Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
When I set out on this project of writing about an album I liked every day in May, I conceived of it as a personal affair. My relationship to music – how it's influenced me, how it's soundtracked my own stories, the introspection and joy it's provided me – exists mostly within the bounds of my own experiences. I believed, and still believe, there are some worthwhile stories to tell in that realm, hence my continuation of this effort. On occasion this writing has mused on how music fits into a broader political, social or historical context but it's not drifted far from being a largely personal reflection.
I'm not oblivious to the immense amount of privilege I have to consider music at a safe distance, as art for art's sake, or as it relates to my own rather trivial insecurities and anxieties. I am thankful that it's possible for me as an individual to even separate the "personal" and the "political" if I chose to. If I experience angst as the result of some perceived friction with society, as a white, straight, cisgender, Ivy-League educated male with two parents it's safe to say that's on me – I'm probably doing something wrong. Nevertheless, I still feel things, and I've chosen to write about those feelings and keep my politics elsewhere, ever mindful "behind the scenes" of the privilege of such a choice.
Given the events of the last week, this purely personal, apolitical approach is no longer possible. To be in a position of putting a message out into the world and not acknowledge these events is disingenuous; for me to continue on without acknowledging my own privilege against their backdrop would be outright delusional. Moreover, it's thrust the biases in my own music consumption to the forefront of my awareness. The personal emotional connections I have with music today are the result of my particular past, and I can't go back and change that – but I can make a conscious effort to expand my horizons going forward, and I hereby resolve to do so.
When I crafted a list of potential albums to write about in this project, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was not included, even though I'd consider it to be among my favorites. There are a few reasons for its initial exclusion – mainly that some of its themes may not have aged very well and I'd half hoped to reserve the exploration of that for a separate piece. Some of its themes have, on the other hand, redoubled in salience since its 2010 release, and indeed it's downright distressing to look at the last week and realize how little progress we've apparently made in the decade since. Among its dizzying thematic density My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy confronts us with the unavoidable truth of what it means to be black in America, a truth that exists today as much as it existed in 2010, and which has existed since America was America.
For someone in my position it might be a bit odd to write about "what it means to be black in America," an experience I'll never know except for whatever understanding can be achieved through listening and reflecting; I'm also careful not to ascribe the generalized experiences of a group to every individual in that group. The observations and anecdotes Kanye shares on MBDTF capture a particular portrait of his own experiences, but it's a portrait that's been shaped by broader social forces. He certainly makes no bones of his presumed authority on the matter. The opening lyrics of the album, a few lines of spoken-word recited by Nikki Minaj, take aim at the mythology of America:
You might think you've peeped the scene
You haven't; the real one's far too mean
The watered down one, the one you know
Was made up centuries ago
They made it sound all wack and corny
Yes, it's awful, blasted-boring
Twisted fictions, sick addiction
Well gather round children, zip it, listen!
The story of its heroic origins and ideals of freedom and equality, impressed so proudly upon us at a young age, belie the dehumanizing economics of slavery that helped build the young country, and the present reality its legacy has wrought for millions. Legal slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, but racial discrimination and segregation were legally sanctioned until at least 1968. So, for most of its first two centuries, the country barely pretended to live up to its stated principles. Those principles have become better enshrined in the letter of the law since the Civil Right era, but in practice they're still a long way off. We're just doing a better job of pretending.
"Penitentiary Chances." The first two words of Kanye's first verse in second track "Gorgeous" point to a stark reality facing black people in today's America. They're five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated; the disparity is particularly pronounced for drug-related offenses. Whether that's because black people are more likely to commit crimes than whites, or because of disproportionate rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction for black offenders – or most likely both – the smoking gun of institutional racism is there. "Face it: Jerome get more time than Brandon," as Kanye puts it a few lines later. Trapped in cycles of poverty, black youth are faced with difficult choices about how to achieve a viable existence, much less any pipe dream of disposable income. As Notorious B.I.G. rapped, "the streets is a short stop / either you're slingin' crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot".
Kanye uses the album's most towering pop moment, "All of the Lights", to step into the shoes of an anonymous man entangled in the complex of poverty and criminal justice that exacts so much harm on black communities. The protagonist has apparently gotten into this situation as a result of domestic violence toward his female partner (here is where we run into themes that maybe haven't aged well) and struggles trying to secure an adequate upbringing for his daughter. "Can't let her grow up in that ghetto university" he pleads to her mother. Sadly, his story of being "sucked dry" by the courts in a vicious cycle is hardly exceptional: black men have higher rates of recidivism than other groups, precipitated largely by poverty and diminished employment opportunities in the economically depressed communities they return to upon release. The "ghetto university" thus renews its charter.
