Westworld: The Universe’s Favorite

Kanye hits apex of critical acclaim with 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and CT’s Hajer hits the apex of his word count limits in his attempt to analyze it.

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Braden Hajer, Copy Editor & Columnist

TL;DR

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” lives up to its name in every sense. Its vision is cohesive, its music compelling. It’s dotted with phenomenal lyricism, performances, production and instrumentals, but specific songs  —  most importantly, “So Appalled”  — hold it back. It’s an S-tier record, and “Runaway” is one of the greatest songs ever written, but it is not without rough components or the occasional misstep on the production front. Above all, though, it’s an unforgettable and powerful experience.

Rating: S (super, higher than an A – ratings explained in the chart below)

Favorite Tracks: Nothing compares to “Power” and “Runaway,” but “Devil in a New Dress” is the runner-up

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I’m not exactly in tune with public opinion on all of this — shocking, I know. I think people love “Graduation” and generally dislike “808s and Heartbreak” (oops), but I couldn’t tell you for certain. 

But I know exactly where people stand on this album.

For the unaware, most Kanye fans believe “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010) is his best album, bar none. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a different opinion, not that it isn’t out there. Obviously, I can’t say I agree. Could it be his best album? Maybe. But if it is, it certainly isn’t leagues above the competition.

I equally recognize that due to this prevailing take, this is by far the most important review of the series. As such, this review is going to be a fully detailed, track-by-track and lengthy analysis. This is going to be the mega-review of my career on CT staff. For those of you not interested in every detail, this is why I’ve included a “TL;DR” section to open each review.

One final note: I’m going to often abbreviate the album title to “MBDTF” for the sake of everyone involved. With that out of the way, let’s get this going.

“MBDTF” is difficult for me to classify. My first instinct was “breathtaking,” then “frustratingly-imperfect,” then “raw,” then “refined.” Perhaps that’s the point  — it’s called “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” after all. Regardless, as difficult as it is to pin down, it’s easy to see where it soars.

On a conceptual level, it’s very clear what Kanye is trying to achieve, and I find that he does it exceptionally well. The dichotomy between tracks like “Devil in a New Dress”/”Runaway” and “Monster”/”Hell of a Life” is striking yet fully congruous. This album is far more cohesive and fluid than earlier projects of his like “The College Dropout” or even “Graduation.”

The production is absolutely phenomenal and polished. By this point in his career, it’s no secret that Kanye West is one of the greatest producers and beatmakers of all time. Flawless? Certainly not: a perfect Kanye West is a fraud. But Kanye West is a master of his craft, and for the most part it shows on “MBDTF.”

Album opener “Dark Fantasy” is the perfect summation of everything said above. The song revolves around two extremes: a lush chorus with soaring vocal lines and cello backing and much more traditional verses, complete with actual percussion and rapping. These two sides meld to create the vignette of a beautiful fantasy with a dark twist.

The instrumentation of the verses is creative, sounding hard but actually being primarily composed of what sounds like a marimba and a synthetic violin. Kanye’s flow is infectious, and while I admittedly have no idea what a lot of the lyrics mean, they do sound really cool. The bridge does a great job of adding variety to the track, being both quite catchy and a perfect transition back to the grandiose chorus.

My one complaint with the song is at the end. The chorus plays, then fades out to nothing, only for the chorus to immediately come back and go for another minute. It almost sounds like you’ve accidentally looped the song. Now, this would be fine, if it simply didn’t fade to complete nothing before coming back — more audio should have been maintained. It may seem minor, but I find it to be somewhat discombobulating. Regardless, despite its one misstep, “Dark Fantasy” knocks it out of the park.

The next track, “Gorgeous,” is an interesting follow-up. The Kid Cudi chorus is fantastic, musically and lyrically. Actually, the lyrics are the stand-out part about this track. The song’s about social and racial injustices, and West’s lyricism is absolutely killer. I’ll leave a few of my favorites below, the latter being one of my favorite Kanye West lines.

“Face it; Jerome get more time than Brandon/And at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random”

“Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?/The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing”

“I treat cash the way the government treats AIDS/I won’t be satisfied til all my n***** get it”

The production on this song is excellent, sounding fascinatingly-muted, from the guitar loop to the bass to Kanye’s vocals. The shake-up in the fourth verse is expertly done and the perfect evolution of the beat.

Note, though, that I said the fourth verse. The song’s almost six minutes along, and even for what it brings, it’s just too much. The third verse, in my opinion, should have simply been cut. Had it been, the song would have been exponentially tighter and more enjoyable. As it stands, as good of a song as it is, as an experience it can be a bit of a chore by the end if I’m not in the mood for it.

“Power” is one of the best Kanye West songs of all time, and I’d argue in all of modern music. The beat is absolutely iconic, from the unimaginably-catchy vocal sample to the guitar riffs to the perfectly-arranged and energizing percussion to the phenomenally-composed synth bridge to the gorgeous cello/piano line in the latter fourth. The beat evolves through time in a natural but shockingly-refined manner to the point that it’s almost absurd to simply label the backing audio to this song “the” beat.

