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Has Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” come true?

What has Yeezy taught us, five years since the release of arguably his most opulent album?

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Kanye West is the most polarising figure in millennial pop, having transcended hip-hop a long time ago. Some see him as an auteur, others a monster egotist and, yo, dude knows it. West’s eccentric fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF)—released five years ago, almost to the day—is a meta hip-hopera about fame, image, and mythos in an age of rampant materialism and spiritual desolation. West revels in his myriad contradictions as self-doubting and narcissistic, humiliated and defiant, brooding and boastful. Yet, crucially, he reveals a canny self-awareness.

The Chicago native initially found success as a producer, his breakthrough occurring in 2001 with Jay Z’s The Blueprint. West was then into pitching up old soul samples, chipmunk-style, following the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. But he wanted to rap. Reserved in person, West was never an obvious showman and he didn’t fit the rapper archetype. Hova was unconvinced—West had been raised in middle-class surrounds by his English professor mother, Dr Donda West, he didn’t have any tales of hustling on Chiraq’s streets. Nonetheless, a determined West explored his own mode of conscious, if conflicted, hip-hop on 2004’s The College Dropout—home to his first classic single, ‘Jesus Walks’. He’d subsequently expand the genre, ignoring boom-bap orthodoxies. West asserted that imagination was as important as ‘skill’. And by MBDTF, the nervously exuberant West had a Sasha Fierce-like alter ego: the cocky, blunt Yeezy we recognise today.

During a televised benefit for Hurricane Katrina’s (predominantly black) victims in 2005, West, going off-script, charged President George W Bush with racism over his tardy response (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”). He generated more controversy for impulsively bum-rushing the stage at award ceremonies. First, at the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards when Justice and Simian scored “Best Video” for We Are Your Friends, over West’s Touch The Sky (Justice later cheerfully thanked him for the publicity). However, three years on, our self-appointed arbiter of cool copped a ferocious backlash for seizing the mic from country sweetheart Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards after she’d won Best Female Video over the ‘worthier’ Beyoncé—even President Obama labelled West a “jackass”.

West banished himself to Hawaii, recording around the clock with an epic cast of collaborators—including now in-demand studio-types Jeff Bhasker and Emile Haynie. Bhasker had assisted with West’s 2008 808s & Heartbreak, the existentialist album that served as a blueprint for emo-rap and presaged Drake’s rise. But where 808s was emotional and minimalist, MBDTF was bombastic and maximalist. West combined his early retro-nuevo soul vibes, Late Registration’s orchestral splendour, and the electronic overtones of the anthemic Graduation and Auto-Tuned 808sMBDTF affirms West’s acumen as a curator.

The album opens with the gospelphonic ‘Dark Fantasy’ with Nicki Minaj, assuming a Cockney accent, reciting a twisted nursery rhyme (which is actually a corruption of Roald Dahl’s Cinderella). West acknowledges his destructive hedonism, ruminating, “the plan was to drink until the pain over/But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” The track samples Mike Oldfield’s suitably prog-rock ‘In High Places’. Symbolically, West’s hero RZA co-produces.

West challenges the media’s (mis)representations of him—and latent racism—on songs like ‘POWER’, the lead single, featuring Detroit neo-soulster Dwele (and underground producer S1). Elsewhere, he alludes to the messy breakdown of his relationship with model Amber Rose. The album’s biggest Australian hit was ‘All Of The Lights’, for which West assembled a virtual choir of famous music pals, with Rihanna as soloist and Elton John playing piano. West, still caricatured for his ‘rants’, mocks himself on the nine-minute ‘Runaway’, proving he really does have comic flair.

While making MBDTF, West formed an implausible friendship with nu-folkie Justin Vernon (word is that he was introduced to Bon Iver’s music by Ed Banger Records’ Pedro Winter). The tribal ‘Lost In The World’ samples Bon Iver’s Auto-Tuned ‘Woods’, before segueing into ‘Who Will Survive In America’—West’s final critique of (the black) American Dream that recontextualises Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word poem Comment No 1.

For MBDTF’s cover, West chose a painting of a black swan ballerina by “artificial realist” George Condo (retailers rejected a nude one of him)—which is subversively surrealist. And the album proved a triumph – it was hailed a masterpiece and named Album of the Year by numerous media outlets. Music journos questioned why MBDTF wasn’t nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, instead being relegated to the rap category. Curiously, West maintains that both 808s and 2013’s trap-punk Yeezus are stronger than MBDTF. He’s all but dismissed it as his “apology” to Swift—and the world. Indeed, he no longer feels redemptive.

In 2015? It seems as though things have come full circle for West. The sprightly Tay Tay is credited with inventing her own sub-diss pop genre, while West’s notorious interjection of her, “Ima let you finish”, is an enduring meme—and colloquialism. West headlined June’s Glastonbury, despite an ugly petition to have him dropped, proclaiming himself “the greatest living rock star on the planet” and fans await the pariah-cum-messiah’s next ambitious LP, SWISH.

He’s a bigger celebrity than ever, having wed the equally divisive reality TV star Kim Kardashian. This year Time again listed him as one of “The 100 Most Influential People” and after irking two US presidents, West announced his intention to run for office in 2020 at (where else?) August’s VMAs, where he was finally honoured. Yeezy is the subject of unauthorised biographies, the latest Mark Beaumont’s Kanye West: God & Monster. But, then, like that ’90s postmodern icon Madonna, West’s music has also been intellectualised; Kirk Walker Graves has penned a guide to MBDTF in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series and Julius Bailey has edited a book of essays, The Cultural Impact Of Kanye West.

Perhaps his beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy did become a reality after all. Donda would be proud.

  • Words: Cyclone Wehner

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