"Unemployment line, credit card declined". At the time the album came out the United States was still reeling from the Great Recession. This economic downturn hit black Americans especially hard: their household wealth collapsed, and their unemployment rate reached double that of white Americans. "Empathy" may not be a word often reached for when discussing Kanye but he demonstrates something of the sort as he considers the plight of ordinary blacks circa 2010, and chastises other rappers to do the same on "So Appalled":
N----s be writin' bull shit like they gotta work
N----s is going through real shit man, they outta work
The Great Recession is behind, but the fortunes of black people have hardly improved. In the U.S. today they're twice as likely as whites to live in poverty; they have worse access to healthcare and consistently trail other ethnic groups in rates of homeownership. In case a more vivid illustration of racial imbalances is called for, look no further than the global pandemic still looming outside our doors: a CDC study estimates Covid-19 hospitalization rates for blacks was almost double their population proportion in the surrounding community, again beating out other groups for the "worst off" slot. Perhaps there are causal relationships among the various statistics that paint the picture of black misfortune in America, which is to say that these metrics might all see improvement if we can mitigate a smaller set of root problems. But the first steps in solving a social problem are acknowledgement, understanding, empathy, and conscious prioritization. Not until we accept and empathize with the full range of symptoms of inequality in society will we be motivated to fix the underlying causes.
Black individuals who manage to liberate themselves from cycles of poverty, and those who were fortunate never to be a part of them, might nonetheless meet adverse racial dynamics in the less penurious spheres of society. "Every day, I'm reminded that I'm black," a friend once quipped. Kanye himself has found his way into a position that in some ways epitomizes the cultural relationship between blacks and whites (and about which he's spilled his share of ink). Again, when I say "blacks" and "whites" I don't mean literally every individual within those two groups; I mean it in the sense that there are black and white consciousnesses that interact on a macro scale. Historically, the white cultural consciousness has sought to circumscribe a role for the black, from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom to the "Magical Negroes" of modern cinema to the "ethnic hair care" aisle at the drug store, beaming with patriarchal fondness when they "behave" and bristling when they step out of line. In the second verse of "Gorgeous":
As long as I'm in Polos smilin' they think they got me
But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me
In his early days of fame, Kanye's preppy aesthetic was notable in a hip-hop scene dominated by the "gangsta image." His first two albums were built thematically around college – as a social experience, as a social institution, as a moment of personal failure turned revelatory. He was hardly subtle in his skepticism of college but it came in terms that were universally relatable. With his polite image, the intellectual slant of his lyrics and an innovative pop sensibility, he managed cross-demographic appeal. Even when confronting issues of race ("We Don't Care", "Jesus Walks", "Heard 'Em Say", "Crack Music") it seemed like it was part of an implied contract to keep his rage in balance with the ear candy (of course, rawer animus slipped out on at least one infamous occasion). Such an arrangement provided a fairly guilt-free listening experience for white audiences, who continued to devour his music on through his third album Graduation, perhaps his least confrontational of those first three.
On "Gorgeous" we find a Kanye fatigued of this contract. He's been pumping out the hits, but society still reminds him he's black, every day. The production seems deliberately hazy, conspicuously omitting the punchy gloss of his poppier material, while he raps through a fuzz effect as if coming through on some kind of underground broadcast. This is not the uppity, smiling Kanye we remember; perhaps it's the "black me" he warns us about. In one of his most clever lines to date (and that's saying something), he takes aim at one of whites' most hallowed institutions:
They rewrite history, I don't believe in yesterday
And what's a black Beatle anyway, a fuckin' roach?
The clever "line" here is actually split across two couplets (hence the non-rhyme), but the vindictive bombast of the second phrase above is crucial in grasping the subtle but perhaps more damning first. "I believe in yesterday" is a line from "Yesterday", one of The Beatles' most popular songs; Kanye repurposes the statement to emphasize his rejection of musical history as written by its victors. It's a well-known fact that those Brits borrowed a fair share of musical inspiration from their rock-n-roll predecessors, especially Chuck Berry, yet were nonetheless hailed as earth-shattering innovators. I won't split hairs trying to argue what portion of that acclaim is warranted (I'm admittedly a big Beatles fan myself), but suffice it to say their success was assisted to a measurable degree by the social landscape of the era. Early rock was shaped immensely by its black practitioners, but such was the cultural segregation and racial stigmatization of the 1950s and early 60s that music they made was simply not broadly palatable to white audiences. All it took was a few pretty white faces from England to repackage that music – at this point, I'm talking about not only the Fab Four – and now here we are.
