After a series of public incidents, Kanye West spent the end of the 2000s retreated from the world. When he came back, he brought with him an album that cemented him as the greatest artist of his generation. Released on November 22, 2010, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” saw West and a superstar team of collaborators combine elements of his previous four albums to create an entirely new sound, and in the process, an indisputable masterpiece.
Told here through those who were there and through Kanye West himself, this is the complete, authoritative oral history of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
L.A. Reid (former CEO, Def Jam Records): Kanye West is no stranger to controversy. One time, he interrupted Mike Myers to tell a secret to President [George W.] Bush, and another time, he committed the Great Awards Show Crime. His fearlessness in the face of potential outrage is actually one of my favorite things about him, but he took it a step too far when he invented the worst possible phrase to yell in a church.
Mike Dean (producer, songwriter): It’s 2008, and Kanye calls me on the phone to say he’s thought of a wonderful new phrase to scream in a church. It turned out that it was actually the worst possible thing someone could scream in a church, but he didn’t seem to realize that.
L.A. Reid: I begged Kanye to keep it to himself, but he still interrupted the national anthem during all five games of that year’s World Series to announce it. I thought his career was over.
Kanye West (rapper, producer): One day, I will be dead and old, and even then, I will still consider the invention of the phrase “God doesn’t eat food; he just drinks a lot of water” my greatest achievement. It is the best thing you can scream in a church because it is not a lie.
Pusha T (rapper): Kanye is a genius, but his opinions about God’s eating habits are just awful. Of course, it almost derailed his career back in ’08. Everybody knows that God eats mostly medicine, and that’s why he’s been able to live for so long.
Kanye West: The only thing I know for certain is that God doesn’t eat food. God only drinks water, and because of that he’s always hungry. He feels sick all the time and he loves it, and when you die, God welcomes you to Heaven by wobbling his little stomach from side to side so you hear all the water that’s sloshing around inside of him. It’s called God’s Big Test, because if you throw up in response, you get to be in Heaven.
L.A. Reid: The public reaction was really negative. Millions of people hated Kanye, and it just wasn’t going away.
Kanye West: When I meet God, I hope I throw up.
Pusha T: Things got so bad that at one point, Kanye was even brought to trial in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. They unanimously voted to give him the death penalty.
Amber Rose (model, Kanye’s ex-girlfriend): I was absolutely devastated by the Supreme Court’s ruling, but luckily, just as the lever for the electric chair was about to be pulled, Justice [Samuel] Alito burst in. He had remembered that thinking God only drinks water and doesn’t eat food is not a crime, and Kanye was set free.
Kanye West: The nine honorable justices of the Supreme Court tried to kill me. It was the lowest point of my career.
Jay Z (rapper): Kanye was the most hated man in America. I wanted to help him, so I had a plan to become the most hated man in America instead. I was going to slowly drive around America loudly chewing ice into a megaphone, but just as I finished filling my car with bags of ice, a wife named Beyoncé said, “Hey, idiot, I’m having a kid one of these days.” Good thing I listened, because wouldn’t you know it, three years later, she did.
Mike Dean: Even though he thought he was right, Kanye knew he needed to do something to get the people back on his side. First, he tried to come up with a better church phrase, but the best he could think of was “When Christ applauds, he uses his elbows instead of his hands.”
L.A. Reid: We brainstormed redemption ideas for weeks, until we came up with something that seems so simple in retrospect: album.
Pusha T: Album was my idea. I remembered that Kanye had a long history of making album, and it seemed like a surefire way to get him back in the public’s good graces.
Kanye West: I had no other choice. The Supreme Court almost killed me, and because I would’ve been young and dead instead of old and dead, I probably wouldn’t have been ready to throw up at the sight of God’s glorious sloshing stomach. So album it was.
West, along with some of the best rappers, singers, and producers on the planet, set up camp in Hawaii for a series of recording sessions that would go on to become the stuff of legend. The recording process was exhausting, with engineers on call 24 hours a day for whenever inspiration would strike the constantly working West.
Mike Dean: There was only one place on the entire planet where Kanye wanted to make this album, and that was Hawaii.
Kanye West: I wanted to record on the island of Hawaii to show the world that another attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t worth worrying about. But when we arrived, I quickly realized that another attack on Pearl Harbor could happen at any time. It’s a sitting duck. I had to do something.
Pusha T: The material we recorded from the first month is really bad because Kanye immediately began worrying about Pearl Harbor getting attacked again. He spent a lot of time at the Pearl Harbor memorial with a whistle making sure nothing happened.
