Kanye West is easily the most divisive person in pop culture. For almost two decades, he has split the public precisely down the middle: one side beaming in adoration and the other side heaving in repulsion. Especially in recent years, the division between his fans and his critics has widened drastically – with only few able to straddle that line. But, regardless of what Kanye the tweeter/hopeful presidential candidate/MAGA hat-wearer is doing, Kanye the artist has – for the most part – remained pretty consistent.
People love to call Kanye West a musical genius, including the man himself. Whether he as an overall artist is worthy of the accolade might depend on who you ask, though his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, objectively, a work of genius.
2010 saw Kanye West solidify his place in mainstream music after being shunned for what would become one of his biggest scandals to date. A drunken rant humiliating a young country artist (you might have heard of her?) on stage at the MTV VMAs could have single-handedly ruined his career, but he went away, honed his craft and came back with an album that is, more often than not, described as one of the best albums of the 21st century, if not all time.
This week, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy celebrates its 10th birthday, and in a nod to the seminal record reaching double digits, MTV Australia has given a definitive ranking of every single song in its tracklist.
12. "Blame Game" (feat. John Legend)
Coming in at just under eight minutes, "Blame Game" is a rare moment of calm in an album that is teeming with haunting percussion and breathless production. Set over delicate keys and with John Legend's fragile voice helming the chorus, West breaks down the toxicity in his relationship with a lover, but also with his fame.
The entire album envisions fame as a lover he shouldn't be with, and "Blame Game" feels like a sombre yet amicable conversation between the two. It's a track that takes many turns, such as the interpolation of Chloe Mitchell's poem, Your Bitter Is My Sweet/Blame Game, or the cheeky, albeit grating outro from Chris Rock, who explains to Kanye's ex-lover that he's "never seen this part of pussy town before", but it is a respite among the chaos of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That chaos is what we live for.
11. "Who Will Survive In America"
While the closing song on MBDTF barely passes as a Kanye track, its eerily prophetic words make it a key part of the story. Sampled from Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 track "Comment #1", the song – over relentless percussion – doesn't give us the catharsis we might want. Instead, it gives us the grim reality.
With America used as a metaphor for fame, it juxtaposes what fame might appear to be from the outside compared to what it actually is: "America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey". America is the homeland of fame as we know it: glamorous, luxurious, coated in excess. Kanye West, especially in the years following the release of MBDTF, has dived head-first into that world. He might be the most famous man on the planet.
As he struggles to believe he can overcome the challenges of celebrity in "Who Will Survive In America", it would seem, 10 years later, that he was right: he couldn't escape it even if he wanted to.
10. "Dark Fantasy"
Never one to shy away from a gospel influence, the opening track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is but a dipped toe in the toxic fame pool. In a playful melancholic way, West outlines how fame has negatively impacted him and the cycles of bad habits he indulges in as an effort to relieve him: "Sorry for the night demons that still visit me / The plan was to drink until the pain over / But what's worse, the pain or the hangover?".
Slowly, you begin to realise that Kanye isn't exactly looking for a fix to his problems, but just trying to choose which one is going to hurt him less. As he tries to work out his relationship with fame throughout the course of the album, it feels like he already knows it is a futile mission, as is confirmed in "Who Will Survive In America".
9. "So Appalled" (feat. Jay-Z, Pusha T, Swizz Beats, RZA and CyHi The Prince)
The closest thing we get to a cypher on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, "So Appalled" is essentially six dudes standing around a fire, drink in hand, wondering how it all went so wrong. That's the best thing it could be, too, as the track feels like one of Kanye's more contemplative in his entire career.
The interplay between West and Swizz Beats on the chorus – "One hand in the air if you don't really care / Two hands in the air if you don't really care" – is droll enough that it subverts the otherwise generic, and heinously overused, lyrics throughout pop music.
The shining moment here is Jay-Z's verse, who questions his own relevance and reverence: "I went from the favourite to the most hated / But would you rather be underpaid or overrated?" He ponders whether he should quit now and have his legacy speak for itself, or continue to work past his perceived prime and tarnish it all. Some would argue that Kanye has done just that.
