A little more than a year prior to this release, Kanye West raised the ire of, well, just about everybody with his ill-advised crashing of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Publicly derided and belittled, the mercurial musician went into a season of self-imposed exile. Now he’s back with an album that showcases both his explosive, Hindenburg-sized ego and his willingness to indulge in merciless self-flagellation.
Critics are hailing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as Kanye’s best work ever. Rolling Stone gave it a rare five-star review, with writer Rob Sheffield saying it was Kanye’s “most maniacally inspired music yet, coasting on heroic levels of dementia. … Yeezy goes for the grandeur of stadium rock, the all-devouring sonics of hip-hop, the erotic gloss of disco, and he goes for all of it, all the time. Nobody halfway sane could have made this album.” Paste contributor M.T. Richards calls Kanye’s fifth effort “perhaps this century’s definitive portrait of torment, vanity, self-delusion, and pathos.” Slant Magazine’s Matthew Cole says simply, “I see virtually no danger of critics praising My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy too much.”
There’s certainly no danger of Plugged In praising My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy too much.
“Dark Fantasy” describes Kanye’s realization that drinking won’t help him tame his demons—be they literal or figurative. “Sorry for the night demons still visit me,” he sings, “The plan was to drink until the pain over/But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” Poignant lyrics on “All of the Lights” tell the story of a man who longs to see his baby daughter but is unable to do so because he physically abused her mother. Despite that failure, he wants to influence his daughter positively: “She need a daddy/Baby, please, can’t let her grow up in that ghetto university.”
On “Runaway,” Kanye gives some evidence that he understands, at some level, that’s he’s done plenty of bad stuff in life (“I always find something wrong/ … I’m so gifted at findin’ what I don’t like the most”). Then, albeit somewhat sarcastically, he admits that the proper response may be to “run away [from him] as fast as you can.”
Several songs employ spiritual language, such as when Kanye sings, “May the Lord forgive us” on “Devil in a New Dress.” “Who Will Survive America” suggests that our nation is plagued by spiritual problems (“Us living as we do, upside down/ … America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey”).
Speaking of blood and tears, “Power” perhaps suggests that an egotistical man is flirting with the idea of suicide: “Now this’ll be a beautiful death/I’m jumpin’ out the window/I’m lettin’ everything go.”
Harsh vulgarities pepper nearly every track. At least half of the 13 songs contain f-words, often paired with “mother.” S-words are nearly as frequent, as are any other swear words you can think of but shouldn’t. The self-deprecating chorus of “Runaway,” for example, goes, “Let’s have a toast for the douche bags/Let’s have a toast for the a‑‑holes/Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/Every one of that them I know/Let’s have a toast for the jerk-offs/That’ll never take work off.” Kanye and his guest contributors frequently use the n-word as well.
We hear references to oral sex, anal sex, group sex, lesbian sex, prostitution, masturbation, orgasms, promiscuity, male and female genitals, and filming sexual exploits. On “H‑‑‑ of a Life,” Kanye sings, “I think I just fell in love with a porn star/Turn the camera on, she a born star.” The song’s chorus proclaims, “P‑‑‑y and religion is all I need.” “Devil in a New Dress” describes a Christian couple’s capitulation to carnal pleasures (“We love Jesus, but you done learned a lot from Satan/I mean, a n-gga did a lot of waitin’/We ain’t married, but tonight I need some consummation”).
“Monster” mangles up oral sex and necrophilia (“Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/I put the p‑‑‑y in a sarcophagus/Now she claiming I bruise her esophagus”). Easily the most graphic content comes up when Kanye overhears his ex having sex with a new lover after she accidentally calls him on her cell phone (“Blame Game”). Her new man (voiced by comedian Chris Rock) raves in detailed pornographic terms about the woman’s genitals and praises Kanye for the “education” he’s given her.
Also worth noting: The original album cover, which was deemed too racy by the record label for mass distribution, features a painting of a naked angel-like being straddling a man.
Many if not most of today’s popular rappers try to convince listeners of their own greatness by listing their accomplishments, their possessions, their conquests. There’s plenty of that here, to be sure. But Kanye is on a very short list of artists in this genre who’s willing to pull back the curtain on his insecurities and fears—which is one of the reasons critics have been so enthralled by him.
If he deserves a modicum of credit for unburdening his tortured soul, however, we also must remember that he does indeed seem genuinely tortured. That means he’s more than willing to spill his dark, disturbed thoughts out onto his audience—including the harshest of profanities, graphic and pornographic descriptions of physical encounters, nods to the allure of suicide and casual references to drug use—all smothered in an incredibly narcissistic blanket.
Dark. Twisted. A Fantasy. But not even on the same continent as Beautiful.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.