I started listening to Kanye West during a time when I was trying very, very hard to exercise regularly. For probably a year of my life, Kanye was the closest thing I had to a workout buddy. I’d cue up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as I stepped onto the machine and lurch into action when the intro of “Dark Fantasy” gave way to the actual song.
Lately I’ve been trying to reestablish a regular workout schedule, and the last time I went to the gym I listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for the first time in years. I’ve been listening to podcasts lately instead of music when I exercise, because there are several I really like and only limited hours in a day and something’s happened to my relationship with music as I’ve gotten older—it feels busier, doesn’t fade into the background as easily as it used to. I don’t remember music being something I had to actively listen to, the way I feel like I need to now. Or maybe it’s my relationship with quiet? I’ve become more comfortable with quiet, would rather read a book or write something or think without any additional noise. (I am only 29, how is it that I’m thinking of music as noise!) At any rate, I was floored at what listening to the album did for my workout.
Part of it was muscle memory, I think—I was on the same type of machine I used to use regularly all those years ago, an elliptical-type thing that I heard someone refer to as a “grasshopper” once, although I just tried to google it and couldn’t find anything—anyway, my body remembered the machine, how you have to push from your core and keep your strides strong to move it in an elliptical motion, or else it’ll just go up and down like a stair-stepper. I liked it, still like it, because of that immediate tactile feedback—if you’re lagging, you can really tell.
So, yes, my body remembered the machine, but more than that was the music. It felt like the music was powering my legs. I felt like I wanted to dance while exercising. The hour flew by, the energy of the songs carrying me through it, the energy of the songs and the energy of a particular kind of nostalgia.
Around the time we graduated, my college boyfriend and I broke up. It wasn’t the first time we’d broken up, but it should’ve been the last—he was moving to Washington, DC, and I was moving to Richmond, Virginia, and we had no plans to live in the same city ever again. I mean, that’s the logistical reason, but there were also a lot of other reasons—ones that I can see now, but was not willing to see at the time. We broke up and we should’ve stayed broken up, but we didn’t.
Instead, he came down to visit me. I remember one particular weekend in late fall (it was cold in my rented room in the old drafty house in the funky neighborhood where I lived), a weekend where we were on the verge of getting back together but weren’t quite yet, so everything was a thrill. Being with him was a continual rush of adrenaline, and a sort of puzzle—I wanted so badly to be what he wanted, which is a thing that happens, I think, when you’re young and not sure of who you are. I can’t be sure which of us put the album on, but we were in my room, so in my memory it was me. I was delighted when I found out that he, too, had listened to the album, and liked it. We’d come to it separately, and that we both liked it seemed a sign.
This is, of course, in many ways ludicrous—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a huge album, both popular and critically acclaimed. But I didn’t typically listen to popular rap music, and neither did he. And, really, the thing is this: he usually didn’t like things I liked. Which is not to say that we didn’t like many of the same things—but typically they were things he came to first, things he introduced to me. I felt so proud of myself, that I’d found something he thought was good without him having to direct it to me, like it legitimized my tastes, demonstrated I had something to contribute. It was only a good feeling at the time, a glow—even though, looking back at it, I see how ridiculous that was, that the times I felt appreciated as a legitimate person with legitimate things to contribute were so few and far between.
It’s funny, because my memory of that weekend is a good one—I felt warm next to him, happy to be getting what I wanted, happy to be with the person I most wanted to be with. Even loved. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is something I associate with the good parts of a relationship that I now realize was mostly not very good for me. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I wish you’d have some backbone, he told me once—and it hurt because he was right. It hurt because I didn’t have enough power in the relationship to ever have backbone, we weren’t ever on an even enough keel—I was too afraid to lose him, though I shouldn’t have been.
It’s strange to me now how much I labored to maintain a thing that made me so unhappy. I would never have admitted it made me unhappy at the time, couldn’t even see it—that’s strange to me, too. But I guess that isn’t fair to the memory of the relationship, or to my past self. There were things that were good about it. He did introduce me to a lot of music, shape my tastes, and it was good. I knew him in that remarkable way of knowing someone you love—the way he breathed while he slept and the smell of his hair in the morning. I learned the one-liners he’d quote, absorbed them into my own vocabulary, quoting movies sometimes that I hadn’t even seen. I’d read books while he and his roommates watched sports or action movies. There were times we’d lie on his bed and listen to the rain, times we picnicked on his balcony, and when he had to go to jury duty he read the book I told him I thought he’d like while he waited (I guess a lot of jury duty is waiting), and he liked it. I knew what he liked to eat and I knew what he liked to drink and I knew he worried about how much his mother loved him. I thought he was funny and I thought he was handsome and he loved me, I think, in his way. Sometimes he looked at me with astonishment, surprised by his own affection. I do believe it was the best way he knew how to love at the time.
But looking back, I suspect much of what kept us going was actually fear. Fear of the unfamiliar, fear of the unknown, fear that there wouldn’t be anything better. And this week, as I pumped my arms and legs in an endless cycle with that strange sense of ease that came from listening to these songs for the first time in forever, I saw finally the shadow of that past fear when I got to certain songs, to “Blame Game,” or “Runaway”—I regard them so differently, now, from how I did then. It’s fear that keeps you in thrall to someone, that makes you talk about your involvement with a romantic partner as if you have no control over it. I used to feel sympathy when I would listen to those songs, and I thought sometimes people can’t help but do hurtful things. I used to think I can’t love you this much was an okay way to feel in a relationship, unavoidable, part of the thrill and part of the beauty. I was with someone who often said he didn’t know why he treated me poorly, and I think it’s a sign I’ve grown that, now, when I listen to those songs I think: Those couples in those songs are struggling in ways that seem unpleasant, they don’t seem like their relationships bring them enough joy, and that kind of perpetual conflict is not necessary. They’d be better grieving the broken thing and moving on. Because if the rhythm of the thing is the only thing keeping you going, that’s not enough.
But on the first day we listened to those songs together, we couldn’t see our own weakness. We were young and neither of us knew we deserved more than those brief pockets of happiness—and for that weekend, we were happy. We were happy to see one another after a long time apart, and we went to the great restaurant across the street from where I lived and, after, spent the night drinking wine, my face flushed with joy, and I believe he was happy, I believe we both genuinely were happy, on that day we learned we both loved a Kanye West album and couldn’t yet see that our love was the sort of thing a person doesn’t want forever.