Complicated Feelings on the 10th Anniversary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

It literally slipped my mind that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was turning 10 years old until I saw people tweeting about it. And if you’ve followed this website since our early days, you’ll understand how strange that is. Up until around 2017, It’s All Dead’s side project was that of a Kanye West fanzine. And then, well…you know. You live long enough to see yourself become the villain or whatever.

I gritted my teeth as I listed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at #1 on our 30 Best Albums of the Decade list last year. No matter how bad things have gotten, the fact remains. It’s one of those albums that I vividly remember where I was the first time I heard it. I literally remember my emotions hearing “All of the Lights”, “Monster”, and “Hell of a Life” for the first time. I remember how it was the only thing that mattered to me for a year, or at least until Watch the Throne dropped. It was the magnum opus from an artist that I revered more than anyone.

As a music critic, I’ve written and spoken more words about Kanye West than any other artist. I stopped a few years ago because it felt like there was nothing left to say. And it’s true. I have nothing new to add to the conversation on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy today. I listened to it again as recently as a few weeks ago. I’m torn between the memories of those feelings I felt and the feelings I feel now. It makes the music forever complicated and impossible to parse out.

This summer, I played The College Dropout for my daughter for the first time. She’s much too young to process anything about it, but I pondered aloud how I would talk about the album when she was old enough. Would I be able to articulate how important this artist was to me for a time – to my musical tastes, to my politics, to my life? Would I be able to explain why his seeming abandonment of all of the things that attracted me to him caused me such frustration and anger? Does it even matter?

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is 10 years old, and it’s a shame we can’t celebrate it more. But honestly, we’ve talked about it enough. And there’s enough brilliant art in the world to put our energy into, and I can’t wait to talk about the great music this hell of a year has given us in a few weeks when we release our end-of-the-year lists. Until then, happy anniversary, I guess. Here’s a toast to the douchebag.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Reflecting On: Kanye West – Graduation

Graduation could easily be considered the weakest of Kanye West’s seven solo albums. That should tell you something about the music of Kanye West. When I want to sit and solemnly reflect on what it means to be a creative human being while wrestling with inner demons, I listen to Kanye’s masterpiece: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. When I have a house party and want to turn the vibe to 11, I throw on Graduation. That should also tell you something about the music of Kanye West.

Graduation is an album meant to be heard en masse, blasted through arena speakers. This is not Kanye’s strong suit. Nevertheless, Graduation is the best example we have of what an arena rap album would sound like, and the unlikely guiding light that provided inspiration for a new generation of hip hop artists.

The most common narrative attached to Graduation is that it hammered the final nail into the gangsta rap coffin. This is true. I, like you, purchased Graduation instead of 50 Cent’s Curtis on September 11, 2007, putting an end to the final gasps of a subgenre that had served a great purpose. In truth, gangsta rap had already received its notice by the time The College Dropout hit shelves in 2004, but because of the faux 50/Kanye beef, Graduation will always be remembered in this way.

But for true fans of Kanye West, this new album was more than just a cultural statement – it was a complete transition from the soul-inspired, backpack rap that permeated his first two records. Graduation is a frenzied party thrown by its creator in celebration of the fame and attention rightly garnered by those first two albums. Graduation is a true pop album, and as such, it includes the best and worst parts of the genre.

When Graduation is at its best, it allows us to roll down the windows, turn up the volume, and lose ourselves in indulgence and excitement (“Stronger”, “Good Life”). When Graduation is at its most thoughtful, it finds Ye digging at shortcomings that would spill into the heavy subject matter of 808s & Heartbreak and Fantasy (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”). At its worst, Graduation devolves into reckless, nonsensical revelry and braggadocio (“Barry Bonds”, “Drunk and Hot Girls”).

With the hindsight of four more groundbreaking solo albums and a lifetime’s worth of controversy and public scrutiny, Graduation appears in a much different light than it did a decade ago. It’s a collection of songs by a man desperate for attention and adoration. It is also a collection of songs by a genius who began to show early signs of an unparalleled ability to tap into the in-the-moment cultural zeitgeist. Graduation was the perfect sound for 2007 – something that is somehow even more obvious when reflecting on it today.

