Kanye West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a return to form of sorts for the mercurial star on the most basic of levels — as a producer and an MC — following a departure with his last project, 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, a soul-baring effort soaked in personal pain and filtered through AutoTune.
With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the Chicago artist injects who he once was — a hyperactive musician, moody celebrity and gifted rapper — with the imprints of who he has become after his seclusion and re-emergence following the infamous Taylor Swift incident: an unwavering talent tarnished by controversy but resurgent in his refusal to be defined by anything other than himself.
The set, Kanye’s fifth studio album, is an arrogant, remorseful, refreshing probe of perhaps the most complicated figure in pop culture today. The fact that West is the one examining himself makes it all the more brilliant and transparent.
Here, MTV News delivers song-by-song crib notes to ’Ye’s deep dive into his psyche.
1. “Dark Fantasy”
On the leadoff number, West reasserts the lyrical acumen he displayed on his first three albums but doesn’t surrender the demonstrative narrative he uncorked on 808s & Heartbreak. Over the robust production of No I.D., Mike Dean and the RZA, which includes a driving organ, tickling keys and feathery choir, West bridges the storyline from his 2009 VMAs incident to his resilient return. And like that, he’s off.
Illuminating Rhymes: “The plan was to drink until the pain over, but what’s worse the pain or the hangover?”
2. “Gorgeous” (featuring Kid Cudi and Raekwon)
Yeezy is as boastful as he’s ever been on “Gorgeous,” but while his lyrics are razor sharp, the production here is softer, resulting in a melodic finger wag to his naysayers rather than searing jabs.
Illuminating Rhymes: “But this pimp is at the top of Mount Olympus/ Ready for the world’s games/ This is my Olympics/ We make ’em say ’ho’ cause the game is so pimpish/ Choke a ’South Park’ writer with a fish stick.”
The track that started ’Ye’s comeback is as stirring months later here as it was when it first leaked to the Web. “Power” is one of the few previously released gems that the producer didn’t tweak for the album version. The record is unflinching, uncompromising, and undoubtedly ’Ye’s mantra for more than just the current year.
Illuminating Rhymes: “I just needed time alone with my own thoughts, got treasures in my mind/ But couldn’t open up my vaults … Reality is catching up with me/ Taking my inner child/ I’m fighting for custody.”
4. “All of the Lights (Interlude)”/ 5. “All of the Lights”
A smattering of a song with upward of 10 additional singers, “All of the Lights” is as fearless a track as West has ever made. The rapper is hardly the most present vocalist on this percolating storytelling number, sharing the spotlight with Rihanna, among others. But as a producer he’s front and center — his orchestration is the driving force behind this sonic train.
Illuminating Rhymes: “Restraining order, can’t see my daughter/ Her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order.”
6. “Monster” (featuring Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver)
A booming collaboration where each MC pushes the other beyond the brink of one-upmanship until Minaj obliterates the track with a hodgepodge of styling — from her flow to her vocal inflection and varied tonal cadences.
Illuminating Rhymes: “Yeah, I’m in that Tonka the color of Willy Wonka/ You could be the king but watch the queen conquer.”
7. “So Appalled” (featuring Jay-Z, Pusha T, CyHi the Prynce, Swizz Beatz and the RZA)
This all-star cipher is a backpackers dream as ’Ye’s G.O.O.D. Music soldiers fire away with resolve. But the Brooklyn icon, Jay-Z, steals the show with an edgy verse dismissing his critics with a 16 that’s as pushy as a New Yorker during rush hour. Please, Hammer, stop replying.
Illuminating Rhymes: “I’m so appalled, I might buy the mall/ Just to show niggas how much I have in store.”
8. “Devil in a New Dress” (featuring Rick Ross)
West’s breezy G.O.O.D. Fridays release gets a wintertime tune-up with Ross riding shotgun. The Miami Don’s majestic contribution comes with a revamped breakdown setting up his slick boats. Still, Yeezy’s verse holds up over the Boss’s even with the refinement.
Illuminating Rhymes: “How she gonna wake up and not love me no more/ I thought I was the a–hole, I guess it’s rubbing off.”
9. “Runaway” (featuring Pusha T)
The emotional centerpiece of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Runaway” gets a face-lift from the radio version with West returning the MP samples he blasted onto the track during his memorable 2010 MTV Video Music Awards performance. Pusha’s sneering guest spot remains the same, but in addition to the sampled tics that begin the track, the Clipse MC’s verse is sandwiched on the back end with an elongated outro.
Illuminating Rhymes: “Never was much of a romantic, I could never take the intimacy/ And I know I did damage, ’cause the look in your eyes is killing me.”
10. “Hell of a Life”
A brooding number with synth-heavy production and frenetic keys strokes. Here, West is all bravado in his hedonistic pursuits.
Illuminating Rhymes: “One day I’m gonna marry a porn star/ We’ll have a big-ass crib and a long yard.”
11. “Blame Game” (featuring John Legend)
The most melancholy track on the album, “Blame Game” finds West turning inward as he pensively dissects a deteriorating relationship — doling out blame between himself and his lady before ultimately assigning fault to their fading connection.
Illuminating Rhymes: “I know that you were somewhere doing your thing/ And when the phone called, it just rang and rang/ You ain’t pick up but the phone accidentally called me back and I heard the whole thing.”
12. “Lost in the World” (featuring Bon Iver) / 13. “Who Will Survive in America”
The denouement of Fantasy is a rollicking effort, thundering in its production and chock-full of proclamations from West that lead to more questions than answers after an hour of listening. The track caps off an exhilarating audio experience that’s sonically groundbreaking and lyrically thrilling. The final selection, a Gil Scott-Heron spoken-word excerpt, slowly punctuates the artful track with a stunning statement that seeks to leave West’s fantasy ride open for more life to be lived rather than bringing it to a conclusion.
Illuminating Rhymes: “You’re my devil, you’re my angel/ You’re my heaven, you’re my hell/ You’re my now, you’re my forever/ You’re my freedom, you’re my jail/ You’re my lies, you’re my truth/ You’re my war, you’re my truce/ You’re my question, you’re my proof/ You’re my stress, you’re my masseuse.”