Mike Dean: The turning point for the album came when Kanye got his whistle taken away by a Pearl Harbor memorial security guard.
Kanye West: I would blow my whistle whenever a plane flew overhead, which was very often. But after a month, a security guard ripped it out of my mouth. I even said, “I’m protecting you,” but he didn’t care. I was still worried about there being another attack, but now there was nothing I could do about it. I had no choice but to do a really good job working on the album.
S1 (producer): Kanye was in the zone. When we were making “Power,” Kanye said, “How about a song that deals with excess and celebrity, while also exploring such issues as consumer culture, race, and the idealism of the American Dream? Also, there should be a maximalist aesthetic, and an opulent production quality, too.” It was a brilliant idea that set the whole tone of the album.
Mike Dean: Anyone who Kanye thought was worth $100 at music was flown out to help: Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Elton John, Rihanna—all the $100 music men and women.
Justin Vernon (lead singer, Bon Iver): It was crazy, hanging out with all those superstars. We would all eat breakfast together, and whenever we had free time, we would work on building a singing robot. The robot ended up being so good at singing that it sang the second half of “Runaway,” and when it killed itself moments after recording the track, we cheered for hours.
Nicki Minaj (rapper): Working with Kanye was incredible because he really knows how to get the best out of you. One time, a plastic bag flew into the studio and he swatted it down in one try, and that inspired my entire “Monster” verse.
Jay Z: When I got the call from Kanye to come to Hawaii, I immediately had this great new idea to become the most hated man in America instead of him. I was going to bring in a bunch of invasive species that would destroy the Hawaiian ecosystem, but because a wife known only as Beyoncé revealed that there was a baby coming soon in three years, I couldn’t buy all the animals and birds that would have upended the environmental equilibrium on the island, and my contributions out there ended up just being a couple verses on the album.
RZA (producer, rapper): Kanye tricked me into coming to Hawaii. He said that there was a big fish in Hawaii that I absolutely had to see, but when I got there, there was just the studio. Not a goddamn fish in sight, just a robot with a bullet in its head in the front yard. I don’t know why he tricked me. I would have come had he just said “Music.”
Justin Vernon: Kanye also set up a bunch of rules we all had to follow in the studio, and they were super strict.
Kanye West: One day, I will be dead and old, but I thought it was necessary to have a set of rules. You know, just to make sure we all kept on track.
Raekwon (rapper): “Wear a tuxedo.” “Don’t dress like an ice cream man.” How the fuck am I supposed to do both?
Swizz Beatz (producer): The toughest rule to always follow was definitely “Create the song ‘So Appalled.’” I created that song the first day I was there, and since I couldn’t create that song again, I broke that rule pretty much every day thereafter. Kanye was so mad.
Kid Cudi (rapper, singer): I broke the rule of “Never have a bunch of mice in your pockets” and was almost sent home, but then I told Kanye that a better rule would be “Always have a bunch of mice in your pockets,” and I got to stay.
Pusha T: Both mouse rules were the worst rules.
Rihanna (singer): Kanye was just in the zone and demanded perfection out of everyone. I bet that if anyone had ever showed up in a cast, there would’ve been hell to pay.
Pusha T: “Runaway” was going to be the centerpiece of the album, and he really pushed me when I was laying down my verse. At one point, I got fed up and said, “Fuck off, dink, you think God only drinks water instead of only eating medicine,” and he stomped on my foot so hard that I screamed.
Kanye West: We worked tirelessly for months, but by the end, we had created what we had set out to accomplish: an album that would make people forget about a thing I did a few months earlier.
As West and company began to finish the album, it was clear to everyone involved that history was about to be made. Still, there was a problem: How do you promote an album, as incredible as it might be, when you don’t have the public on your side?
Pusha T: The first attempt at promoting the album was to hire a man to go to the center of every town in America to scream “It looks like something big is in the works!” The man got a fair amount of press, but it was just going too slow, and we decided to move on. As far as I know, that guy is still doing that, and honestly, whatever.
L.A. Reid: There was also the issue that because no one had actually heard the incredible music Kanye was making, the public was still mad at him. I even heard that one guy had gotten a tattoo of Kanye on his stomach and would charge people $20 to watch him punch it, and he became a millionaire.
Kanye West: I had made too much music to fit onto one album. This made me so mad that I thought about just canceling the entire thing and putting all my energy into creating another good phrase to scream in church, like “The Holy Spirit has only read one book and that is Ethan Frome.” But then I realized that I could just release some of that extra music to help promote the album, on a little day I like to call Friday.
