November 22, 2015 marks the five-year anniversary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - an album that represents the turning point in Kanye West’s life and career. Upon the project’s 2010 arrival, the embattled superstar rapper/producer was still reeling from mainstream America’s harsh response to his infamous stage crashing at the 2009 MTV VMAs. Even his core rap fans had become skeptics, especially those who couldn’t get jiggy with his avant-garde 808s & Heartbreak.
Music was Kanye’s only defense. So he assembled a sterling squadron—from Wu-Tang Clansmen RZA and Raekwon to newer artists like Kid Cudi and Nicki Minaj—and created a modern-day masterpiece. Orchestrating the platoon, Kanye explores issues both social and personal, and gets very honest about the stress of life on the world stage. By the album’s closing credits, the overall message is clear—don't blindly idolize fame, open your eyes and really look.
Grotesquely beautiful, MBDTF is a lesson in efficiency. Kanye West knew the album needed to be flawless and he delivered. Beats expand and contract just short of music sensory overload. Not a single lyric is wasted—spanning machismo, love, loss, floss, and race. And every guest show and proves. No slouches allowed.
As Kanye’s classic turns five, Genius does the album poetic justice by selecting the five most epic verses. —Vuk Aleksić and John Kennedy
Pusha T abandons his usual braggadocious drug talk and opens up his imperfect heart on “Runaway,” offering a dark contrast to Kanye’s apology tour. The 16 starts with a gruesome admission of infidelity. Then he nonchalantly delivers a frigid ultimatum to his lover: “You could leave or live wit’ it.”
While Kanye remains apologetic throughout, Push turns his temperature down to Arctic levels, painting his relationship as a simple transaction. It’s a dastardly take on the typical hip-hop love song. Push can’t be faithful, so he promises to keep his lady laced in luxury. “Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet / Comes with a price tag, baby, face it,” he snarls before closing: “I’m just young, rich and tasteless.” Heartbreak never sounded so good.
Kanye previewed much of MBDTF via his innovative weekly G.O.O.D. Fridays series, but he saved some surprises for the official album release, including this gem from Rick Ross. It took the Miami rapper an hour to paint a lyrical mural that depicts his bossy lifestyle using icons from both Greek and hip-hop mythology. Ross’ visuals are in ultra HD—from his cherry-red chariot and lavender shoes to memories of cyphering with a pre-Dropout Yeezy to the fleet of foreign cars that might make the DMV suspicious.
Ross’ attention to detail makes every word not just vivid, but also believable. You can imagine the jail mail stamped with Polk County postal codes. His G4s at the Clearport. Pushing the bounds of bravado, Ross inserts his name into the holy trinity of MCs alongside 2Pac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, but he does it so casually you don’t even think about objecting. Finally, he ties the verse back to the song’s religious undertone: “I'm making love to the angel of death/Catching feelings never stumble, retracing my steps.”
Let’s just get this out of the way: “If God had an iPod I’d be on his playlist” is one of hip-hop’s great un-humble brags. But it’s just a single power punch in CyHi Da Prynce’s barrage of one-liners on “So Appalled.” The gap-toothed lyricist—who snuck his verse on the end of the track while Kanye was sleeping—seamlessly makes references to Biblical figures, Civil Rights icons and Lamar Odom. CyHi drops some of the album’s wittiest wordplay, constructing a short story about his womanizing ways using the months of the year. He punctuates each punchline with just enough pause to let the impact set in, before spitting yet another. On a track with Kanye West, Pusha T and Jay Z, a newbie from Atlanta came through and snatched the spotlight. Appalling indeed.
When Kanye called Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon explaining he wanted to sample his song "Woods," the self-described "lumberjack dude from Wisconsin" had no idea what West was planning. And frankly, neither did West, as he revealed when he performed "Lost in the Woods" at Glastonbury in 2015, "we didn't have any words to this record, but we loved the beat."
The words—"You're my devil, you're my angel / You're my heaven, you're my hell"—would come from an email he was writing to future wife Kim Kardashian. The eight bars go to the depths and back—monogamy is a curse and potential salvation. Before closing the verse, Kanye interpolates Michael Jackson's “Wanna Be Starting Something" and delivers a sacred vow to his soulmate: "If we die in each other's arms, still get laid in the afterlife." Kanye would later describe the verse as "my favorite eight bars that I've ever written in my life." He's not the only one who feels that way.
By 2010, Nicki Minaj had made a name for herself by hopping on male rappers’ tracks and bodying them with animated, meticulously crafted verses. Her debut album was due three days before Kanye’s masterpiece, and Nicki was trying hard to transition from mixtape rapper to “studio album” artist. Her first commercial single—the tepid ”Massive Attack,” forever scrubbed from the history by the Barbz—flopped. Nicki’s success wasn’t guaranteed. Until this verse.
Moving between her Trini accent, Queens slang and Harajuku Barbie and Roman Zolanski personas, Nicki drops a monologue only a theater-trained creative could pull off. She starts aggressive, slips into the voice of a deranged murderer, and finishes with an explosive declaration of monsterhood (and gets a potshot at her predecessor and rival Lil Kim in too).
This versatility and urgency mirror the arc of Nicki’s career—the show-out “Monster” closer marks her undeniable arrival in the rap game. It’s on par with Busta Rhymes’ energetic breakout appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” nearly two decades earlier. It’s a snake person equivalent to Foxy’s slaying of LL Cool J, Prodigy, Keith Murray and Fat Joe on “I Shot Ya” in 1995. Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse is an adventure more twisted than anything else on MBDTF.
Shout out to Kanye for putting his ego aside, not marginalizing Nicki, and sharing this hip hop gem with the world.