Kanye kills it performance-wise. He brings a level of gravitas and precision of tone to the simultaneously emotional and braggadocious lyrics that I don’t know any other rapper could ever quite capture.

The last 90 seconds are breathtaking. The aforementioned euphoric cello line and synth interlude lead the song around a dark corner, as Kanye West and Dwele sing “Now this will be a beautiful death/I’m jumping out the window, I’m letting everything go” repeatedly. Even more specifically, though, the last 30 seconds are too marvelous for words. I simply cannot do it… and this won’t be the last time this is said for this record.

After “Power” is “All of the Lights,” complete with its own interlude. To be perfectly honest, I like the serene and graceful interlude more than the track it precedes. The tone of the cellist is stunning and the piece is balanced wonderfully, sounding neither texturally empty nor too full for its purpose.

This feels like a good time to mention that Kanye West’s mastery of orchestral instrumentation is quite apparent. Cellos have been used on every song thus far, and will be again for much of the record. They sound completely natural and add a unique and engaging flair to the entire album. Every single piano or string line across all of “MBDTF” is delightful and integrated beautifully.

The actual song “All Of The Lights” is… ok. I find the horns to have a very strange and weak tone to them. The percussion in the chorus, on the other hand, is unnecessarily aggressive to the point of being distracting and ungluing to the overall song. Rihanna’s vocals in the chorus are excellent, but Kanye’s hook of “cop lights, flash lights, spot lights, strobe lights, street lights, fast life, drug life, thug life, rock life” is… as stupid in context as it sounds like it would and just generally ridiculous. 

Kid Cudi’s bridge is just as quality as his appearance on “Gorgeous,” though the verse from Fergie that follows it is absolutely terrible. Her performance is uncomfortable and awkward, and she basically says nothing of value.

Luckily, the final 70 seconds alleviate much of this. Many of the song’s earlier weaknesses, from the horns to the percussion, fit in place much better in this outro. End vocals from Alicia Keys and Elton John tie the song together quite well, ultimately making the song an awkward but overall positive experience. It’s definitely one of the weakest tracks on the record, yet fully listenable.

“Monster” is a rollercoaster of a song. My enjoyment of it depends entirely on whether or not I believe the person delivering the vocals sells the part of being a monster. Here’s a quick rundown of who does and doesn’t:

        Very scary, fully monstrous: Bon Iver, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj

        Clearly in a costume, borderline-huggable: Kanye West, Jay-Z

The Bon Iver opener is simply stellar. It’s one of the most epic-sounding riffs in the entire Kanye West discography, though you cannot fool me, Mr. West: you know and I know you stole the very opening phrase from the “Luigi’s Mansion” main theme. No, really, look it up.

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Graphic by Braden Hajer

Digression aside, the beat is indescribable. It’s super wacky but extremely cool sounding and unique. I seriously cannot tell what is going on but I’m here for it.

The first verse is from Kanye, and while I could talk about it in any level of depth (to keep it simple, it’s fine but not particularly beastly), none of it compares at all to what I believe is the greatest Kanye West line of all time. It’s a little inappropriate, so if you’re interested, click here for more.

Jay-Z’s verse is a bit of a flop to me, but I’m going to return to it in a future review, so I’ll leave it be for now.

Nicki Minaj’s verse is… probably the hottest verse on the entire record. It slaps to an unbelievable degree. Lyrically, she goes hard and brings quotables on quotables. The dynamism in her tone and performance is remarkable. She goes through so many different pockets of her register and varying levels of aggression in a single verse, it’s truly shocking. 

Funny enough, I learned from an interview that Kanye actually chopped up a bunch of her attempts at the verse to create the jaw-dropping compilation you hear on the album. Another genius decision on his part is the echo-like effect on the last four lines of the verse, making Minaj sound ethereal and borderline-godlike as she finally screeches “Aaaah, I’m a motherf*cking monster!”

Bon Iver returns in the outro to close the song. The backing piano is like the light at the end of the tunnel which, when coupled with Iver’s more inspiring melody, creates an exquisite segue out of the track.

What it segues into, though, is “So Appalled,” my least favorite song on the record by far. The beat is a fascinating melancholy, led by cellos and a squishy, compressed synth. I do like it, but I’m not exactly crazy about it.The failure to me is lyrically. There is one highlight from Jay-Z (“I went from the favorite to the most hated/but would you rather be underpaid or overrated?”) but all in all I find it to be weak. Conceptually, it just doesn’t make sense. The chorus berates living extravagant, decadent lives, calling it “f*cking ridiculous” over and over… yet the verses do the exact opposite. They all talk about how great and rich and powerful and legendary they are. It’s illogical and confusing.

Even beyond this discongruity, I still find the actual lyrics to be awkward and occasionally cringe-worthy. A few include: “Moral victories is for minor league coaches/And ‘Ye already told you we major, you cockroaches” from Jay-Z and “‘Cause you haters got PhDs/y’all just some major haters and some math minors” from CyHi the Prince. Yet none of that even comes close to RZA’s performance of the chorus near the end of the song. It’s unnecessarily aggressive to the point of complete corniness. It sounds ridiculous, though I do find the echo on the repeated line “it’s f*cking ridiculous” to be quite funny, not that it helps. It echoes in such a way that the curse is emphasized above everything else, making RZA sound like he knows his very presence worsened the song.

