Yes, he sleeps on fur pillows, searches for marble conference tables on eBay, and has opinions about credenzas (whatever those are), but let no one say that in 2010, Kanye West’s proletarian dreams weren’t equally peculiar and rich. In a year of economic suffering and disastrous unemployment rates, West interrupted his own wealthy anomie to pen “All of the Lights,” an incongruously star-stuffed song about a disoriented parolee trying to beat a restraining order and see his daughter, working out a brief reunion with her estranged mother: “Public visitation, we met at Borders.” Shortly thereafter, the bookstore declared a real-life liquidity crisis and delayed payments to vendors, who in turn stopped sending the store books; bankruptcy proceedings may even now be pending.
Bet the market on this guy, and you’d probably make a killing. “Fame,” Don DeLillo once wrote, is “the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic,” and last year we the republic, 708 critics strong, dreamed of nothing but Kanye West. His ubiquity was total: live broadcasts from Korean hotel balconies and the offices of Facebook and Rolling Stone; a never-abating stream of ebullience and self-parody on Twitter; soliloquies delivered across YouTube, UStream, the Today show, the FM dial; and, of course, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy itself, your Pazz & Jop winner by the poll’s largest-ever margin and West’s astonishing third win in five tries.
His #1 here is the latest perfect score across a board that extends from Pitchfork cognoscenti to the wizened pronouncements of Jann Wenner and beyond; on the Billboard charts, his comparatively disappointing commercial performance will nevertheless soon be certified platinum. (Chalk the lag up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s not-actually-all-that-surprising lack of even one #1 single—not that that fact kept West from tacking on a four-five-six sweep on our singles chart, making him the first guy to put three songs in the P&J Top 10 since Prince in 1987.)
Erotic terror, indeed. Look at what we’ve done: put a proud misogynist and self-proclaimed douchebag in the top spot, and his brokenhearted LCD Soundsystem counterpart, James Murphy, who made his break-up record in a Los Angeles pleasure palace dubbed the Manshun (get it?), at #2. The happily married couple in Arcade Fire? A wan third. Nor is our singles winner, Cee Lo, much of a nice guy, if “Fuck You” is anything to go by. Me, I’m just trying to get the bubbling, not-quite-restrained laughter of the anonymous girl on MBDTF who can’t quite say Yeezy reupholstered my pussy with a straight face out of my head. For three fucking months now.
So why did we vote for these assholes? Because at heart, their dark twisted fantasies were fundamentally creative, generative ones—given a Hawaiian studio, a seemingly unlimited budget, and a Def Jam blank check, West spent the summer flying in not bevies of models and cases of champagne, but his favorite rap producers and bearded indie-rock composers from Wisconsin. He used his fame to make records with his heroes. He directed two different—though equally abstruse—art films, one of them 35 minutes long, a monumentally self-defeating way of promoting an album. Meanwhile, a couple thousand miles across the Pacific, Murphy was dressing strictly in white, retaining the services of a personal chef, and floating around the pool in Rick Rubin’s mansion, all in the glamour-killing service of making a perfectionist chronicle of impeccable synthesizer sound and lovelorn male sadness.
Their fantastic lives begot fantastic albums. MBDTF was a delirium of influence, a recombination of musical DNA as varied as gothic East Coast rap classicism, ’70s prog rock, and winsome ’90s electronic music. In doing so, West paid maximalist homage to his own best work: the sped-up soul sampling of his early productions, the glossy thump of Graduation, the ornate orchestration of Late Registration, the sad robot pulse of 808s and Heartbreak. And he rapped better, too—a necessity on an album that featured historically grand competition, from a bloodthirsty Nicki Minaj to Raekwon to Jay-Z himself (twice!), a hip-hop fantasy camp basically unparalleled, in part because any other artist would’ve been afraid to try. Murphy, for his part, boiled down a decade of sarcasm and ironic dance-floor excess into a plainspoken kiss-off to the career that had cost him everything external to the band he found himself trapped in.
And in 2010, we lived through them both. Both artists exposed their inner gears in a way that was almost pathological: West in the compulsive overshare that was his life, Murphy in the weirdly precise chronicle of a relationship he torched while out on tour and the label contract he no longer cared to maintain. West lived in public for most of the year, and so in a vicarious way, we did, too: His channel was always on. And Murphy, though more circumspect in the halls of the Internet and on stages across the world, compounded his own isolation and shame by making a record about it: “I can change,” he told pretty much anyone who was listening, “if it helps you fall in love.” Kanye would, too, if he could.
But he can’t, really—hence “Runaway,” “Hell of a Life,” “Blame Game,” and “Lost in the World,” the second half of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the sound of a man looking in the mirror, hating what he sees, and recording it for posterity anyway. Put that stretch of music up against This Is Happening‘s own “All I Want,” “I Can Change,” and “You Wanted a Hit,” and decide which is more abject—or better yet, don’t, unless you want to start wondering if Murphy fucks with the lights on, too.
It’s an odd thing to say about a millionaire and a much-loved globetrotting DJ, but these artists sacrificed in 2010, pointing up their flaws and vanities in full view of anyone who cared to look. And we cared, of course. Murphy and West’s elaborate celebrity lives may have seemed more vivid than ours at times, but as artists, they held up their end of the deal: What they lived, they made work about; what adoration and income they received from us, they used to make still more. They weren’t perfect, no. But in 2010, they made listening worth it.