other side of the coin–and skipping past a few songs we already discussed in their G.O.O.D. Fridays incarnations–there’s “Hell of a Life”: a filthy grind of a song driven by a slowed-down fuzz bass sample from ’60s garage rockers the Mojo Men. The lyrics about falling “in love with a porn star” might be another nasty dig at Amber Rose–or, for that matter, they could be a sly reference to Kim Kardashian, who Kanye began seeing around this time, and who of course rose to infamy after pornographic video distributor Vivid Entertainment’s release of her 2003 sex tape with “Ray J” Norwood. But Kanye elevates it with a remarkable verse about the rarely-discussed racial politics of pornography, tying the racist stereotypes of “Black on blonde” interracial porn to a wider history of white anxieties over Black masculinity: “Said her price go down, she ever fuck a black guy / Or do anal, or do a gangbang / It’s kinda crazy that’s all considered the same thing / Well I guess a lotta niggas do gang bang / And if we run trains, we all in the same gang / Runaway slaves all on a chain gang / Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.”
Like “Gorgeous,” it’s an example of Kanye’s ability to read between the lines and find the systemic racism that permeates even his celebrity status–a theme that would grow more and more prominent in his lyrics in the coming years. On the other hand, it’s also a testament to his love of erotic entertainment, which was apparently on prominent display during the sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Nicki Minaj later told Complex about meeting Kanye for the first time in Honolulu: “I didn’t think that he was gonna like me. I always figured that he was one of those conscious rappers, so I thought that he wouldn’t want girls to be dressed overtly sexy–and I go to the studio and he has nothing but pictures of naked women on his computer that he’d invite me to look at. They were really artsy pictures, but you know he loves nudity, so it was a complete shock to me, ’cause I thought I had him all figured out, but I didn’t. He was watching porn when we were in the studio—no shame in his game.” In fact, “Hell of a Life” ends with some highly suspect heavy breathing from Kanye over Teyana Taylor’s moaning vocals; one hopes that there was at least some shame in his game, or it’s going to be a lot harder for me to listen to this album in the future.
Speaking of hard to listen to, Kanye follows “Hell of a Life” with “Blame Game”: far and away Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s biggest emotional gut punch. The song, produced by DJ Frank E along with West and Mike Dean, is built on a (contested) sample from Aphex Twin‘s elegaic piano instrumental “Avril 14th,” with John Legend on the hook. Kanye’s lyrics may be his most self-lacerating to date, recounting violent arguments and violent couplings: “Been a long time since I spoke to you / In a bathroom, gripping you up, fucking and choking you.” He confesses to crippling codependence and jealousy, puffing up with false confidence when he declares, “you ain’t finna see a mogul get emotional / Every time I hear ’bout other niggas is strokin’ you”; his voice bouncing between the left and right speakers, shifting rapidly between different digital filters to dramatize his mood swings. By the end, he’s back in 808s/Drake mode, repeatedly crooning the words “I can’t love you this much” like a depressive’s mantra.
But the song really goes off the deep end with its climactic appearance by Chris Rock, playing the role of the “local dude” Kanye’s girl has been seeing on the sly. The piece is ostensibly comedic–it’s delivered in the same unmistakable cadences as Rock’s standup routines–but its cruelty, to both the man and the woman in the picture, never fails to fuck me up. Rock structures his monologue as a phone message to the girl (Amber, it’s heavily implied), raving over how she’s taken her “pussy game up a whole ‘nother level”–to which the girl, portrayed by Salma Kenas, repeatedly and robotically responds, “Yeezy taught me.”
Again, it’s hard to decide who is getting the worse end of it: Kanye’s character, subjected to two minutes of being aurally cuckolded; or Amber’s, dragged through the mud with incredibly intimate details (the bit about Rock’s character getting a watch for his birthday was allegedly inspired by Amber’s gift of a $30,000 Rolex purchased by Kanye to her new boyfriend, rapper Wiz Khalifa). Actually, reading that sentence back again, it’s pretty clear that Amber got the worst of it; she later became tearful while discussing the song with MTV’s Sway Calloway, telling him she didn’t “deserve to be bullied like that.” And she’s right–the song definitely exists in an uncomfortable ethical place. As a work of art, however, it’s astounding, heart-wrenching, and deeply unsettling.
After the emotional desolation of “Blame Game,” it’s frankly impossible to go anywhere else but up; and so that’s exactly what Kanye does with “Lost in the World,” the most uplifting and cathartic track on the album. With a hook adapted from Bon Iver’s 2009 song “Woods” and the return of the African-style vocal chants from “POWER”–albeit performed live this time–Kanye dramatizes his final ascent from the rest of the album’s darkness, soaring into the stratosphere on an arrangement so joyous he would perform it a few days after the album’s release in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (see Video 54).