After “So Appalled” is a definite highlight of the record, “Devil in a New Dress.” The beat is lush and pristine, led by beautiful female vocals and a perfectly balanced violins/bass core. The chorus is catchy and clever, and West’s flow plays with the beat wonderfully. As good as the first half is, the second half elevates the song to a whole new level. The breakdown for Mike Dean’s guitar solo is phenomenal, and it slowly builds over time, eventually coming back to its full energy level just in time for Rick Ross’ verse.

Ross’ verse is easily the second-best on “MBDTF.” Every single line is quotable and his natural voice sounds absolutely brilliant over the beat. My personal favorite line is “cherry-red chariot, excess is just my character/all-black tux, n****’s shoes lavender” for its simple yet elegant wordplay, followed by “New Mercedes sedan, the Lex sport/so many cars, DMV thought it was mail fraud.”

And for as good as “Devil in a New Dress” is, it’s quickly and completely overshadowed by the next track.

I cannot put to words the incomprehensible majesty of the song “Runaway.” I’ve thought about it for weeks on end yet come up entirely empty. It is, in my opinion, the best Kanye West song, and, along with “Roses,” one of the songs from his discography that has entered my all-time favorites list. If you’ve only been reading these reviews for my unmatched prose, do yourself a favor and listen to this song. I legitimately cannot recommend it any higher.

Frankly, even if I did have the vernacular to quantify its greatness, I don’t want to spoil anything about “Runaway,” so I’ll move on to the next track, “Hell of a Life,” the other side of the coin to “Runaway.” It’s raw, a little gross and fundamentally but purposefully superficial. It revolves around a one night stand with an adult film star where Kanye fantasizes about living the rest of his life with her. Most of the lines are far too explicit to write here, but generally they’re simultaneously catchy, funny and uncomfortable, while also deeply revealing about the vices that have a seemingly-unbreakable grip on Kanye West’s psyche.

The beat centers on a super hard bass/synth line that makes you feel way cooler than you are while listening. It’s generally simple but actually has quite a bit of nuance in its production to create an unforgettable sound. The chorus is undeniably catchy, though it’s not exactly the type of lyricism I’m itching to repeat in public. As with most songs, the outro shakes it up just enough to flow naturally and give an overall sense of direction to the track. It’s a fun song but it doesn’t sweep me off my feet or anything.

“Blame Game” feels like the thematic aftermath of “Hell of a Life.” Its instrumentation is much more organic, featuring a piano, strings and notably lighter percussion. The bass is tender, as is John Legend’s fantastic chorus. 

The production creates a revealing vignette. In the second verse, vocals bounce all around your earbuds, some in Kanye’s unaltered voice, others lowered to inhuman levels. It’s a well-executed reflection of his damaged mental state, plagued with paranoia and desperation. The song would be great as is, but what elevates it is the Chris Rock “skit” at the end of the song, preceded by Kanye saying he “heard the whole thing…”

Once again, I cannot quote a single line of it, but I do find it hilarious, an interesting tonal shift from the several minutes that precede it. At some point, though, it becomes somewhat harrowing as it just keeps going and going. One can easily imagine the mortified look on Kanye’s face as he listens to the never-ending exchange.

We’re nearing the end of our journey through this fantasy. The final full track is “Lost in the Woods,” a song that starts particularly softly with powerful harmonies from Bon Iver. I actually don’t have too many comments on this track… It’s got a lot of energy and thematically makes sense as the conclusion.

The focus is clearly shifted away from Kanye at this point, as he has a single verse on the whole track. Its chorus is an explosion of sound, one that only gets louder with each repetition. It does inspire a certain level of euphoria, but I find it to be generally more simple than many of the other songs on the record.

The outro track is “Who Will Survive in America,” led by an abridged performance of Gil-Scott Heron’s “Comment #1.” It’s an unexpected way to end the album, one that certainly leaves a lot to ponder. The ending, rapid repetition of “Who Will Survive In America?” is certainly a question directed at both Kanye West and the rest of black America. It’s a uniquely philosophical conclusion to the project, but part of me does wish there was a bit more bravado to the grand finale of this 68-minute record.

And that’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” It’s a powerful, dynamic and initially-draining experience of a record. Still, there are reasons why it isn’t a perfect 10 or light years beyond everything else he’s ever done. 

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a damn good album and an equally engrossing look into the mind and life of West at the time. The world wouldn’t see this much revealing reflection from him for another eight years. “MBDTF” has moments of unparalleled triumph, but I think it’s important to be realistic.

With this dissertation of a review behind us, be sure to come back Friday for a much more succinct review of “Watch the Throne.” And of course, find me on Twitter @bhajerCT or @centraltimes and use the hashtag #KanyeWestworld to let me have it or, if this lengthy tome has convinced you, share your agreement.

Happy listening!

Audio and video clips contain explicit content and are property of Universal Music Group, 2010.