When Kanye West’s newest record The Life of Pablo was temporarily dubbed Waves, West claimed that it was not only the album of the year, but also the “album of life.” While The Life of Pablo is certainly promising, both in its sonic scope and sprawling ambition, there is nothing that Kanye can create at this point that comes close to the greatness of his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
In addition to being one of the best hip-hop records of the 21st century, MBDTF established Kanye at the peak of his career. Sure, he had already accumulated a large amount of controversy, from impulsively denouncing George W. Bush on live TV to his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs. But personal fits aside, Kanye was evolving as a musician and aesthetic artist and MBDTF is clear proof of that.
Before the album was released in late 2010, West had been known to mess around with hip-hop conventions. He imbued Southern soul in his 2004 debut The College Dropout, string-oriented pop in 2005’s Late Registration, U2-inspired electronica in 2007’s Graduation and Auto-Tuned melancholy in 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak. But with MBDTF, Kanye stripped down every single element of hip hop to its core and built up an elaborate, operatic and genre-blending album. No longer was Kanye just an ordinary rapper with clever lyrics and infectious beats. Kanye had reached GOAT-level, and he knew it.
In some respects, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can be considered a near-perfect album. From its jaw-dropping guest list to its socially conscious themes, MBDTF saw Kanye at his most vulnerable, most inspired and most creative. “Power” and “Runaway,” in particular, hold a special significance for how they made the record so remarkable. The former is both a snarling diss track and self-loathing anthem about the issues of excess and celebrity; the latter is an epic “toast to the douchebags” (aka the media), in which Kanye accepts his faults and his past failed relationships. Both songs were powerful, exemplary and cathartic expressions that gave listeners a deeper glimpse into Kanye’s mad genius and incisive thoughts on society. Kanye managed to take the negative perception he received from the public and used it to create a modern day masterpiece. Even though he can be a problematic figure at times, there’s no denying that Kanye possesses an unprecedented gift for developing catchy and thought-provoking music.
MBDTF is quite like nothing Kanye — or any hip hop artist, for that matter — has ever done, or will ever do. With the theatrical opener “Dark Fantasy,” the gospel-tinged “Devil in a New Dress,” the demonically raunchy “Hell of a Life” or the seething rage of the star-studded “Monster,” it’s hard to find a single flaw in MBDTF. Plus, is there anything as witty and guffaw-inducing as the line “Have you ever had a sex with a pharaoh?/Put the pussy in the sarcophagus”? The manic, jubilant “All of the Lights” also showed that Kanye is the only artist ever who can put Fergie, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John and Alicia Keys on the same song. The Aphex Twin-sampling “Blame Game” dealt with tragedy and comedy, with John Legend singing a mournful hook while Chris Rock leaves a hysterically vulgar voicemail. Even the album’s bonus track, “See Me Now,” made for an extra treat as a breathtaking finale that included welcome features from Beyoncé, Charlie Wilson and Big Sean.
As one of my favorite albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has held personal significance for me. I used “Power” in a high school film essay on William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies;” I’ve rapped “Monster” with my best friend from back home several times; I watched the premiere of the “Runaway” music video on MTV in its entirety; I listened to the whole album track-by-track with my sister on a plane ride. Without a doubt, Kanye has continued, and will continue, to reach for new heights in his music. Yet his latest work, while fantastic, doesn’t contain as much of the same gratification as MBDTF did. 2013’s incredible Yeezus saw Kanye experimenting with newer genres and exploring the darker depths of hip-hop, but its meager 10 tracks and divisive reception distilled the album. This year’s The Life of Pablo is already garnering both acclaim and reservation, in that it’s both extraordinary and messy. Kanye may receive 100 Grammys one day, but there’s no denying that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will remain Kanye’s best, most accomplished, and most iconic record.