Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Standout Tracks: “Blame Game,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster”
Over the last decade, no musical personality has dominated headlines more than Kanye West, whose ambitious artistic output throughout the years has only shaped a small part of his complicated dynamic with the public. Whether condemning George Bush on live television, interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, or adorning the cover of Rolling Stone in a crown of thorns, West has never been a stranger to controversy or, more importantly, public criticism. When our current president labels you a jackass and our former president holds you responsible for “one of the most disgusting moments” of his presidency, you feel the heat.
At the same time, Kanye West remains one of, if not the, defining producer of contemporary hip-hop. While Dr. Dre ducked out of the game and Timbaland lost his edge, West only honed his craft, using an uncanny gift for backwards-leaning-based sampling to create inspired compositions. In the process, West’s successful solo career cemented his burgeoning talent. His debut, The College Dropout, first introduced us to the now-popular concept of the hipster hip-hopper: a rabid music nerd creating beats out of 70s FM soul and R&B, giggling with childish wonder at the high-pitched chipmunk effect of speeding up old records. West’s sophomore effort, Late Registration, gave a new name to hip-hop hubris, and with genre domination seemingly in sight, Kanye infused his already grandiose sound with all the bombast of a full orchestra; overnight, his climb to the highest echelons of popular music suddenly came with a Hollywood soundtrack. On 2007’s Graduation, West used synthesizers and electronic sampling to flirt with futuristic and European influences, but if anything, the album solidified his role as hip-hop’s most ambitious figure. However, as success and unremitting motivation only inflated his ego to new dimensions, West’s role in and subsequent response to the various public scandals surrounding his persona, coupled with the loss of his mother, revealed a fragile insecurity beneath his grandiloquent exterior, captured in part by his 2008 release, 808s and Heartbreak. The album’s shaded cerebral tones and distinctively anti-rap, Auto-Tuned sound deterred a slew of fans, but in the process, brought the world just a little closer to his often contradictory, conflicted range of emotions. Those who realized that West’s experimentation with Auto-Tune stemmed more from a self-consciousness about his own voice rather than the latest gizmo in an overflowing bag of studio tricks also realized exactly what made Kanye West such an exceptional musician: in the last decade, no hip-hop MC has ever made us more aware of his flawed humanity.
That flawed humanity came into coarse contact with the rest of the world following the Taylor Swift incident, and in response, Kanye retreated inward. Even after apologizing profusely and berating himself time and again, he still only maintained contact with the public through the Internet, which quickly became his own reclusive soapbox upon which his divisive persona saw less backlash. Eventually he grew more comfortable with the digital interaction, using his blog and eventually Twitter to broadcast his latest emotional tirades in response to public scrutiny, his nascent fascination with the latest Japanese fashion imports, or his extracurricular love for indie rock. As the rap star recluse let slip that he was in Honolulu to record a new album teeming with guest stars and inspired ideas, West satiated the world’s squirming anticipation in the only way he knew how: by releasing free songs online each week leading up to the release of his latest record and premiering a 35-minute music video sprinkled with surrealist glimpses at the album’s track list. These releases exceeded expectations, full of enough fresh, exciting material to silence detractors and fuel a reinvigorated love for the new Kanye. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped last Tuesday, finally begging the question: is it all worth it? Is it any good?
Hell yes, it is. West’s latest release embodies all the beautifully cracked-out excesses of hip-hop innovation previously thought impossible. To label My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy an achievement, given Kanye’s already impeccable track record, would be an exercise in serious understatement. The album’s creative overflow and celebration of indulgent surrealism results in something so bold and so delightfully extraterrestrial that, for the first time in West’s career, his bite exceeds his bark.
Previously, Kanye’s response to the implications of his abrasive personality and helplessly inflated ego may have been self-deprecation and escape. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, however, he faces his tarnished reputation head-on, embracing and even fueling the fires of the brazenly arrogant name he makes for himself. “Me found bravery in my bravado,” he raps on album opener “Dark Fantasy,” a foray into neo-soul that juggles a disturbingly bare, gospel-toned chorus with seemingly incongruous, dulled verses that pay sparse homage to ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” On the King Crimson-sampling, M.I.A.-flavored “POWER,” West inhabits even more of his turbulent public persona, stating, “now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic / He know, he so, fuckin’ gifted / I just needed time alone, with my own thoughts / Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault.” These claims, while not entirely foreign to West’s lyrical canon, nonetheless come across with an air of twisted acceptance; somewhere in the last few years, Yeezy managed to translate the shadow of his insecurities into musical catharsis.