8. "Hell Of A Life"
Over a robotic and dark sample of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man", Kanye West almost hits his macabre peak on "Hell Of A Life". While every other song on MBDTF is a general exploration of overarching themes, "Hell Of A Life" hones in on one particular storyline: Kanye using his fame to have a one night stand with a pornstar.
It puts the emphasis on the final word of the album's title, and how it can help ease the wounds of fame, at least for a night. The key part of the song comes with West's diction – not once does he clearly pronounce the 'f' in "life", and he says the word six times. Out of anyone else's mouth it could have been just a slip, but for someone as meticulous as West, it's a warning sign: fame isn't all it's cracked up to be, and neither are the perceived perks that come with it.
7. "Lost In The World" (feat. Bon Iver)
"Lost In The World" is a synthesised, autotuned dream. Kanye West is no longer this musical monolith looming over us all with his fame, but a mere microbe drowning in it. Kim Kardashian West revealed yesterday (Monday 23 November) that a large portion of lyrics for the song came from a poem he wrote her before they started dating, which seems prophetic considering she was the one that helped him centre himself after a turbulent and traumatic few years. But Kanye doesn't appear angry or stressed that he's lost in his own celebrity. In fact, it feels like more of a rejoice than anything.
"Lost In The World" marks the penultimate song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it would seem that West is giving in to the toxic fame culture he has just spent the rest of the album decrying.
6. "Gorgeous" (feat. Kid Cudi & Raekwon)
Kanye West and Kid Cudi together have never failed. On "Gorgeous", the first of two collabs they have on MBDTF, Cudi's signature rich vocals pave the way for Kanye to deliver some of his most biting bars on the entire album. It's an explicit takedown of the racial injustices that plague America.
Over a fuzzy, blues-inspired melody, West ponders his place in the country and puts himself forward as a very successful and wealthy Black man. But, he reaches a moral crossroads as he discovers that his success and his wealth will never detract from the colour of his skin; what he feels matters most to the powers that be in America. The song is full of couplets that could easily define his career as a lyricist – "Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion? / The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing" or the quippier "And what's a Black Beatle anyway, a fuckin' roach? / I guess that's why they got me sitting in fuckin' coach".
West exposes the reality that his Blackness will always mean that he doesn't get the amount of credit, rewards or accolades that a white man would if they achieved the same things. Kanye faces somewhat familiar, if not inverse, struggles in 2020. He's routinely dragged through the media and painted as a pop culture villain – and there's plenty of reasons why that feels like a fair-enough depiction – but you'd be foolish to think that widespread demonisation has nothing to do with his skin colour.
5. "All Of The Lights (Interlude) / "All Of The Lights"
On paper, a song like "All Of The Lights" should not work. Kanye West is a perfectionist and a control freak when it comes to his music, so the fact that 14 other people – Rihanna, Drake, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Fergie, Tony Williams, The-Dream, Charlie Wilson, Elly Jackson, Ryan Leslie, Alvin Fields and Ken Lewis – all lent their additional vocals to the song should be a recipe for disaster.
Despite the odds, "All Of The Lights" and its beautiful preceding interlude make for one of the most epic moments on the album. Anchored by a barrage of brass that gives a much-needed brightness to a deeply bleak song, "All Of The Lights" marks the dramatic and theatrical centrepiece of MBDTF and has become a cornerstone in West's discography.
4. "Monster" (feat. Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross & Bon Iver)
"Monster" is, very clearly, the "Twisted" in the album's title. There's horror, gore and nightmares at every turn. Whether it's the stalking drums, the distorted screams or the disturbing lyrics, it's a chilling and spine-tingling onslaught of fear and darkness.
Rick Ross opens the song with a brief but harrowing intro, a far cry from his other verse on "Devil In A New Dress", before a bloodthirsty Kanye charges in to embrace the "Monster" label that was thrust upon him by the public, which ultimately takes him over. Jay-Z matches his energy, delivering an exasperated and scorned verse where he lists off some of his most primal tendencies, before indulging in them.
And then comes Nicki Minaj's legendary verse.
It's objectively the best thing Nicki Minaj has ever done, and it's the type of rare verse that made its way into the wider cultural lexicon almost as soon as it was released. Minaj gives herself full reign to be as animated and as theatrical as possible. She begins her verse punchy and stern, before being overcome with growls and grunts, like a werewolf under a full moon. She loses control of herself and lets everything out in the most stunning and enthralling outpour of lyrics shown on the song, and potentially on the album overall.
