The end of music history? ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and the inimitable genius of Kanye West

2010 was a big year for popular music. Katy Perry released ‘California Girls’ with Snoop Dogg as a feature rapper, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé released the music video to ‘Telephone’, and the Black Eyed Peas released their sixth studio album ‘The Beginning’, after releasing their fifth album ‘The E.N.D.’ (Energy Never Dies) under the same record label (Interscope) that signed Billie Eilish after the Soundcloud debut of ‘Ocean Eyes’ in 2015.

The cover art.

Four days before the Black Eyed Peas’ last bows (at least with their then-lead singer, Fergie), another hip hop-pop fusion artist took a bow of unparalleled proportions. Synthesising popularised hip hop with the progressive rock sounds of Pink Floyd & co., with the help of indie artist Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago), Kanye West led a revolution in music history that almost ended it entirely. The name for this event? My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — or ‘Dark Fantasy’ for short, with the defining track ‘Runaway’ also serving as the title for the medium-length film version of the album. But another word defines the album of the century, a word that served for the opening music video released in August of that year: ‘Power’.

Dark Twisted Fantasy pivots around this track, in which Kanye West undergoes a symbolic end: ‘This will be a beautiful death / Jumping out the window / Letting everything go.’ The album up to that point is somewhat repressed, with songs like ‘Dark Fantasy’ and ‘Gorgeous’ employing grand choruses, electric guitars, and heavy drum beats to anticipate the coming anarchy, which is unleashed after ‘Power’ does death to the shadowy life Kanye West had been leading up to that point. In his symbolic ending, Kanye West and Rihanna see ‘All Of The Lights’, before Kanye goes it alone, with guest features from Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and John Legend (a stunning combination of old and new voices, from the past and future of music in hip hop and R&B), spiralling into a depression that reaches its pinnacle in ‘Runaway’.

On the film version of the album, Kanye West meets a counterpart, a fiery angel from the skies, who dances with the rapper as he mourns the passing of ‘M. J.’ (era-defining musician Michael Jackson, although the resemblance of the abbreviation to running back O. J. Simpson does not go unnoticed). Eventually, the angel must return to the skies, leaving Kanye West ‘Lost In The World’, asking the question ‘Who Will Survive In America?’ as the closing credits roll.

The album is conceptual and narrative at the same time. It is infused with sounds from rock, alternative, hip hop, and classical genres of music, with ‘strings for the dramatic’. Stand-out tracks include Mike Dean’s use of electric guitars on ‘Devil In A New Dress’, Kanye West’s apparent prediction of his marriage to Kim Kardashian West on ‘Hell Of A Life’, the astute analysis of relationship breakdown on ‘Blame Game’ with John Legend, and the bizarrely uplifting track with Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj entitled ‘Monster’, to which Kendrick Lamar rapped an improvised flow at the opening of his career. Mr. West’s dark fantasy is a pathway to many abilities, some considered phenomenal.

The reviews for Dark Twisted Fantasy are off the charts for an album released in the twentieth-first century. On user-generated ‘Rate Your Music’, the album is #1 for 2010 and #30 overall. On critic-review aggregator ‘Metacritic’, the album is #15 of all time, with a score of 94% (narrowly behind Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways at #10 and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #8). Despite these stellar numbers, and its consistent chart performance for an album that is essentially a Renaissance painting parading as a piece of popular music, I have a strong sense that the album is underrated. On the devastatingly critical reviewer site Pitchfork, the album has a score of 100%. On the Guardian’s list of the top albums of the 21st century, Dark Twisted Fantasy is third. On the Rolling Stone’s list of best albums of the 2010s, Dark Twisted Fantasy is top of the pack.

One reason for considering Dark Twisted Fantasy as the greatest album of all time (which I do) is the eclectic consistency of Kanye West’s records. Kendrick Lamar consistently releases albums that receive universal acclaim, but Kanye West drops in and out of fashion as his image waxes and wanes in popularity. Kendrick may now be starting along a similar path as he reaches the career midpoint that Kanye reached with the release of Dark Twisted Fantasy. So might Billie Eilish, with the shorter lifespan of popular music and the apparent musical midpoint of Happier Than Ever, now on tour as Kendrick releases Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. The ghostly presence of Kanye West hangs over all these musicians as Michael Jackson’s did over popular music from the 1980s onwards. Michael Jackson inaugurated a certain standard for technical perfection. Kanye West’s standard is one of artistic inspiration. ‘I’m a genius, could have made Donda,’ raps rocker Machine Gun Kelly on his own bow-out of ‘papercuts’, after a damaging musical confrontation with Eminem. One is reminded of Kanye West’s own confrontation with Taylor Swift at the MTV Awards of 2008, before Mr. West’s near-death spiral that led to the disciplined madness of Dark Twisted Fantasy, made in a hotel in which guests were served with first-class cuisine to power through the making of the album that time forgot.

