“This is a list that ranks sustained musical greatness in the new decade, so Kanye West’s name absolutely deserves to be at the #1 spot. But wouldn’t it be more accurate if it was just Kanye West’s name? If Benz vs. Backpack was the dichotomy that defined his early creative struggle, now it’s Kanye West vs. The Album, an antiquated format that increasingly seems ill-equipped to quantify the magnitude and influence of his multimedia celebrity and forward-thinking artistry. Yes, your grandparents and cousins and coworkers know who he is, but could you have a conversation with them about any of his songs? When was the last time they heard “Power” or “All of the Lights” in a public setting without their permission? West’s decade-long imperial phase is every bit as impressive as those of Prince, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder… except on the charts and on radio playlists. Where’s his document of pop culture singularity?
Well, sometimes the moment calls for a There’s a Riot Goin’ On or a Stankoniarather than Thriller or Purple Rain, a reality check for the fractious, dystopian present where “who will survive in America?” doesn’t seem like a rhetorical question. And the fact that an album that captured the beautiful, dark twisted reality of 2010 still managed to sell 1.5 million copies is one of its lesser triumphs. Smarting from his Taylor Swift and Bonnaroo PR disasters, the death of his mother, and his first critical failure, all while incapacitated by his volatile relationship with Amber Rose, the disharmony of Kanye West’s personal life was in tune with the state of hip-hop, the music industry, and the economic and political state of America as a whole midway through the first Obama administration—still unable or unwilling to process the turmoil of a hard couple of years, still tripping off the power, hedonism, and nihilism engaged in mortal combat. Equally accounting for West’s artistic adaptability and personal stubbornness, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasybuilds a monument as Rome burns.
While his first two masterworks presented a complex and complete portrait of a man, you likely bought The College Dropout and Late Registration on CD and could resolve the contradictions and flaws by cutting out the skits and skipping the last couple of tracks. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasyimpresses with its impenetrable wholeness. Befitting a record that owes its creation to a mythical, Dream-Team recording process on a Hawaiian island, there’s one way in and no guaranteed means of escape: unusually lengthy songs impervious to fast-forwarding are filled with guitar solos, extended outros, surprise guest verses, and French horns. It’s post-Twitter, pre-Vine and Snapchat; the decade’s information overload with a vinyl-era attention span, forcing you to acknowledge and appreciate every stumble on the way to an emotional and musical breakthrough.
And so, everything fascinating about Kanye West, the person, is inextricable from Kanye West, the artist, and becomes shorthand for nearly everything fascinating about pop in 2010. “Sex is on fire/ I’m the King of Leona Lewis”, the “Obama-nation of Obama’s nation” and, in between, a guy who out-raps Raekwon on his A-game. Nicki Minaj’s terrible British accent and a guest verse that altered the landscape like none other since Busta Rhymes’ on “Scenario”. “All of the Lights” has about 50 Grammys in its credits and yet it’s mixed like a Sleigh Bells song and features Fergie rapping about sniffing coke. A mogul gets emotional and schizophrenic during “Blame Game”, a harrowing breakup song that ends with Chris Rock discovering a new part of Pussy Town. Aphex Twin and King Crimson are beautifully sampled, the already dumbass “Iron Man” melody is dumbed down even further on a song about fucking a porn star, which is also about Kanye West’s spiritual awakening. 808s & Heartbreak is redeemed with the 9-minute opus “Runaway”; the first half was used for a beer commercial and the second for the true death of Auto-Tune, a burial at sea. The careers of Pusha T and Charlie Wilson are revitalized, while in the span of 16 bars, the career of CyHi Da Prince begins and then ends with indignity and schadenfreude worthy of Lamar Odom and Matt Leinart. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy asks “Can we get much higher?” and ends with polite applause.
Which is ridiculous in light of its bold conception, but let’s not forget its sillier working title (Good Ass Job), the untested G.O.O.D. Friday rollout, and the fact that Kanye West’s cultural cachet was at its lowest point. The easiest way to separate My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from the baggage of its critical and commercial praise is to remember and appreciate the instability of its moment; there was no guarantee that this wasn’t going to be a career-killing flop.
But in 2014, the best way to appreciate My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is to step outside the fortress and meet the neighbors. West broke the ground upon which the new decade’s most brilliant architects built their masterworks; Bon Iver, Take Care, Channel Orange, and good kid, m.A.A.d citydon’t exist without the blueprint of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The list ends here because it’s where the decade truly begins. —Ian Cohen”