“Gorgeous” coasts along steady, John Frusciante-sharpened guitar tones as West raps about pimping on top of Mount Olympus. As KiD CuDi provides his signature smoked-out baritone on the grizzled chorus, West confronts his enemies with characteristic wit. He jibes, “The same people that tried to black ball me / forgot about two things: my black balls.”
“All of The Lights,” perhaps a culmination of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s all-encompassing scope, boasts a guest list that includes John Legend, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Tony Williams, Charlie Wilson, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, KiD CuDi, Rihanna, and the inimitable piano key stylings of Elton John. On a bed of cinematic horns and schizophrenic drumming, West steps away from his embrace of villainy, instead tempering his verses with all the humbled shame of a reformed deadbeat. He then ducks from his brief spotlight, allowing his guest stars’ more adept, assured voices to croon all the apologies West cannot muster.
Kanye’s humility is short-lived, however, as the psychotic, menacing refrain of “Monster” follows in what stands as the finest song transition in West’s career. He may flirt with emotional honesty and stark modesty, but in the end, this album finds Yeezy at his most darkly decadent, a quality he manages to inspire in all of the warring voices on “Monster.” No guest star feeds off West’s insanity more than Nicki Minaj, whose manic, scene-stealing verse comes across like the snarl of a fire-tongued wildcat steeped in Shakespearean tendencies.
“Devil in a New Dress,” a reflective slow-burner that leans attractively on a Smokey Robinson sample, revisits West’s continuing fascination with Satan. While not completely identifying with the Devil as some may inaccurately believe, Kanye still sometimes posits himself in a villainous role, though more as the tragic, misunderstood anti-hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost than the embodiment of pure evil represented in Christian lore. On “Devil in a New Dress,” however, West ascribes devilish tendencies to a lover, rapping, “I know I’m preaching to the congregation / We love Jesus but you done learned a lot from Satan.” Even so, his last verse still closes out by saying, “You love me for me, could you be more phony?”—a bit of self-deprecating sincerity that necessarily brings West down to his lover’s debased level.
Eventually, however, My Dark Twisted Fantasy finds Kanye becoming more and more at peace with his demons to the extent that he finds perverse comfort with his inner torment and uncompromising personality. On “Runaway,” West calls for a “toast for the douchebags…a toast for the assholes…a toast for the scumbags…a toast for the jerkoffs,” a series of unflattering categories in which he never hesitates to include himself, and begs his lover to escape while she can. As the song swells around muted synths and discordant piano pings, Kanye touts his asshole-ish self-importance until finally his voice degenerates into fuzzed-out obscurity.
On the somber “Blame Game,” West ruminates into the uncertain haze of an Aphex Twin sample, manipulating his voice to various degrees of recognition. In the process, the song plays out like the emotionally fraught rant of a man with warring personalities. Even as Chris Rock mimics a comedic phone conversation in the latter half of the song, it seems as if too many broken feelings have unfolded to find humor in the tender melancholy.
Unapologetically hedonistic, frenzied beyond all comprehensions of sanity, but grounded in genuine emotion and the unseen possibilities of the hip-hop medium, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy represents not only the crowning achievement of Kanye West’s career, but quite possibly the harbinger of a new musical era. All pompous statements aside, between the fat-toned grime-synths and Black Sabbath mimicry on “Hell of a Life,” or the otherworldly, haunted electronica of the Bon Iver-sampling “Lost in the World,” Yeezy’s unabashed imagination has given him a legitimate enough claim to the much-coveted, now vacant throne of popular music he so desperately desires. Simply put, no one is taking as many risks as Kanye West, no one is fearlessly challenging the conceptions of his or her art form like Kanye West, and with My Dark Twisted Fantasy, no one can possibly hope to touch Kanye West.