21st Century Schizoid Man: How Kanye Changed Rap by Making a 70s Prog Album in 2010

The surprising rap revolution of Kanye's prog album.

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Nov 13 2015, 5:38pm

For the month of November, Noisey will be remembering the buildup to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a weekly series of G.O.O.D. Friday posts. Welcome to Noisey G.O.O.D. Fridays.

Last month, in an interview with SHOWStudio, Kanye West said that he felt like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a safe bet, a “bouquet” of all the aspects of his music he knew fans loved, presented and received with an enthusiasm that he played like an orchestra. It’s not the first time West has expressed this opinion; he said during the Yeezus promo run that he could make an album like MBDTF any time he wants to, but he’d rather push himself out of his comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with an artist looking to move forward, obviously, but West’s characterization of his album’s sound as safe is baffling, since it was an unprecedented retreat by a hip-hop artist into the weird world of progressive rock.

Progressive rock was a distinctly 70s movement prizing instrumental chops, classical-inspired song structure, and fantastical lyrics. It is an era rife with entire albums of 12-minute songs about computers enslaving humans, and its geeky, over-the-top reputation is one that West accessed in his sampling choices. “Dark Fantasy” flips “In High Places,” a song from prog giants Mike Oldfield, best known for the still-terrifying
theme music from The Exorcist, and singer Jon Anderson of Yes, who pioneered a live show that crossed jazz fusion with LARPing. “So Appalled” stacks its verses on top of a sample of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s “You Are - I Am”, though they’re best known for their ultra-proggy version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Lights,” one the hardest cover songs in the history of recorded music. Some fucking genius in that Honolulu studio had the idea of grafting King Crimson’s seminal “21st Century Schizoid Man” onto “Power,” and there’s rarely been a more potent essence-bonding of sample and song concept since.

On “Runaway,” as the bass hits that wrong note on its descent into minor-key oblivion, and the Pete-Rock-pilfered drum break trudges along, look to the album artwork, to Kanye’s contorted grin and the winged demon-woman-thing riding him, her face obscured but for an inhuman maw. The music on this and the rest of the album is an ugly mess: drums clatter, Mike Dean’s processed guitar growls and wails, sampled voices fire off randomly like snatches of a shouting match, and the vocals of both West and his massed choir are mangled by distortion or stretched into Auto-Tune putty. “Runaway” is one of many times that the surrealist nightmare world portrayed in the album’s cover art, West’s nihilist lyrics, and the songs’ twisted arrangements fuse to form a hip-hop answer to the art rock monsters of the 70s.

The best prog-rock songs were also clusterfucks, piling demented instrumental solos on top of disorienting polyrhythms and fairytale gibberish and leaving you to explore the splatter painting it all creates. Kanye, being an expert curator, ended up creating an expressive metaphor with his own process. Like the paintings of Genieve Figgis, MBDTF’s beats depict unreal wealth and power in the process of decay, melting into unrecognizable, disturbing shapes.That these signatures carried over into G.O.O.D. Friday loosies like “Christian Dior Denim Flow,” to West’s productions for other rappers at the time (see also: Rick Ross’ “Live Fast Die Young” and Snoop Dogg’s “Eyez Closed”) and to MBDTF’s mutant spawn Watch the Throne, whose opening song “No Church in the Wild” introduces itself with a detuned sample of Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera’s 1978 solo cut “K Scope,” is evidence of a unified vision stretching beyond just making a good Kanye West album.

Though the most productive instance of MBDTF’s influence was Nate Ruess of fun. seeking out Kanye collaborator Jeff Bhasker specifically to try and affect West’s sound for “We Are Young,” its fingerprints can be seen in the hip-hop mainstream too. Blockbuster releases by Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake have featured extended suites that barrel past the four-minute norm. Their success has allowed producers like London on da Track, Key Wane, and Tyler, the Creator to take more chances, adding grandiose changes and live instruments. It’s an approach evident in Ty Dolla $ign’s slow-jam symphonies as well as in West’s apprentice Travis Scott, whose recently released debut album Rodeo favours intricate, enticingly gothic surfaces adorning vaguely menacing nonsense.

Who’s gonna head up the movement that tears this one down? Stars like Fetty Wap and Chief Keef have been made pairing trap music with quick and dirty recording methods and access to social media, like the punk rock movement combatting the record label bloat and excess of the mid-70s with a lean, DIY ethos. Ironically, the figurehead could be ‘Ye himself if he has anything to say about it. Yeezus was a self-conscious attempt at (expensive) raggedness, and the infinite rollout for SWISH is similarly “laissez-faire,” though this time it’s likely a byproduct of West placing music third after family and fashion rather than a statement of intent. Try as he might, though, this self-styled god can’t erase the impact of the gnarled monolith that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the greatest rock album by our generation’s greatest rock star.

Phil Witmer makes music and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.