• Jackson Howarth

Astro-fatalism: a Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Updated: Mar 29

‘It is the year 2050. Kanye West has been missing for nearly 30 years.’ So starts toasty digital’s astonishing new mashup album turned cli-fi thriller. It is, IFLA! deputy editor Jackson Howarth argues, a searing condemnation of the economic and class dynamics of astro-fatalism and the climate crisis as a whole.



If you were to ask Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk why they are so desperate to settle the solar system, they would both tell you that they are trying to save us all from climate change. But while Bezos claims to want to ‘go to space to save the Earth’, Musk argues that we will probably have to abandon our planet altogether. This more hardcore ‘astro-fatalism’, backed by figures including the late Steven Hawking, will only gain currency as the climate crisis worsens. Critics like Kelsey Piper have begun to point out that this is techno-topian millenarian nonsense at its most extreme – pinning ‘hope’ on capitalism’s ability to generate (incredibly consumptive) miracle technologies with no guarantee that they can be delivered.[1] It also conveniently renders systemic climate action pointless, and gives the rich carte blanche to devastate the planet in the meantime. With all this in mind, I couldn’t quite believe my ears when last week, I came across the most powerful, unexpected criticism of astro-fatalism I’ve heard to date – in the form of a hip-hop mash-up album. That’s right. DJ toasty digital has taken the most iconic albums of an era, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city (2012), transformed them into an imaginative exploration of this pertinent eco-social question, and what’s more – he’s actually pulled it off.

When compared to musical fan art’s other, more obvious incarnation – the musical cover – mash-ups aren’t generally taken too seriously. They’ve been around since the 1940s, but exploded in the late noughties and early teenies with the ascendency of Soundcloud, YouTube, and sudden availability of music tech. While Kanye and Kendrick were busy recording MBDTF and GKMC, toasty was also hard at work: cutting his teeth splicing songs alongside millions of other bedroom producers. Hip-Hop tracks, with beats and bars that could easily be stripped and merged with other melodies, were popular targets. The result was a lot of sub-par singles – mismatched beats, horrendous transitions, clashing keys – and a few hidden gems (or, at the very least, guilty pleasures). Several artists went further than the odd single, mashing up entire albums, but in terms of ambition, and execution, nothing from the mash-up era comes close to toasty’s Good Kid Twisted Fantasy.


In terms of ambition, and execution, nothing from the mash-up era comes close to toasty’s Good Kid Twisted Fantasy

For starters, the piece is far more than a simple auditory mash-up – it’s a multimedia collage, weaving together text, image, and sound. But what really sets GKTF apart is its direction. This is a concept mash-up. toasty digital weaves these different components together to create a new, compelling narrative. Here we have musical fan art (arguably fan-fiction) on an astronomical scale.


In a refreshing twist, the mash-up is worked into the framework of a cli-fi thriller. We are greeted by the blackness of space overlaid with text, reminiscent of Star Wars: ‘The year is 2050. Drought, famine, and extreme weather threaten to end human civilization as we know it’. Kanye West, curiously, has been missing for 30 years, with rumours that he and his family have left Earth altogether. For a moment it all sounds a little silly, but toasty doubles down, using this plot point to jump into a salient multimedia discussion of astro-fatalism – the piece’s thematic backbone. ‘Kanye is ahead of his time’, we are told, ‘Today, many believe abandoning the planet may be our last hope for survival.’ In the face of the climate crisis, it is revealed that the super-rich plan to ‘abandon the Earth in favour of one of Jupiter’s habitable moons’.


In the face of the climate crisis, it is revealed that the super-rich plan to ‘abandon the Earth in favour of one of Jupiter’s habitable moons’

Our protagonist is Kendrick Lamar, now 63, who has reluctantly been named 'poet laureate' of the mission. We meet this fictionalised Kendrick as he is being led down the aisle towards a cryogenic sleep chamber, wondering whether there is still time to change his mind. As Kendrick is put to sleep for the remainder of the journey, he is asked if he would like to listen to any music. He opts for a classic. Kanye’s MBDTF. The rest of the piece takes place as though we have been given access to Kendrick’s pre-dream wanderings. In bars pinched from ‘good kid’, he implores us to ‘Look inside these walls/And you see I'm havin' withdrawals of a prisoner on his way.’ We bear witness as his preconscious mind grapples with his decision to leave Earth and his loved ones behind. His own mellifluous thoughts dovetail with Kanye’s Twisted Fantasy, which helps shed light on the other-worldly situation he has found himself in. Kendrick’s voice is largely constructed from fragments of his classic third album, good kid m.A.A.d city. A concept album in its own right, GKMC follows Kendrick’s coming of age over the course of one micocosmic day, which sees him take part in a robbery, witness a friend’s murder, and ultimately accept his responsibility to ‘give back’ to Compton, his home. ‘Kendrick’s’ album choice is interesting. toasty’s introduction tells that MBDTF always inspired him in moments of uncertainty’. It’s not hard to see why. Kanye’s album is profoundly uncertain, and all about pushing through that uncertainty. Kendrick might be the protagonist, but there are two characters in this story. MBDTF immortalises Kanye at his most focussed. Recorded after the passing of his beloved mother, in the midst of a brutal breakup, and just after the infamous Taylor Swift incident, Kanye put everything into the album, determined to make something that could speak on his behalf. The result was a series of deeply collaborative, unbelievably well-produced, near-instant classics. Rising to soaring heights and sinking to harsh lows, MBDTF is steeped in contradictions – vulnerability and invincibility, self-worth and self-doubt, nihilism and social responsibility – though these contradictions are yet to consume Kanye as they would later in his career.

The two albums weave seamlessly into one another, coalescing to form a series of excruciatingly gratifying musical moments

As we are launched into toasty’s title track, a blistering medley, with lyrics from Kanye’s ‘Dark Fantasy’ and Kendrick’s ‘good kid’ played over the lilting beat from ‘Art of Peer Pressure’ and siren-like oscillations from ‘So Appalled’, it’s clear that he is on fertile musical ground. Still, toasty’s own production also deserves recognition. The two albums weave seamlessly into one another, coalescing to form a series of excruciatingly gratifying musical moments. What is perhaps most impressive, however, is the way the piece plays on the strengths of its constituent works – not just musically, but thematically. GKMC is built around a sacrificial narrative. We watch as Kendrick – the good kid in a mad city – is drawn into the orbit of violence and gang crime, but not consumed. Kendrick, by his own admission, was ‘sacrificed’ by family and peers who kept him distant because they saw something special in him. ‘You know the reasons but still won't ever know my life Kendrick AKA Compton's human sacrifice’ In GKTF this sacrificial narrative is recreated on a cosmic scale. In the piece’s introduction, we are told that our fictionalised Kendrick initially turned down the trip, not wanting to abandon his home, his planet, and his loved ones, but that they eventually ‘convinced him to accept: "For the culture."’ Toasty plays on this throughout the piece – the album’s third track, for example, opens with that memorable line from Kanye’s ‘Monster’: ‘Oh just a lonely night, are you willing to sacrifice your life.’


We are told that our fictionalised Kendrick initially turned down the trip, not wanting to abandon his home, his planet, and his loved ones

In a stroke of genius, toasty also features Gil Scott-Heron’s damning lunar prose poem, ‘Whitey on the Moon’ – played over languid chords from Kendrick’s 'Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’: I can't pay no doctor bill.

(but Whitey's on the moon)

Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.

(while Whitey's on the moon)


Inspired by Kanye, who’s album ends with words from Scott-Heron’s prose-poem ‘Comment #1’, toasty uses this piece to elaborate on the nature of Kendrick’s regret – he does not identify with ‘whitey on the Moon’. However, it also calls attention to the historical factors that have informed this isolation. Black experiences and perspectives have long been excluded from mainstream Western astro-narratives – narratives that have been carefully constructed by those in the cultural cockpit. In his landmark essay ‘Selling the Moon’, historian Michael Smith dissects our understandings of space travel, explaining that ‘the twelve year effort to put Americans on the Moon constituted the most elaborate advertising campaign ever devised.’ He concludes that the Space Race was ultimately ‘other-directed’, intended as an establishment effort to preserve the US’s image abroad and at home. Writing of the 1960s, in reference to the Civil Rights Movement, journalist Peter Collier described how ‘of, by, and for middle class America… the astronauts were its revenge against all the scruffy third worlders and long-haired deviants who had stolen arrogantly onto the center stage.’ And so space exploration has long been racialised. To this day, of the 553 people have been to space, only 15 have been Black; Steven Hawking, amongst others, frequently touted space colonisation as an answer for overpopulation (something of a modern eco-fascist obsession); and the framing of space exploration as a ‘new frontier’, ripe for ‘colonisation’ has strong connections to ideas about manifest destiny and settler colonialism.


The framing of space exploration as a ‘new frontier’, ripe for ‘colonisation’ has strong connections to ideas about manifest destiny and settler colonialism

Still, Black narratives have re-appropriated space, creating alternative astro-perspectives. With its reference to Scott-Heron’s ‘Whitey on the Moon’, GKTF self-consciously gestures to a long, rich, and oft-neglected canon, drawing links to the likes of Sun Ra, Derrick Bell, and Octavia Butler.[2] Indeed Kendrick Lamar is no stranger to this lineage, having provided the soundtrack to the most famous afro-futurist work of recent years, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Writing in It’s Freezing In LA!, Lola Young explains why non-white visions of the future are so important. They bring ideas and values to the fore that are often otherwise ignored, and in doing so, they highlight fresh understandings of eco-social problems and solutions. GKTF colours space with urban Black values and voices – perspectives that have scarcely been seen there before. In doing so it delivers an insightful criticism of astro-fatalism – revealing it to be nothing more than a perverse, privileged fantasy. While the piece does rely on visuals and its written introduction to establish a climate context, it’s clear that toasty’s real analysis is ultimately embedded in toasty’s musical recontextualisation. After ‘Whitey on the Moon’, he intertwines bars from ‘m.A.A.d city’ (amongst Kendrick’s tightest) with Aphex Twin’s elegant piano-based beat from Kanye ‘Blame Game’ (arguably wasted on ‘Blame Game’s’ misogynistic ranting). Here, we feel Kendrick’s attention shift towards Earth and his memories of home: ‘Brace yourself I’ll take you on a trip down memory lane’. We bear witness to Kendrick’s adolescence in Compton (a world away from ‘Whitey on the Moon’) ‘not slingin crack’ or moving cocaine’ – but ‘cul-de-sac, ‘plenty Cognac’ and ‘major pain’. Yet toasty simultaneously conjures overlayed memories of an imagined future, yet to unfold. What has Kendrick seen since? What will have happened to Compton by 2050? The American Southwest is currently facing a ‘megadrought,’ potentially the worst in a millenium – wildfires and water scarcity are inevitable. We also know that poorer, non-white communities are more vulnerable to climate catastrophe. With this in mind, lyrics like ‘Bodies on top of bodies, IV’s on top of IV’s become even more ominous.


GKTF colours space with urban Black values and voices – perspectives that have scarcely been seen there before. In doing so it delivers an insightful criticism of astro-fatalism – revealing it to be nothing more than a perverse, privileged fantasy

In a stunning medley, composed largely from ‘POWER’, ‘Money Trees’, ‘All of the Lights’ and ‘Swimming Pools’, the piece reaches its musical and analytical apogee. Thanks to toasty’s narrative recontextualization, Kendrick declaration’s that ‘money trees is the only place for shade’ (heard over ‘POWER’s’ rousing, anthemic chanting) becomes a rallying cry, a searing condemnation of the economic and class dynamics of astro-fatalism and the climate crisis as a whole. That the rich could afford to escape the mess they’ve made would be a profound injustice – as Kanye explains, ‘no one man should have all that power.’


The piece descends into dissonance as Kendrick begins to wrestle with his decision to leave. DEAD POETS, a jazzy, discordant mash up of ‘Poetic Justice’ and ‘All of the lights’, gives way to a damning line from the end of Kanye’s ‘Power Remix’: ‘Shit’s burnt up already, It’s over.’ Later in this fever-dream, we hear the voice of the meteorologist who’s worrying weather forecasts have provided much of the visual backdrop: ‘we’ll have to deal with the severe weather around that front…’ The tension comes to a head in toasty’s RUNAWAY. We are watching the Earth as it rolls through the void of space. First we hear Kanye’s menacing monotonous piano line, followed by the voice of Maya Angelou, who appears on Kendrick’s ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’: Is that what I think that is?

I know that's not what I think that is.

Why are you so angry?


Okay, repeat after me:

'Lord God, I come to You a sinner.' 'And I humbly repent for my sins.'

Listening to this sinner’s prayer while watching our fragile, imperiled Earth tumbling in the background makes for a genuinely profound moment. With this, Kendrick begins to understand his mistake – he ‘could never rewrite history in a coffin’. As the song ends, we hear the voice of his mother, who poses an ultimatum: ‘If I don't hear from you, by tomorrow... I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes... Come back a man.’

As the album’s final track (a jubilant mash-up of Kanye’s ‘Devil In a New Dress’ and Kendrick’s ‘Backseat Freestyle’) comes to an end, Kendrick wakes, with a figure standing over him. ‘I need to get off this Bougie-ass ship, this was a mistake’, he explains. The figure reveals himself to be none other than Kanye West. Together, they resolve to turn the ship around, and so the sacrificial narrative is fulfilled. This time Kendrick Lamar is not only giving his life ‘for the culture’, but for all of mankind. In this vision for the future, space is reframed as the arena where the racist, classist, astro-fatalist abandonment fantasy is frustrated at the hands of Black leadership. Our attention is diverted back towards Earth, where it should have been all along. As Kanye explains, ‘We still have a world to save’.[3]

Footnotes:
[1] Kelsey Piper, The case against colonizing space to save humanity, 2018. 
[2] Good Kid Twisted Fantasy references and celebrates Black-astro narratives. When I spoke to toasty, he eloquently acknowledged that: ‘while I am a person of color, I’m not Black, and don’t want to claim any Black literary traditions as my own.’
[2)] toasty digital’s website forms part of the wider Good Kid Twisted Fantasy Universe. If you enter the password (yeezus), and click on ‘Earth.txt, he explains that ‘The Earth is dying, Kanye won’t save us, but we can save ourselves’, and has added some useful climate resources to boot. You can also watch Kanye 2049 on YouTube.