My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: a sonic analysis of Kanye West’s magnum opus
20.11.2020

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: a sonic analysis of Kanye West’s magnum opus

Words by Will Brewster

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the grandiose hip-hop epic.

Ten years ago, Kanye West’s fifth full-length album, the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was released unto the world.

Pieced together alongside a wildly diverse team of creatives over the span of 18 months after West was shunned by the public due to his infamous Taylor Swift stage invasion at the 2009 MTV Awards, is universally regarded as one of the most significant releases of all time, with the record’s highbrow production, intricate narrative, decadent aesthetics and eclectic array of features helping to break down boundaries for the hip-hop and even transcending genre to go down as one of the decade’s most influential releases.

Like any Kanye West project, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is densely layered and thematically complex, and this couldn’t be any more apt when approaching the production of the record. While stylistically coherent, each track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is drastically different in tone and timbre, due in part to both the instrumental contributions of West’s key collaborators as well as the enigmatic array of samples utilised across the album.

From obscure prog-rock through to indie-folk and abstract electronica, West and his team dug through crates far and wide to source the samples heard across My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, re-contextualising to paint a grandiose, if not slightly deranged, portrait of Kanye West: not just as an artist, but a man caught within the trappings of fortune and fame, who upon reaching the apex of the American dream, is now desperately questioning whether it was all worth it at all.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of one of the most significant musical releases of the modern era, we’re turning our critical eyes and ears to every single sample used to thread the record togetheranalysing the record through its production to explore the dark twisted fantasy of the one and only Kanye West.

‘Dark Fantasy’ 

Samples used: ‘In High Places’ – Mike Oldfield feat. Jon Anderson

It’d be difficult to name an opening refrain more iconic than ‘Can we get much higher?’. With a single sample, West sets the tone for the sheer decadence of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, snatching the vocal from Mike Oldfield and Jon Anderson’s 1983 track ‘In High Places’ to use as a precursor for Teyana Taylor’s hook before launching into a classic boom-bap beat cooked up by West, No I.D. and the RZA. 

Of course, it’d be criminal to mention ‘Dark Fantasy’ without making note of Nicki Minaj’s spoken word intro, which interpolates a poem from Roald Dahl’s Rotten Rhymes to assist in establishing the long-winding, twisted narrative to come.

‘Gorgeous’ 

Samples used: ‘You Showed Me’ – Enoch Light and the Glittering Guitars

As illustrious of an opener as ‘Dark Fantasy’ might be, it’s on ‘Gorgeous’ where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy really starts to show that this isn’t your average rap album. For this track, Kanye flips an Enoch Light and the Glittering Guitars cover of ‘You Showed Me’ (originally written by ‘60s rockers The Turtles), pitching its fuzzy guitar loop down a semitone to form the bedrock of the instrumental. 

While Kanye’s verses throughout this track are undoubtedly some of the best he’s ever laid down in his career, it’s producer Mike Dean who steals the spotlight in ‘Gorgeous’. Over Raekwon’s final verse, Dean layers angelic synth pads and a screaming guitar solo to take the song to soaring heights, laying the foundation for the eponymous ‘Mike Dean Outro’ that’s become known to be one of his trademark tricks. 

‘Power’

Samples used: ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ – King Crimson; ‘It’s Your Thing’ – Cold Grits; ‘Afromerica’ – Continent Number 6

Not many songs employ the use of samples quite like ‘Power’ does – but then again, not many artists produce like Kanye West does. With the assistance of S1, Mike Dean, Jeff Bhasker and Andrew Dawson, Kanye takes three wildly different samples and re-contextualises them into one of the most epic hip-hop instrumentals in modern memory.

‘Power’ opens with a pitched-up sample from Continent Number 6’s 1978 disco track ‘Afromerica’, with Kanye using the song’s chanting vocals and hand claps as the foundation to build the song atop of. The song’s drums come courtesy of a breakbeat from ‘It’s Your Thing’ by Cold Grits, and of course, there’s that King Crimson sample to open each new section of the track. 

Supposedly, Kanye put thousands of hours of work into producing ‘Power’ to ensure the track would surmount to the immense expectations bestowed upon him, and when it dropped as the album’s lead single in May of 2010, it was clear that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was gearing up to be an album unlike any other. 

‘All Of The Lights (Interlude)’ + ’All Of The Lights’

Okay, so ‘All Of The Lights’ mightn’t feature any samples – but how can you skip over this track? After being opened by a beautiful piano intro (delicately played by Elton John himself), Kanye launches into a bombastic, star-studded rap cut driven by relentless percussion, triumphant horns and buzzy synths, creating a track that sounds way ahead of its time even ten years since its release. 

‘Monster’ 

Once again, ‘Monster’ is one of the few tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to not feature any samples in its production, but that doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of a mention. Sure, Jay-Z’s verse on this cut isn’t one of his finest – in fact, it’s probably one of his worst, but we won’t go there – but Rick Ross and Kanye each turn up in fine form for their own respective moments on the mic, and Nicki Minaj’s show-stopping verse in the second half might just be one of the greatest of the 2010s. Plus, how about that Bon Iver feature? What a voice!

‘So Appalled’ 

Samples used: ‘You Are-I Am’ – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band; ‘Think (About It) – Lyn Collins

Featuring Kanye, Jay-Z (who more than redeems himself from the shoddy bars of the last track), Pusha-T and Cyhi The Prince as well as additional contributions from Swizz Beats and the RZA, ‘So Appalled’ forms the lyrical crux of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with each rapper turning in verses jam-packed with clever wordplay and double entendres to round out yet another seminal posse cut.

While the bars are the man focus over the course of this track, ‘So Appalled’ doesn’t skimp lightly on the instrumental front. Here, Kanye flips a woozy synth motif from ‘70s UK rock outfit Manfred Mann’s ‘You Are-I Am’ and layers it in dense reverb and distortion to underscore the track’s dense orchestral arrangement during each verse, while a vocal chop from Lyn Collin’s ‘Think (About It)’ also pops to accent the offbeat of every fourth count. 

‘Devil In A New Dress’

Samples used: ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ – Smokey Robinson 

In the decade since its release, ‘Devil In A New Dress’ has been reappraised by many listeners as one of the best tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and there’s a myriad of reasons as to why. Firstly, the beat is sensational, with producer Bink! chopping up a Smokey Robinson sample in a similar vein to Kanye’s earliest works to make for one of the album’s most hypnotic instrumentals. 

However, it’s in the second half where ‘Devil In A New Dress’ really takes flight, and there’s only one man to talk about here: Mike Dean. Here, Dean creates an instrumental interlude from layers of piano, strings and bass, before coming in with a searing guitar solo that peaks as the drums make their return in the mix. 

As Rick Ross seals the deal for ‘Devil In A New Dress’ with an exceptional verse of his own, Dean’s guitar returns to close out the track, making for one of the most euphoric moments on the entire record.

‘Runaway’ 

Samples used: ‘Mary Jane (Live)’ – Rick James; ‘Expo ’83’ – The Backyard Heavies; ‘Introduction to Star Time’ – James Brown 

If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is indeed Kanye West’s magnum opus, then surely, ‘Runaway’ must be the centrepiece of the record. Across nine minutes, West takes the listener on a trip through his own psyche in the wake of the public backlash he faced after the 2009 MTV Awards fiasco with Taylor Swift, offering a ‘toast to the douchebags’ and lamenting on his past antics. 

After beginning with a lone repeating piano motif, ‘Runaway’ immediately springs to life with a breakbeat ripped from ‘Expo ’83’ by The Backyard Heavies, with an added kick drum and reverberated hand clap helping to punch out the drums for a heavy-hitting effect. Elsewhere, Kanye whips out his MPC to interject the track with a Rick James vocal sample (‘Look at ya!’) from a 1981 live performance of ‘Mary Jane’, with a snippet of James Brown’s ‘Introduction to Star Time’ also being heard at the start of the track. 