There is so little that can be said against Dark Twisted Fantasy. The obvious missing piece is jazz music, which Kendrick Lamar has since taken up on records such as To Pimp A Butterfly, often seen as a revival for top spot of best hip hop albums of all time. I see the logic, but not the motivation behind this claim. Kendrick is only just coming into his own artistically, a move which requires considerable controversy and personal risk. Kendrick had some controversy in the mid-2010s, but nothing like the controversy that Kanye faced in the late 2000s, after making more strident political interventions that directly critiqued key political figures. And then there is the MTV Awards, a defining moment for the careers of Taylor Swift and Kanye West alike. Both have benefited artistically from this moment, while suffering personally. The connection between the two is something Kendrick Lamar, now a de facto psychoanalyst for the music industry (see: The Heart, Part 5), would easily notice.

But Dark Twisted Fantasy is not on the same technical level as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the best-selling album of all time, thanks to a combination of Michael Jackson’s perfect vocal technique, Quincy Jones’ impeccable jazz-infused production, and the critical power of the early 1980s as a turning point for popular music as a technically accomplished music form. But modern music was not yet an art form. This was changed with Dark Twisted Fantasy, which realised — as Mozart’s Requiem did for classical music (making the opening of the film Runaway with ‘Lacrimosa’ entirely appropriate, as well as jaw-droppingly ambitious and serenely beautiful) — the artistic potential of music after the fall of the classical era in the late nineteenth century.

But just as Requiem inaugurated an era of classical music that eventually destroyed the art form, so does Dark Twisted Fantasy lay the foundations for the end of music history in the modern era. The immediate seeds were sewn with the neo-romanticism of the preceding album 808s and Heartbreak, which has found many imitators in popular and hip hop genres alike, leading to a bland nostalgia for lost love and an almost unbearable level of self-pity among some of the biggest celebrity musicians on the planet. Kanye West was reeling from the passing of his mother and the end of his engagement to the love of his life. Now, copy-cat versions of the album are excusable from a few disappointing nights out. Romanticism may be the culmination of baroque music, but it is also the destruction of its technical form in artistic chaos; classical music is the balance between these two poles. Kanye West similarly balances between jazz and hip hop with a rock-infused record, that turns music towards increasingly depressing directions, where popular music tours such as Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever feel more like demonic exorcism than angelic accomplishment (although surely the artist is capable of both).

Technical perfection is having a bit of a renaissance in the work of Jacob Collier, who insists on undoing Bach’s move towards equal temperament in Well-Tempered Clavier by recovering a system of ‘natural harmony’, where the piano is tuned according to the key in which you are playing, making it necessary to constantly retune the piano to adjust to the key. No wonder Bach saw a move from ‘nature’ to ‘artifice’ necessary; music needs a technical foundation for any art to be possible. In our current postmodern environment, the two collapse into each other: Jacob Collier treats technique as an art form, while Billie Eilish treats art as a technique. Kanye West balances art and technique by keeping the two roughly separate, while prioritising art as Michael Jackson prioritised technique.

Where does music go next? After Dark Twisted Fantasy, it seems that music has reached, as Hegel said after Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia (a few years following Mozart’s Requiem), an end of history. Francis Fukuyama said something similar about the end of the Cold War. As with Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian end of history, history may begin again out of sheer boredom with the current hegemony of mediocrity — with notable exceptions at the perfect poles of the current chaos. Then again, music may just continue along its current slumber, where art and technique are considered as inseparable parts of a whole, which can nevertheless not be reconstructed because the parts fail to be distinguished, and their significance is therefore obscured. Paradoxically, in order to recombine music into a unity, we must first separate it into its component parts. Then, in a move of moral mechanics, we can recombine the parts into a whole. I call once again for a new baroque era, following the current RENAISSANCE announced by Beyoncé (herself a bridge between the technique of Michael Jackson and the artwork of Kanye West, parallel to the once-country musician Taylor Swift). As music reconnects with its technical foundation and artistic superstructure, it calls for a political balance. Will history, musical and political, begin again? The hip-hop musical Hamilton calls, on a stand-out track, for a ‘wait’ before ‘it happens’. I am happy to wait — even if that is waiting for nothing, at the end of the world …

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