Kanye's rage escalates in "Power", a banger of operatic proportions with a refrain invoking Malcolm X. Most of the lyrics are spent addressing various personal grudges, with relative specificity, but again many of these are found to be inextricable to his position as a black celebrity. My favorite lines:
They say I was the abomination of Obama's nation
Well, that's a pretty bad way to start the conversation
Obama's 2008 election as President of the United States was a monumental moment for African Americans: a black man had reached the highest position of power in the land, putting a face in that office that millions of black youth could look to for inspiration. Yet here Kanye points out the position this event thrust him and presumably other black celebrities into. Somehow, he and Obama are considered both members of some deeply intertwined cohort, capable of swaying each other's fates by their independent actions. Why do the misguided actions of an occasionally incensed hip-hop artist "abominate" the inspiring potential Obama radiates? Perhaps because the dominant white consciousness cordons black people into a singular corpus of shared accountability. I shudder to think of my own standing as a white being measured by the yardstick of Amy Cooper, for example.
The second half of the album sees Kanye delve into mostly personal matters, but it closes with "Who Will Survive in America", a spoken-word poem delivered by Gil Scott-Heron set over a muddy beat that gives way to simple drum-pats halfway through. (Scott-Heron would pass away less than a year after the album's release.) It's a searing indictment of the country, in no uncertain terms, effectively bookending the vague portrait sketched in the album-opening poem with a bleak resolution. The poet provides no direct answer to the song's titular question, but perhaps the circumstances of George Floyd's death, and those of the many other black people who have died unjustly at the hands of forces intended to protect, do. It's still a matter of something as trivial as the color of one's skin.
This post completes my project to write "an album a day in May" (a couple days late and technically a few posts shy of one per day), but the satisfaction of completion is tinted with ambivalence, and indeed the essence of the entire project at this moment feels rather inconsequential. Suddenly, there is no urgency but to aright the society I've so long taken for granted. The events transpiring in the last week have stirred a collective momentum, ignited by anger and disgust but sustained with unwavering purpose, which is far greater even than the sum of all individual emotions therein.
While this collective force dwindles any one individual it is within the capacity of each individual to influence change. It's not enough to gaze within and conclude "I'm not racist;" it's not enough to simply level the playing field from here and hope equality falls into place. We may rattle off a dozen forms of institutional racism and stroke our chins about "root causes" but institutions are composed of individuals. It takes conscious, individual action to make change. I've scrawled some hopefully coherent thoughts here, but whether ten or ten thousand people read this, it's not enough. I must introspect and reflect; I must listen and empathize; and I must take action.
Here are some ways you can take action, too:
- Donate to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who promote racial justice and equality through litigation and education
- Donate to (or volunteer with!) Tech For Campaigns, who help support Democratic candidates for political office
- Donate to (or volunteer with!) The Fresh Air Fund, who help provide educational opportunities for underprivileged NYC youth
- Donate to a community bail fund (via ActBlue), to help individuals charged with crimes avoid being stuck in jail until their trial
- For white men, educate yourself about race, to become a more conscientious person
- For white women, educate yourself about race, to become a more conscientious person
- Vote with your dollars by supporting companies that report on their diversity (and score well)
- Seek out and support black businesses
- Reconsider art and history as presented by cultural institutions
- Write or call your elected officials and demand change.
Here are all the sources linked within the article or which helped inform my writing.
- The Economist: Smoking-gun evidence emerges for racial bias in American courts
- NAACP: Criminal Justice Fact Sheet
- The Economist: Poverty in America continues to affect people of colour most
- Uproxx: How Hip-Hop Repurposed Preppy Brands Until Artists Could Create Their Own Lines
- InStyle: See Kanye West's Incredible Style Evolution
- We're History: How The Beatles Reinterpreted Black Music
- Huffpost: Everything Fab Four: The Beatles As ‘Plagiarists Extraordinaires’
- The Atlantic: The Recession's Racial Slant
- The Russell Sage Foundation and the Standford Center on Poverty and Inequality: The Labor Force and the Great Recession
- Phys.org: Black men have higher rates of recidivism despite lower risk factors: study
- CDC: COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups
- Justice Quarterly: The Effect of Racial Inequality on Black Male Recidivism (abstract)
- Census.gov: Quarterly Residential Vacancies and Homeownership, First Quarter 2020
- Wikipedia.org: Malcolm X: Hinton Johnson Incident
- CNN: White woman who called police on a black man bird-watching in Central Park has been fired
- Wikipedia.org: Gil Scott-Heron