As Pusha-T delivers a wordy verse and the song seems to draw to a close, Kanye once again pulls another trick out of the hat to close ‘Runaway’ out in tremendous fashion, wrapping his vocals in a heavily distorted Auto-Tune effect and pouring his soul out all the way to the finish line. It’s a moment that’ll never cease to amaze even the most casual of listers, and given just how many tracks have employed similar vocal processing in the years to follow, could very well be the most important moment on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. 

‘Hell Of A Life’

Samples used: ‘She’s My Baby’ – The Mojo Men; ‘Iron Man’ – Black Sabbath; ‘Stud Spider’ – Tony-Joe White

Straight after the soulful, tear-jerker epic of ‘Runaway’, Kanye lets us look into a strikingly different side of his psyche with ‘Hell Of A Life’: a grimy ode to sex, drugs and religion that also features some of the best sampling on the record. Of course, the most obvious sample here at play can be heard in the chorus, with Kanye interpolating Tony Iommi’s iconic ‘Iron Man’ riff as part of the song’s dirty-minded refrain. 

As cool as the Sabbath sample may be, it’s actually the other two samples peppered throughout ‘Hell Of A Life’ that really give it its edge. As subtle as it may be, the song’s drum loop is ripped from a Tony-Joe White song by the name of ‘Stud Spider’ (listen closely throughout various moments of the track, and you can hear White’s uttering of ‘Stud’ faintly in the background), while the track’s main riff is derived from a guitar part from The Mojo Men’s ‘She’s My Baby’ – replayed on a dirty Moog bass synth by Mike Dean. 

‘Blame Game’ 

Samples used: ‘Avril 14th’ – Aphex Twin

Recorded in the wake of his breakup with Amber Rose, ‘Blame Game’ sees Kanye at his most pensive and harrowing, with the song’s cleverly-panned and pitched vocals in the second verse creating a disorienting effect to replicate the torrid self-doubt felt during the dissolution of a relationship.

To backdrop ‘Blame Game’s’ narrative arc of heartache and insecurity, West lifts a melancholic piano melody from Aphex Twin’s ‘Avril 14th’, with the motif being replayed by a member of his team to give it a bit more clarity and detail. Supposedly, Aphex Twin attempted to contact West in order to perform a polished version of the sample himself, yet claims he was coldly shut down by the rapper’s team upon reaching out, who even tried to get away with not paying Aphex Twin clearance for the sample.

‘Lost In The World’ + ‘Who Will Survive In America’

Samples used: ‘Woods’ – Bon Iver; ‘Soul Makossa’ – Manu Dibango; ‘Think (About It) – Lynn Collins; ‘Comment No. 1’ – Gil Scott-Heron 

On the album’s epic two-part closer, Kanye calls again on the vocals of Justin Vernon, this time sampling his incredible Bon Iver cut ‘Woods’ for the auto-tuned introduction and interpolating its melody at various points throughout the track. 

West also uses the same Lyn Collins vocal chop heard in ‘So Appalled’ as another accent over the course of the track, as well as interpolating the ‘makossa’ refrain of Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango’s ‘Soul Makossa’ – just as Michael Jackson once did on Thriller opener ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’. 

As ‘Lost In The World’ gives way to the final track of the album, one of the most poignant samples of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy enters the fray: ‘Comment No.1’, a spoken word piece by legendary Chicago jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron.

While the relentless drums bring the album to a close, Gil Scott-Heron’s scathing social commentary acts as an antithesis to the euphoric opening refrain of ‘Dark Fantasy’, painting a portrait of a nation simultaneously fuelled and plagued by the trappings of fame – with Kanye West sitting smack bang in the midst of it all.

Rediscover six of the best samples used across Kanye’s 2007 stadium rap triumph Graduation.