As a pop album, Graduation excels in terms of electrifying production. As a Kanye West album, it finds ways to poke through the strobe lights and inflict us with conundrums. On the opening lines of the bass and synth-heavy “Flashing Lights”, Ye raps, “She don’t believe in shooting stars / But she believe in shoes and cars”. This is a clever nod to an old country song by Don Williams and a hilarious callback to West’s breakthrough smash “Gold Digger”. It is also an indictment on Kanye’s sometimes-fickle fan base.

Throughout Graduation, West creates these moments of sublime juxtaposition, forcing us to involuntarily dance as he wryly drops knowledge. When he turns trivial, well, who cares when the beats are hot? If an album like Fantasy is a lesson in picking up the pieces and evaluating one’s life journey, Graduation is the killer party full of dumb or embarrassing moments that still taught us a thing or two. Moreover, many of the album’s most frivolous themes take on a new light when dissected through the lens of Yeezus.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m glad we have Graduation, with its Daft Punk production, goofy artwork, T-Pain autotune, silly rhymes, and fleeting moments of brilliance. I’m happy because it’s a time capsule that marks a shift in our understanding of hip hop in the mainstream conversation. I’m happy because it continued an unlikely sonic progression in Ye’s career that persists to this day. But I’m mostly happy because it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to, even 10 years later.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

It’s All Dead Podcast Episode: 007 – The best of Kanye West

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In the latest episode of the official It’s All Dead podcast, Kiel Hauck chats with fellow Kanye West fans Brock Benefiel and Jared Hay to break down the top 20 Kanye West songs and rank each of Kanye’s solo albums. The trio also discuss Kanye’s impact on hip hop and culture and examine the sonic variety found within his catalogue. Listen in!

[audio http://traffic.libsyn.com/itsalldead/IAD_Podcast_007_mixdown_mixdown.mp3|titles=It’s All Dead podcast episode: 007]

Subscribe to our podcast here.

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Reflecting on: Kanye West – The College Dropout

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Throughout 2014, we’re going to be looking back on some of the best albums that were released 10 years ago and discussing their legacy. Feel free to share your thoughts and memories in the replies. Enjoy!

By 2004, I had pretty much given up on hip hop. The College Dropout single-handedly saved me from walking away from genre I loved.

You’re likely thinking, “That’s a bold and emotionally-manipulative way to start a retrospective.” You wouldn’t be wrong about that. But is it possible to have a conversation about the art of Kanye West without references to boldness or emotion?

Regardless of your opinion of Kanye, it’s impossible to deny his impact on the pop culture ethos over the years, but for many of us, the impact runs much deeper. For those that are emotionally invested in hip hop, The College Dropout was the tipping point.

***

In the early 2000s, I was slowly growing weary with the genre I had grown up with. Hip hop was changing and I was bristling. I became frustrated with new hip hop artists who seemed more concerned with formulating a catchy pop sound than storytelling, more determined to make a hit than make an impact.

I became jaded – and probably not even for the right reasons. Hip hop deserved its time in the limelight. I just wasn’t happy with how it was getting its shine. Its new sound seemed foreign to me.

Perhaps ironically, in 2004, I was co-hosting a weekly hip hop radio show called “The Blackout” with three of my college classmates. During one of my many off-air rants about the state of hip hop and how I was ready to throw in the towel, one of them looked at me and said, “You should listen to that new Kanye West album. It sounds like that weird stuff you like.”

“Weird stuff” was referring to the artists that I held in esteem – those that were still creating what I felt was true to the art form (Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots). I was familiar with Kanye as a producer and knew of his presence on the scene, but had largely ignored the recent release of his debut album, The College Dropout. From what I could tell, he was close to crossing over into that mainstream world that I fought so deftly to avoid.