Of course, given the album’s aforementioned subtext about Kanye’s treatment of women, it’s unsurprising that his salvation should come in a female form–in this case, as he revealed during an emotional speech at his 2015 Glastonbury Festival set, the decidedly hourglass-shaped female form of Kim Kardashian (Video 55). “When I was working on Dark Fantasy,” he tells the crowd, “I remember I was trying to explain to a girl that I loved so much, um, how much I loved her. And I, um… I didn’t have any words to this record, but we loved it, we loved the beat… and, um, actually in an email, I wrote this to her, I said: ‘You’re my heaven, you’re my hell / You’re my freedom, you’re my jail.’ It was like, she brought this poetry out of me that ended up becoming what the lyrics were. And then eventually she ended up becoming my wife, and she’s here tonight.”
Again, like so many things related to Kanye (to say nothing of the Kardashians), it’s easy to scoff at this monologue; it’s easy to pick apart the idea that he was saved from his habitually predatory relationships by meeting the “right” woman–and a married woman, for whom he allegedly destroyed his own serious relationship, at that. But isn’t it also appropriate, in an album so concerned with the endless and unavoidable cycle of fucking up, that Kanye’s way out of his “twisted fantasy” is more or less the same as his way in? Is it not oddly poetic that Kanye sought solace from the whirlwind pressures of fame by burrowing himself even deeper, into the eye of the hurricane, and ultimately marrying into a family whose surname is a byword for the absurdities of early 21st century celebrity culture? If nothing else, “Lost in the World” is certainly the most beautiful song ever to be written about a cast member from an E! reality TV series; and, unless there’s a moving tribute to Ice Loves Coco out there somewhere I don’t know about, I suspect it will retain that title.
“Lost in the World” also, like the rest of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, contains further depths than its glossy surface suggests. At first glance, it’s a little baffling that the album version of “Lost in the World” concludes with a coda titled “Who Will Survive in America,” featuring an extensive sample from Gil Scott-Heron’s revolutionary 1970 poem “Comment #1.” What, one might reasonably ask, does West’s apparently transcendent love for a celebutante have to do with Scott-Heron’s chronicle of the deep-seated rage of the Black Power movement? It’s a troubling question that will recur all the more frequently in the years to come: is Kanye merely appropriating the history of African American civil rights to serve his own shallow ends, or is he actually saying something of substance? But I, at least, fall on the latter side of the question. As Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times wrote in her review of the album, “The rootlessness West celebrates and despairs of on ‘Fantasy’ belongs to someone who feels unwelcome everywhere. This isn’t just a personal problem. It’s the curse of what the theorist Michael Eric Dyson has called ‘the exceptional black man,’ embraced for his talents but singled out for the color of his skin.”
Kanye’s use of Scott-Heron’s poem resonates directly with the frustration he expressed in “Gorgeous” of being singled out for “random” airport searches, of vying for the also-ran artistic mantle of a “Black Beatle”–which, as he snarls, is nothing more than “a fuckin’ roach.” But while for Scott-Heron the question of “Who Will Survive in America” was answered as soon as it had been posed–the Black man would survive, obviously, after inevitably rising up to overthrow the white pigs–one gets the sense that for Kanye it’s more of an open question. He senses that, even at the pinnacle of his fame (“Can we get much higher?”), he’s still a second-class citizen; the fallout after the Taylor Swift incident did nothing if not confirm that fact. He wants to crack that glass ceiling, but he remains uncertain that he’ll survive the process–especially with his own self-destructive tendencies weighing him down. As Powers notes, both Scott-Heron’s original recording and Kanye’s sample end with a crowd’s applause. But it’s telling that what was a perfectly respectable amount of clapping for Scott-Heron’s 1970 poetry reading at a Harlem nightclub sounds, at the end of Kanye’s magnum opus, remarkably hesitant and scattered; the sound of an audience not getting the message, like those screaming fans in the background of “Pinocchio Story.”
And that’s how My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ends: a fiery call to arms met by polite, understated applause. It’s a fitting end to such a complex album, and an even more fitting beginning to the next phase in Kanye’s career, which found him struggling even more against the forces–real or imagined–that he felt holding him back. Because curiously enough, despite near-universal acclaim for the album, Kanye remained misunderstood at the end of 2010. His career was rehabilitated; he was praised for his album’s masterful fusion of its various musical styles; he was even (gasp) taken seriously in some circles; and yet he remained, and remains, a deeply divisive figure. Some of this, you’ll recall from my last post in November, I will fully admit is his own fault (and trust me when I say that mine was one of the first palms to slap against a face in exasperation when I saw his tweet about Bill Cosby last night). But some of it also bears further examination.
So I’ll see you again soon–after the release of whatever T.L.O.P. stands for–with the remaining chapters of the series. Meanwhile, for you Spotify users, here’s the story so far: