Kanye West was in an uncertain place when he began work on his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Emotionally raw after the break-up of his relationship with model Amber Rose, his public image had been tarnished by the infamous Taylor Swift incident at the 2009 VMAs.
West’s answer to the whirlwind of controversy that followed that episode was a period of self-imposed exile from the limelight. He relocated to Hawaii and invited a plethora of fellow producers and artists – among them Rick Ross, Drake, Jay Z, Rihanna, Elton John, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, RZA, Q-Tip and Madlib – to join him in a self-styled “rap camp” at Honolulu’s Avex Recording Studios. Booking out the complex’s three session rooms 24 hours a day for an extended period, the recording process behind My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was one of inspired creativity as West hopped from room to room, moving on whenever he hit a creative wall with a song.
Never spending a full night away from the studio (he opted instead to take 90-minute power naps on chairs and sofas), Kanye built up a communal atmosphere that Q-Tip described as “music by committee”. “When he has his beats or rhymes, he offers them up to the committee and we’re all invited to dissect, strip or add on to what he’s already started,” the A Tribe Called Quest MC recalled.
The result of this feverish recording process was a wildly creative and hugely ambitious work, as complex, fractured, and ingenious as West himself. Blending elements from his previous albums – the baroque, grandiose excess of Late Registration, the lyrical open-heartedness of 808s And Heartbreak, and the genre-bending maximalism of Graduation – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy straddles the chart-savvy and the underground.
Lyrically, West was at his most self-assuredly bombastic. “Runaway” found him tackling his often controversial image head on over a production that mixed spare piano stabs with tough beats, celebrating his infamy with the line, “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags.” Elsewhere, “Power”’s acerbic lyrics come accompanied by shredding guitars and an ingenious King Crimson sample. The more introspective “Blame Game” deals with the fallout of the break-up of his relationship with Amber Rose, while “All Of The Lights” featured guest turns from a galaxy of stars including Fergie, Alicia Keys, Elton John, and Rihanna. For the horror-themed posse cut “Monster,” West wrung fine performances from Justin Vernon, Jay Z, Rick Ross, and a spectacular off-the-wall turn by Nicki Minaj, in one of her finest guest spots.
Released at the time to rapturous critical response (it received a perfect 10 from Pitchfork and topped many end-of-year lists), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy amazed and appalled listeners in equal measure, and remains the most lauded and debated album of Kanye West’s illustrious career.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can be bought here.