Against my better judgment, I snagged The College Dropout shortly after its release. Upon first spin, I was, for lack of a better word, amazed. I felt hope. The music felt alive on each track – there was a movement that had been absent and a purpose that demanded to be heard in every note.

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In every reflection on The College Dropout that you’ll likely read, writers are quick to point out and emphasize Kanye’s social awareness and how it bleeds throughout the album – and rightly so. Kanye’s message is an important one and, although he wasn’t the first to be labeled “conscious,” he certainly became the poster boy for a movement that is still growing.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t moved by the album from a content standpoint. But what first caught my attention was what a sonic masterpiece had been created. Listening to The College Dropout for the first time is like being transported to a time when beat-making and thoughtful song structure still carried weight. In short, the production and execution is absolutely stellar.

Take a look at the linear notes of The College Dropout (and any Kanye album to follow, for that matter). The album is truly a labor of love in which many legendary figures played a hand. The influences run deep and the samples are placed with care, allowing each track to maintain the identity of its creators, while still functioning within the whole of the record.

Tracks like “Spaceship” and “Never Let Me Down” have an old school feel even as they demand relevance. You could move to these songs in 1984 just as easily as you can in 2014. “All Falls Down” and “Through the Wire” are perfect examples of thoughtful and complex layering on top of appropriately simple canvases. One listen isn’t enough to nail the song down – each subsequent listen reveals a new and exciting detail.

Even obvious-at-first-glance hits like “Slow Jamz” and “Jesus Walks” are deep cuts that require revisiting. “Slow Jamz” is more than just a radio-ready R&B track. “Jesus Walks” is more than just a gospel-infused rap number with a simple sample. Nothing on The College Dropout is what it seems at first glance. In truth, this is what makes it so hard to listen to the record front to back without hitting the repeat button.

In stark contrast to the pristine production of the album is what lies on the surface. Kanye, although not the most talented rapper on this debut, is certainly the most earnest. He bears his soul on these tracks and his desperation shines through. From the beginning, Kanye’s purpose was to show us his genius, but the way in which he does so is to open himself up to a painful level, spilling his heart onto the tracks.

“Through the Wire” now shows itself to be an appropriate starting place in our descent into Kanye’s madness, now six solo records deep. Certainly, coming through a life-threatening car crash provides perspective, but it also serves as the starting block for Kanye’s story as it’s shared with us. With a wired-shut jaw, he confesses that he must, “look back on my life like the ghost of Christmas past”.

Throughout The College Dropout, Kanye turns back and forth as he perceives the social constructs around him that trouble him, frustrate him and humble him, before turning back inward for digestion. This weaving of his own self-awareness with the society around him paints a beautiful and tragic picture – one that he continues to paint to this day. Delivery techniques and rapping ability aside, Kanye knows how to tell his story and he does so quite well.

The byproduct of all of this is an album that demands attention. The College Dropout excels on all of the levels that should matter, regardless of genre. Not only is it a classic amongst modern hip hop, it’s a blueprint of what an honest piece of art should look like.

***

For the mainstream audience, The College Dropout introduced Kanye West as the socially-conscious spokesman and possible loose cannon that could potentially be the voice for a self-aware generation. For hip hop fans, Kanye helped resuscitate a broken art form and gave hope that the genre wouldn’t sell its soul in its quest to reach the masses.

Recently, many people have referred to The College Dropout as the launching pad that pushed Kanye into the pop culture consciousness. That may be true, but I think the album has a much deeper-rooted purpose and meaning. It’s an integral part of the story that Kanye has been telling. It stands alone well, even a decade later, and gives even more insight into its creator now than it did upon its release. It was a necessary beginning, but it is far more than a means to an end.

When I put the record on now, I’m transported back to my dorm room in 2004. I still feel the excitement and hope that I felt then. Kanye has certainly released more than one classic album in the time since, but for me, The College Dropout will always hold firm as my favorite record of his. It revived my interest in hip hop and emphatically reinforced why I loved the music to begin with.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.