It's hard to think of a single verse by another rapper as big as Minaj that was so instrumental in forging the trajectory their career would take.
3. "Devil In A New Dress" (feat. Rick Ross)
Lacquered in rich production by Bink! and laced with a breezy sample of Smokey Robinson's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", "Devil In A New Dress" feels like a bright and sparkly dream among a foggy and stormy nightmare. It is immediately arresting. Here, Kanye West explores duality once again, comparing his superstar status to his very human emotions, trying to figure out how any one person could go through such contrasting experiences simultaneously.
The best parts of "Devil In A New Dress" have very little to do with Kanye, though, at least outwardly. Once Kanye finishes singing not-so-sweet nothings to the subject of his lust, Mike Dean comes through with a searing and cinematic guitar solo that cuts right through the dream-like atmosphere the song's piano-led melody has created. Then, Rick Ross storms in with a huge, career-defining verse that makes for quite the finale.
Ross has never rapped with such vigour, fire and intensity, pulling references from throughout history – as far back as Greek mythology and as recently as 2Pac. It's a show-stopping finale to the song that ends with a line that sums up the intensity of his, and Kanye's, own fame: "I'm making love to the angel of death / Catching feelings never stumble, retracing my steps".
"POWER" marks an important moment in Kanye's career – it was the first thing the world heard from him following a scandal that almost ruined his career. Standing in front of an army holding pitchforks and torches, Kanye West looked them all dead in the eye, and told them that they're right.
But, over militant chants and a dizzying prog-rock melody sampling King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man", West darts back and forth. One side of him wallows in his flaws, believing that he is an asshole, he is destructive, he is all these things the world told him he was for what he did – "Reality is catching up with me / Taking my inner child, I'm fighting for custody / With these responsibilities that they entrusted me".
The other side has Kanye West saying "you're right… now watch this." Instead of admitting defeat, West would rather be a sensationalised version of the public's perception of him. He will be egotistical and bombastic, he'll make you hate him even more – "Tell them Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass / More specifically, they can kiss my asshole / I'm an asshole? You n****s got jokes".
The whole thing makes for an abrasive and blood-soaked waltz between these two strains of Kanye's mind before he enters into a meltdown of gargantuan productions. He contemplates suicide at the song's closure. Still high on his ego and his power, he stares down from a penthouse, thinking that he'd rather die than lose his power. He ponders whether a metaphorical fall from the top could only be quelled by a literal fall from the top. He'd die on his own terms, at his artistic peak.
This is what fame has led him to, making for one of the album's most deeply sombre and harrowing moments.
1. "Runaway" (feat. Pusha T)
A single push of a piano key can send a sold-out stadium wild. A single push. That is the impact of Kanye West's "Runaway", the best song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the best song of his career.
A depressingly beautiful non-apology, "Runaway" is as introspective and vulnerable as Kanye West might ever get. He sits down and gently unpacks all his flaws to his lover, and uses them as examples as to why she should leave – "Never was much of a romantic / I could never take the intimacy / And I know I did damage / 'Cause the look in your eyes is killing me."
Throughout the course of the almost 10-minute song, West painstakingly tries to pry himself from the stranglehold of fame and celebrity and, once he realises it might be impossible, begs his lover to save herself and go on without her. The song is then thrust into with a wry delivery from Pusha T, who faces the same problems West does but is far less sympathetic – "I did it, alright, alright, I admit it / Now pick your next move, you could leave or live with it."
Closing the song is an ethereal vocoder solo, taking the distortion heard throughout the song to an extraterrestrial level. It's transcendent, almost as if a Kanye spirit is flying through the night sky and staring down at the darkness in his life. His lover might be better off without him, but he doubts that he'll be better off alone.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is flooded with larger-than-life metaphors of how fame changed Kanye, and how he realises that he's in too deep now to ever leave this life. But, hidden among all the darkness, all the twistedness and every jarring fantasy on the album, "Runaway" gives us that much-needed piece of beauty. Kanye West, a man who could not be more removed from the mundanity of life, felt normal for a moment. And that moment made for a shining point in his legacy, and in music history, that can never be tarnished.
Listen to Kanye West's album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in full here: