Though it falls just short of being the flawless masterpiece it is often heralded as, West’s fifth record still carries the enormous impact it had upon release. It’s his best, and emphatically among the 2010s’ finest albums.
Originally published on 11/22/20.
In 2020, it can be hard to remember a time when Kanye West was more of a musical icon than an unhinged celebrity. He was once associated just as much with shaping the face of 21st century popular music as he was with his mortifying public outbursts. Nowadays many people hear his name and think only of his outspoken support of Donald Trump, his embarrassing comments on slavery, his disavowal of vaccines, and his repeated failure to deliver projects on their slated release date(s). (I myself have ceased to get hyped up whenever he announces a new album, because there’s little to no chance it actually means anything.) It doesn’t help that his last album, 2019’s Jesus Is King, is by far his weakest to date, a rather underwhelming series of sketches that don’t sound quite finished; one might not be faulted for thinking he’s finally lost it, and that his infamy has overshadowed his genius.
But in 2009, West had recently become a bonafide pop star and cultural icon. He had released four excellent, game-changing albums, each one sounding radically different from the last. He had developed a widespread reputation as a musical genius and visionary, as well as an obsessive perfectionist. The most controversial thing he had yet said was “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Then came the MTV VMAs.
We all remember what happened. It wasn’t exactly a complicated situation. A 19-year-old Taylor Swift was accepting her award for Best Female Video when West walked onstage, took the microphone from her, and declared that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time,” basically implying that she should have won the award instead. The crowd booed him. A visibly shocked and embarrassed Beyoncé later won Video of the Year, during which she invited Swift back onstage, embraced her, and subsequently let her finish her acceptance speech. West was ejected from the ceremony and later issued several non-apologies.
Now that was obviously very childish and unprofessional behavior on West’s part. Immediately he faced universal condemnation from celebrities and the general public alike, the incident quickly becoming the most controversial moment in the VMAs’ history. Then-President Barack Obama referred to him as a “jackass” off the record. Even West’s biggest fans couldn’t defend his actions. Unable to handle all the backlash piling onto him – which, again, he deserved – he retreated to Hawaii, undergoing a self-imposed seclusion.
West then started work on a new album, booking back-to-back, 24/7 sessions at Avex Recording Studio in Honolulu. He toiled almost non-stop for a full year, bringing countless well-known artists and collaborators on board to contribute to the creative process. He moved constantly from control room to control room as engineers, producers, and artists worked tirelessly on multiple songs at a time. West reportedly didn’t sleep a full night until the album was finished, practically living in the studio during the whole recording process.
When My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was released on November 22, 2010, it was immediately met with the highest praise of West’s whole career. Metacritic shows that it was by far the most critically-acclaimed album of 2010, and the second most of the whole decade. Pitchfork gave it a perfect 10, a score that wouldn’t be applied to a new release again until almost a full decade later. Rolling Stone gave it a full five stars and ranked it at #353 on their 2012 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, later moving it all the way up to #17 in 2020. Upon the album’s release, it was instantly and abundantly clear that Kanye West was back, and that he wasn’t going anywhere for some time.
Indeed, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye West’s best album. This is, of course, not a claim to make lightly, as nearly all his albums are excellent, creative, and highly influential for popular music at large. But none of his other works are as fully-formed, expertly produced, lyrically and thematically robust, and emotionally potent as Fantasy. Everything that truly makes (or made) West such a revolutionary artist is turned up to 11 on this record, and it’s undoubtedly one of the best albums of the 2010s.
Let’s start with the production on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ten years later, it still amazes. Every single instrumental here is impeccably put together, each one sending the excessive and maximalist qualities of the album violently crashing down on the listener in full force like a falling piano. Everything that made each of his first four albums stand out is here: the sped-up soul samples of The College Dropout, the classy baroque string sections from Late Registration, the arena-ready synthesizers that permeated Graduation, and the icy electropop that basically birthed Drake on 808s & Heartbreak. On Fantasy, though, there’s more depth and richness to it all than ever before. It’s like you’re listening to a literal king on his throne, an effect that was obviously intentional on West’s part.