No I.D. (producer, former president of GOOD Music): GOOD Fridays was a brilliant idea, but Kanye and I argued constantly over how much it should cost. He thought each song should be $100 to buy, and I thought we should pay people $100 to listen. Eventually, we split the difference and just made it free.
Pusha T: My favorite song from GOOD Fridays is “Good Friday,” because I think it’s cool how close it sounds to “GOOD Fridays.”
Mike Dean: GOOD Fridays did the important thing of reminding people that Kanye is much more than the man who made the worst possible phrase to scream in a church.
L.A. Reid: People were warming up to Kanye again, and we needed to keep up this positive buzz. That’s where George Condo’s cover art came into play.
George Condo (cover artist): I made the cover art be sexual cover art because sometimes a person will see art of some sex and whisper to themselves, “Hey, okay, all right, it looks like I am on board,” and I know that when there is some sex, a person will get excited or even a little bit thrilled.
No I.D.: Due to the explicit nature of the cover, Outback Steakhouse immediately said it wouldn’t sell the album. Outback Steakhouse has never sold any albums, and we had no intention of ever selling it through them, but it was still good publicity because people like when things are badass.
Jay Z: My third idea at becoming the most hated man in America instead of Kanye was as follows: travel to France, go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and unveil a massive sign that says “This is what I think the Washington Monument is.” But what you have to realize is that there’s this wife, and if I’m being honest, she’s named Beyoncé, and she stopped me before I could even go to JayZsPersonalPlaneTicketWebsite.com
Kanye West: Undoubtedly, one day I will be dead and old, but there was only one thing I wanted to call the album: God Doesn’t Eat Food; He Just Drinks A Lot Of Water. I didn’t care if it pissed people off. But I guess the label misheard me and thought I said My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
L.A. Reid: We know what Kanye said.
Kid Cudi: Things had turned around so much for Kanye that he even got invited to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I wish I could’ve gone, but I had gotten banned for life the year before because I’d asked a security guard if I could try to swallow one of the balloons.
Kanye West: In the Thanksgiving Day Parade green room, I saw the man who was playing Santa Claus bite into a ham sandwich so hard that he broke a tooth. When he started to cry, I gave him a tissue, and he responded by telling me that I had been forgiven for everything I had done. It was a nice moment, but it didn’t really matter, because the only person who can forgive me is God. And I’m on good terms with that little guy, because he knows that I think he drinks six gallons of water out of a very weak Heaven Hose every single day.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sold 496,000 copies during its first week and debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. It received unanimously rave reviews, and many critics considered it to be the best album of 2010. By any measure, it was a triumph, and possibly the best work from one of the best rappers of all time—but despite its legacy, Kanye’s relationship with the album has been complicated.
Rob Sheffield (writer, Rolling Stone): The first time I listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I got a bloody nose. But the second time I listened? The bloody nose went away. That’s when I knew it was a classic.
Drake (rapper): My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy changed everything. I think about it every day, and one day I’m going to forget about it because of a car accident.
Samuel Alito (associate justice, Supreme Court of the United States): Kanye West sent me a copy of his album, but I still haven’t gotten around to listening to it. I’m sure it’s fine, but just because you save someone’s life, it doesn’t mean you have to listen to their album. Always remember that. Justice Samuel Alito.
Justin Vernon: Working on this album changed my life. I got to see a robot kill itself, and that’s something no one can ever take away from me.
Jay Z: In 2011, I finally achieved my goal of becoming the most hated man in America. I mailed everyone in the country a blurry photo of myself trying to drink a bowl of uncooked rice through a straw, but because everyone liked Kanye again, I had become a pariah for no reason. A wife got mad and a baby was born, and only one of them was named none other than Beyoncé.
Kanye West: People seem to like the album, but I don’t feel too good about it. Anytime you make something just because you don’t want people to be mad at you for believing that the phrase “God doesn’t eat food; he just drinks a lot of water” is a very good thing to yell in a church, it feels hollow.
Pusha T: That’s the cool thing about Kanye: He can make something that is so undeniably great but still see the flaws. It’s really inspiring, and one day I hope I can make something that everyone loves but I still hate.
Kanye West: No matter how much I achieve, no matter how much people look up to me, no matter how incredible my family is—one day, when I am dead and old, if I am unable to throw up when I see God quietly whirl his little distended, waterlogged stomach, none of this will have been worth it.