Many of the bands that I’ve already discussed in this little blog, as well as many of the ones I’ll discuss in the upcoming days, had the quality of their output continue to ebb as they released more albums. ‘Sophomore slump’ is a well-used term in music criticism for a reason! It’s certainly hard to capture the spark and drive that begat your first great album a second time! I haven’t even made one great album! But a sustained run of quality albums is the mark of a truly great artist or band, and something that I feel is more rare nowadays, in the era of streaming and music-on-demand, than it was previously.
There are certainly contemporary artists who break this mold – James Blake, Big Thief, Frank Ocean, and Kendrick Lamar are all artists who have not released a bad album yet, in my opinion. But the greatest unbroken run of stellar albums (rivalled perhaps by the Beatles run from “Rubber Soul” to “Let It Be”) was also created by a contemporary artist, and the record is unlikely to be broken any time soon. I’m talking, of course, about Kanye West and his run of seven, nine (counting the collaborations “Watch the Throne” and “Kids See Ghosts,” which I do), or ten (counting “ye”, which I also do) near-flawless albums. Kanye is a hip-hop artist, in the general sense, but his albums’ genres run the gamut from his 2004 debut “The College Dropout”’s chipmunk-soul, through the acid-wash and strobe lights of “Graduation” and 2008’s genre-bending and incredibly influential “808s and Heartbreak,” to the industrial noise of 2013’s “Yeezus.” And in the middle of this incredible run was Kanye’s magnum opus, the maximalist screed “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
Nowadays, I would describe myself as a rap fan, although I certainly have some boomer tendencies when it comes to newer rap artists – I need to make sure that the rap and emo music on my plate don’t touch, okay? – but in 2010 my hip-hop fandom was in its infancy. I was having some success with Lil Wayne’s word-salad transmissions and Outkast’s Southern funk, and ‘Best I Ever Had’ had burrowed its way into my brain like it had everyone else’s, but I wasn’t actively searching for new hip-hop music. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” changed that. The album pushes the boundaries of what I (and many others) considered hip-hop to be, and cemented my love of rap music.
The origin story of “MBDTF” is fairly well known – after lukewarm reception to his previous album “808s and Heartbreak” (reappraisal has given that album the recognition it deserves), Kanye holed up in Hawaii, flying out producers and guests to his studio in order to put together his new album. Then, songs started dropping – every Friday Kanye would release a new single, calling the release dates GOOD Fridays, after the name of his record label. Most of the songs were great, and most didn’t end up on the album. And then finally, in late November 2010, “MBDTF” finally came out.
The music is incredible, obviously, but it’s hard to describe how revelatory it was to me. Perhaps the best comparison I can make isn’t a musical one – “MBDTF” is best compared to a video game like “Breath of the Wild” or “Witcher 3,” games where every inch of their immense worlds are filled with interesting and vivid and fun things to do and see. “MBDTF” has that type of creative density, every song containing multitudes of ideas and flourishes, and every single one working. Nicki Minaj doing a fake British accent on opener ‘Dark Fantasy?’ Yup! Kanye putting his voice through a Strokes filter and out-rapping Raekwon on ‘Gorgeous?’ Sure thing. Flipping King Crimson and Black Sabbath songs and turning them into something even better? For Kanye, it’s simple. He even decided to spend a full five minutes doing a Vocoder freakout to cap off the album’s centrepiece, ‘Runaway,’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way. “MBDTF” is the sound of a truly brilliant artist at the top of his game, and changed the way I think about and consume rap music specifically, but also the scope of what an album could be to me.
Kanye has obviously had a tumultuous public life, even making it difficult for someone like me who tries to separate the artist from their art (let it be known, though, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” was absolutely on the mark). But when you listen to something like “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” it’s easy to forget it all and just appreciate listening to a master at the height of their craft.