Not your typical Halloween album, but West explores darkness as skilfully as James Wan or Clive Barker. There are a couple tracks that focus on werewolves and vampires, but this is a psychological thriller. In horror film terms, his record is more The Ring than it is Friday the 13th. You are missing the gore, but the true horror is in the evil you don’t see on the screen. Much like the original Blair Witch Project the terror is in what evil lurks just outside of the frame. You know it’s out there, but you have no idea where it is. You are vulnerable. Exposed. You can’t see it, but as soon as you let your guard down, it strikes.
Let’s get into all the nerdy liner note stuff behind this dark masterpiece. First of all, putting this record together must have been a Herculean task. The amount of producers, guest artists, writers and studios is mind blowing. Due to samples and lyrics, there are an overwhelming amount of writing credits on this record. THe way Kanye works is that he and other hip hop artists write the lyrics, but he employs so many samples in backing tracks and choruses that he credits those bands as well. This creates some of the best liner notes where one track can have Kanye, RZA, The Byrds, members of Black Sabbath and Bon Iver all credited writers. Some other notable credits go to Gil Scott – Heron, Rick James, Manfred Man, Carole King and members of Yes. Moreover, Kanye recorded this album in three or four different studios from Hawaii to New York, which must have made engineering very challenging.
Two major producers on this record were RZA and Kanye himself. I cannot overstate how revolutionary the production of this record was for hip hop. Kanye and RZA took the “wall of sound” structure and applied it to hip hop. Critics described West’s style as “maximalist” hip hop, where you are bombarded by operatic arrangements and complex instrumental pieces. This record / track structure was unheard of in an age where hip hop was dominated by either jazz influences or straight up stripped back base and electro drum. West creates a symphony with tracks layered on top of each other in a manner befitting a chamber orchestra. Kanye will continue to develop this sound on later records and explore more atonal and aggressive structures / arrangements. One thing is true about Kanye, he is always looking to push hip hop musically and production.
The first track, Dark Fantasy, sets the scene for the entire record, both musically and thematically. Nicki Minaj kicks it off with a narration in an English accent (who knew?) and announces to the audience “Twisted fictions, sick addiction / Well gather ’round children / Zip it listen!” We are told that we are about to hear the record’s story of twisted darkness and we need to pay attention. Then the piano kicks in and you are blown back with a powerful gospel chorus echoing throughout your ears. This overblown wall of gospel singers, piano and bass prepares you for the maximalist instrumentation to follow. Moreover, Kanye’s references to the devil, hell and a seance hints at dark and religious themes that will dominate the rest of the record. Kanye often explores spiritual / religious themes in his music and this record puts them in stark contrast to themes of excess. The first track is just a taster and an opportunity for Kanye to sit you down and teach you how to listen to the rest of the record, before launching into it. Think of this track as a tutorial as you adjust your ears and mind to his creation.
One of the first highlights off the record is Monster. This was a huge track that broke Nicki Minaj onto the scene. She steals the track with one of the best verses on the entire record. She easily outshines both Kanye and Jay – Z on this cut. This track underscores the doom on the record as the initial vocals have deep post production effects that make it sound like Lucifer himself is on the mic. West underscores this unsettling doom with stripped back beats and a chorus of screaming in the background. It sounds like Kanye is recording in front of people being tortured on the sixth circle of hell. Thematically Jay – Z, Kanye and Minaj rap about horrors the have witnessed, excess and self – indulgence without regard for others, “Kill the block, I murder the avenues, I / Rape and pillage your village, women and children.” They take this inner darkness and externalise it as they compare themselves to zombies and vampires, while exclaiming “I’m a muthafucking monster!” One theme throughout the record is how excess and power has rendered Kanye into a loathsome monster. In a sense, his internal darkness metastasises and becomes an external horrific projection for all to witness.
The last track I will look at is probably the most critically acclaimed and covered track on the record. Runaway is a nine plus minute hip hop opera that could be an entire record in and of itself. It has been covered on Westworld and has had countless think pieces written about its impact on music and culture. We will not tackle the entirety of this track, but we will look at some of the key aspects of this song. Primarily, the musical and production choices on this track are extraordinarily bold. The asynchronous and sparse piano opening has notes of Phillip Glass’ moving and complex track Opening. Now, the combination of words that need to come together to have Kanye West and Phillip Glass in the same sentence is hard to contemplate. This underscores how bold this track is on a hip hop record. Thematically, this moves from the creature feature of Monster and becomes the Wolf Creek of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in how it explores the psychological terror for women in relationships with the “assholes” and “scumbags” in the song. Kanye voices a warning found in most horror films when he says, “Babe, I got a plan, run away as fast as you can / Run away from me, baby, run away / Run away from me, baby.” When I hear this I picture a woman frantically running down the middle of the street, bloody and terrified, as the killer methodically stalks her from behind. To top it all off, the track ends with minutes of vocal / guitar / distortion that sounds like a message from another dimension, which is all laid over a bed of strings. Bold. Complex. Thought provoking.
Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is not the slasher fun of Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, which you can find on Getto Boys’ tracks Chuckie or Mind Playing Tricks on Me. This record is more the psychological darkness of a Ring or The Shining. Kanye is not interested in the monster itself, but how one’s internal darkness can lead one to become a monster. It is that thematic nuance and production brashness that makes the record an instant classic.
Listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy