November 27, 2017
By: Thomas Penney
Following the fallout from 2009’s VMA incident, in which Kanye West interrupted a universally adored white woman to promote Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video, the guileful artist sent himself into exile.
The deteriorating state of West’s life forced the egomaniacal genius out of the public eye. Interestingly, for all the talk of West as a controversial public figure, he is a notable recluse. He has been spotted around Los Angeles, like a spectre amid the throngs of celebrities and artists, after reportedly locking himself away atop a Wyoming mountain to work on his next project. This is reminiscent of his hiatus from public life in 2009, when he absconded to Hawaii to record what would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
That time in Hawaii would not come to define pop music the way 808s & Heartbreak did. It would not result in a misunderstood masterwork that would only be appreciated in hindsight. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF) was immediate in its impact. Volumes could be written on the way it was recorded. Producers and engineers, kept behind locked doors 24 hours a day, worked with West to turn his vision into a reality. Artists were flown in and out at his convenience to contribute verses and ideas to the project. There is no shortage of intrigue in the album’s construction.
However, the most fascinating collaboration was not one of a musical nature. When it came time to create the artwork for MBDTF, West chose contemporary visual artist George Condo. Condo works in several mediums, chief among them painting, and is well known for his historically informed abstract portraits. For the album, West commissioned several paintings for the cover. The final, official cover is the now infamous “Phoenix Straddling Man”, which was banned by several retailers, including Wal-Mart and iTunes.
Condo told Vulture, “[Venus is] a kind of fragment, between a sphinx, a phoenix, a haunting ghost, a harpy. And then West is also in some sort of strange 1970s burned-out back room of a Chicago blues club having a beer — so far away from the real West that it’s just a scream.” There were several other covers considered (detailed here). Condo was so enamoured with the immediacy and impact of the music that he, in just a few days, had created a collection of paintings that rival the works he in his permanent collections at the New York Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.
This album inspired one of the most respected visual artists of the past 30 years to create an in-depth collection of work, a collaboration that speaks to the scope of MBDTF’s genius. Some albums inspire copycat works, or influence generations of artists to mimic the aesthetic it put forth. The aforementioned 808s & Heartbreak is largely responsible for today’s greatest hit maker, Drake’s, popularity. MBDTF did not inspire others to make attempts to adopt its style and sound, because that is impossible. It would be like trying to slap an alligator and not get bitten; there can only be failure.
Calling it an album does a disservice to the importance of MBDTF as a cultural artifact. MBDTF stands alone, a singular example of musical genius that is yet to be dethroned as the greatest musical work of the century. It could be argued, or simply stated, that it holds the title as the greatest work of art in the 21st century. Between the music, the Condo paintings, and the Runaway short film, it is an example of anomalous genius.
There is no genre to slot this into. The two greatest achievements on the album, “Runaway” and “All of the Lights”, exemplify the sprawling nature of MBDTF. “Runaway” is modern Greek Tragedy scored by the haunting intro, melancholic piano in E major, that paints a cripplingly honest portrait of West’s struggles with his own destructive nature. Pusha T, best known for his work with the group, Clipse, provides a verse describing West as a scumbag, which West himself demanded. Its simplicity belies its sprawl, ending with a five-minute vocoder interlude that reads like a scream into the cavern of West’s toxic masculinity.
“All of the Lights” explores similar ideas, lyrically anyway. West, over the now iconic French horns, raps honestly about domestic violence from the viewpoint of the jealous man. His willingness to describe a situation from this point of view is discomforting, the ugliness of the words in contrast with the beauty of the full orchestral arrangement scoring the track. The song features contributions from fourteen artists, all of them except Rihanna listed as additional vocalists in the liner notes. “Turn up the lights in here, baby / Extra bright, I want y’all to see this.” Rihanna’s vocals, written by The Dream, demand that listeners look at the tumultuous nature of West’s life and relationships. West’s words describe a man that should and is viewed with a level of disgust.
As if to redeem the off-putting levels of masculine posturing, it should be remembered that one of the single greatest verses of decade comes from Nicki Minaj. How fitting that on “Monster” three giants of rap music (Rick Ross, Kanye West, and JAY-Z) are outshined by Minaj. The unhinged ferocity of her verse is in every way level with her male counterparts. “Monster” has been held up as a career defining song for Minaj. The male dominated sphere of rap music was suddenly, if briefly, flipped onto its head, while Nicki stood over it, breathing fire onto her peers. Minaj dispays classic financial bravado (“50 K for a verse no album out / Yeah, my money’s so tall that my Barbiez gotta climb it”) and reverses typical gender roles in rap by asserting her own sexuality with lines like “I think me, you [West] and Am [Amber Rose] should ménage Friday.” Minaj’s contribution to the album not only made “Monster” an instant classic, but it remains an example of women taking control in a male dominated industry.
That is the genius of the album. West, often criticised for his problematic ways, demands that those ways be examined. It is a soul bearing work that confronts listeners with a quandary. Kanye West shows the world what is inside his heart, with brutal and painful honesty. Listeners are forced to struggle with the beauty of a person’s soul in light of all its flaws and problems. While pondering the quandary, the album blows out the speakers.