There are countless instrumental characteristics on the album to which time has been exceptionally kind. The glamorous wind chimes, opulent cellos, and bottomless pits of vocals on opening track “Dark Fantasy.” The speaker-blowing bass and pounding, expertly-sequenced percussion of “Monster.” The gorgeous Smokey Robinson sample, luxurious strings, and soulful guitar solo on “Devil in a New Dress.” The lone plinking piano notes, rolling drum loops, and morphing bass tones of “Runaway.” The climactic tribal drum beats and massive vocal layers of “Lost in the World.” This is still without a doubt West’s best-produced album overall, and given how scattered and unfocused much of his later material has been – for better or worse – it’s unlikely he’ll ever top the instrumentals here (though he did come pretty close in 2013).
Lyrically, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is also West’s finest. While even his best albums boast a small army of groan-worthy one-liners, there are virtually none whatsoever on this one. On top of that, there are countless lines with densely-packed rhymes and double – sometimes triple – entendres. A whole smattering of West’s best-ever bars can be found on Fantasy; listening to it, it still feels like a 68-minute long flash in the pan, a lengthy stroke of lyrical genius. (Even the puns are funny this time around: “Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why you’re Winslow (your wins low).”)
Anyone going into this album for quality lyricism should look no further than “Gorgeous.” Lyrically this song is not only the best on Fantasy; it’s probably the finest West has ever put out. Sporting much denser and detailed rhyme schemes than he’s typically known for, West rails against social injustice and systemic racism while seamlessly working these themes into the satisfying braggadocio prevalent throughout the album. The song is nothing short of lyrical genius. Just about every single line sports incredible depth, clever wordplay, and quotability, and it all comes together beautifully. It gets to the point where West even outshines legendary Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon, who spits a top-tier verse near the end of the song to close it out. It’s rare that we get to hear West at this level of lyrical genius.
The features on Fantasy are almost universally stunning. Numerous prominent rappers and singers are present on the record, and nearly each and every one of them makes an essential contribution to their respective tracks. Jay-Z, Pusha T, John Legend, Bon Iver, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Raekwon, Swizz Beatz, RZA, and Kid Cudi all bring their A-game. There’s even a whole laundry list of uncredited artists who appear on “All of the Lights” alone, such as Rihanna, Drake, Fergie, Alicia Keys, and even Elton John. The way West utilizes each individual feature on this album is consistently enthralling; he gives them only the most necessary amount of time with almost surgical precision, bringing out the best in his collaborators like he does on most of his projects.
Now for the album’s flaws. There aren’t many, but they’re there, and they occur almost entirely on the record’s back half. While the vast majority of the guest appearances here are nothing short of amazing, Cyhi the Prynce’s verse on “So Appalled” sticks out as the weakest. Some corny puns make themselves known (the “May/April/March” set of bars will never not make me roll my eyes even today), and it’s just not a particularly impressive verse overall. There is also a case to be made for the vocoder outro on the otherwise perfect “Runaway” to not have taken up a third of the song’s nine minutes; cutting it a little shorter might have done some good.
Elsewhere, “Hell of a Life” interpolates the melody from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” on the hook, and it hasn’t aged particularly well, to say the least, as it sounds kind of hokey. Then the extended comedic outro to “Blame Game,” performed by Chris Rock, gets old after a few listens; did it really have to go on for two-and-a-half minutes? Finally, we have the brief closing track “Who Will Survive in America,” which samples an excellent poem by the late great Gil Scott-Heron about racial injustice and the deception behind the American Dream. The song is clearly intended to tie up the album thematically, but unfortunately it falls flat; these themes, while explored on the album, were hardly overarching, and this results in the ending coming across as tacked on.
Regardless, it may not be the perfect album it is frequently hailed as, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is still the sound of an already-great artist at their peak. With wild and unbound creativity, immaculate production, ingenious lyricism, strategically-used features, and thematic power, the album still stands out as a watershed moment in modern music. Ten years later, and West still hasn’t quite topped it; at this point we may as well accept that he never will.
Revisit My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on Apple Music or Spotify below.