The following is the fifth in an eight-part series documenting the discography of Kanye West. Each week, Arts will feature a piece de- tailing the merits of one of West’s albums, in chronological order.
Let me take you to a tropical island. The year is 2009, and in a remote corner of Honolulu, Hawaii, an elite cohort of the world’s most decorated rappers and producers have descended upon the residence of Kanye West. However, this isn’t another run-of-the-mill getaway for the rich and famous. Relaxing hours on the beach would be forgone for 12-hour shifts holed up in a crammed island studio. Inside, all in attendance—from the engineers to the janitors—were told to don white shirts and black ties. This wasn’t a vacation. This was a business trip.
Maybe only short of the current president, Kanye West is a human spectacle prime for poking and prodding, dissection and pathologizing, by the bloodthirsty writers and commentators among which I have joined the ranks. If I can draw one takeaway from my years growing up alongside his headline-provoking antics, it is that West’s artistry is drenched in its context. From his early days on the brutal streets of Southside Chicago to his off-the-map reemergence in the rolling mountains of Wyoming, our understanding of West and his music has been consistently redefined by the moment. So, what brought Kanye to Hawaii?
I needed to do some digging. In hindsight, I was too eager to take this article assignment, completely oblivious of the toll it would take on my weekend. Papers and internship apps fell to the wayside as I spent hours hermited in the dark cave of my room, sifting through the YouTube history book of Mr. West. Doing this article justice would require a thorough understanding of all Kanyes past. I sped past the big-eyed, Gucci-bag touting Kanye passionately imploring wisdom on Def Jam Poetry; fast-forwarded through the coming-of-age Kanyes of the teddy bear era; happily skipped the shutter-shaded Kanye who I once emulated at middle school dances to my vertigo-ed chagrin.
Finally, I reached the Kanye I was looking for. This Kanye was more sinister, scarred by his now-trademarked controversy. This was Kanye at his most combative and, maybe appropriately, his most iconic. America loves to watch a good trainwreck. In a moment ingrained in time, Kanye did not, in fact, let Taylor finish. From there, the floodgates opened. A most popular president affectionately called him “a jackass,” and South Park delivered a below-the-belt death blow with the terribly unfunny “fish sticks” joke.
This Kanye was down for the count. Suffering from the premature death of his mother, West had slipped into a psychosis, with every flash and flare-up painfully documented by a press eager to crowd him into a corner. He needed to find an escape. This Kanye needed to remove himself from his star, and get back to music. This Kanye needed to go to Hawaii.
Some may think I’m making an easy argument, that the album that came out of those Honolulu marathon sessions, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” (“MBDTF”) is the artist’s best. They are right. At this time in history, more than ever, Kanye needed a resurrection—he needed his magnum opus.
This life-or-death drive to produce greatness and perfection, is evident throughout the music. One anecdote comes from Rick Ross, who floats through one of my favorite verses of all-time on “Devil In a New Dress.”
“When I recorded that verse for the first time, he [Kanye] came in, heard it,” Ross recalled. “He told me he thought I could do better. And he walked out. And then I wrote another one, and the second verse I wrote is the one you hear on the album” (Hype-beast, “Kanye West Made Rick Ross Redo His ‘Devil in a New Dress’ Verse,” 11.17.2017).
Eloquence and precision of production define “MBDTF,” especially in its maximal moments. If I were to put on my obnoxious music reviewer hat, I would say something like “The catchy, over-saturated, yet care-
fully curated, sounds and synths of ‘Dark Fantasy,’ ‘Monster,’ ‘Hell of Life’ and ‘All of the Lights’ triumph with feelings of glamour and glitz, decadence and extravagance.” But I won’t do that. That would be annoying— and it’s been done too many times before.
Instead, I’ll say that “MBDTF” takes the form of a masterpiece, simply because of the full gamut of emotions through which it runs its listener. Bluntly put, “POWER” still makes me want to run through a wall—even though I can’t get out of my head its appropriation in the “Social Network” trailer, where a plain-sweatshirted Jesse Eisenberg intensely scribbles Facebook algorithms on his Harvard dorm window. I digress.
On the other end, Kanye is unafraid to strip down the album to its most basic, revealing his deepest vulnerabilities. On “Run- away,” a monotone staccato note repeats, before the beat erupts and overwhelms it. At the outro of the track, all sound is reduced to a mumbled autotune of his voice. Here lies a crucial juxtaposition. Autotune disguises the honest emotion of the human voice, as it is inherently a tool created to eliminate faults. Yet Kanye’s voice feels as if it is struggling against the autotune, struggling to break through. Under the guise of perfect symphony, there lies something profoundly human. Scattered throughout the album, Kanye leaves space for breath and struggle.
With a life now so hidden in mystery and confusion, Kanye West makes it harder for us to ground him in humanity these days. Yet, the process and sounds of “MBDTF” remind me of an antic of the newest Kanye. Grainy iPhone footage has emerged on recent Sundays of Kanye directing a white- clad choir out on remote, heavenly greenpastures.
Here, we once again find purity. Stripped and removed from his image, his flaws and his controversies, Kanye, a master of his music, is caught simply at work. Like “MBDTF,” it’s removed, and it’s human. Of the many Kanyes, this is the real one.