Review Summary: I don't know what it is with hip-hop, but Kanye's pretty good at that s**t
More men have been killed by fame, it can and has been said, than by any other excess of the revered and influential: money, women, drugs, or a surfeit of power. While it may be a touch melodramatic to say that Kanye West's much maligned (and much parodied) outburst at the 2008 MTV VMAs killed him, one can't imagine he felt particularly satisfied with himself afterwards. That outburst was the logical culmination of all his deluded and dissolute statements that came before (this is a man who, for the love of God, insinuated that George Bush was a closet racist on a live TV fundraiser while practically still a nobody); it was an acute demonstration of the repercussions of that latter excess. Power. It was a cartoonish, farcical display of pop stars that get rapt by their own elementary nature: West forms part of the hip-hop lineage that prizes wealth and influence. I bet that when he thought to exercise what power he had onstage that night he wasn't thinking how old Taylor Swift was. Or that this was her first award, because he had been there. He'd won plenty of awards.
That incident gave Kanye some much needed perspective and, one suspects, a much needed period of seclusion. Trying to make art requires that introspective retreat. But, on 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy', Kanye wells his demons a little more thoroughly even that we thought he might. On this record, he emerges alternately as a romantically maligned lover, a game-changer, a lost boy and a scrappy, defiant little ***. A man on the run from the modern world and reeling still from the loss of the maternal presences in his life. The part of Kanye who's carrying those heavy, heavy blues is the one who sat at the mixing desk long into the night spinning and dealing that existential number 'Devil in a New Dress', sampling as savvy as ever with silken melody. If anything can be said of Kanye, perhaps with the exception of later-period Eminem, is that of all rappers he has the greatest affinity for melody.
The admittedly sparser part of Kanye who still lusts for social relevance and believes that his world is at fault with him as opposed to the other way around gives us what on any other previous album would be a definitive cut; 'Power' stomps along on another of those samples that delights the ears of his more melodically/retro-inclined listeners while still rhyming sharp enough and beating hard enough to satisfy his overlooked hardcore credentials. However, on this album, perhaps the most indicative cuts are 'Runaway', 'Blame Game', which lent themselves respectively to the most bizzaro and poignant scenes in Kanye's film companion 'Runaway', wherein Kanye appropriated Monet and 'Purple Rain' to generally stunning effect. West's voice in 'Runaway' seems gravely shot, the infectious qualities of the single moving at the listener sideways as the pathos-evoking sense of self-loathing dominates. 'Blame Game's melodic backdrop demonstrates that, in terms of production, West is a paragon, while the otherwise unremarkable John Legend is spurred to render a sweetly tender refrain. Listening to 'Gold Digger' now, it's plain to see that only this new West could deal with the duality and oppressive nature of romantic involvement so deftly.
As in the film, 'Dark Fantasy' is Kanye still trying to fool himself before the incident over a Burton-esque backdrop. Its refrain is reliably affecting, when you know how low West felt deep down. 'Gorgeous' appropriates a scorching black-panther yakety-yak funk riff, worth the price of admission alone. 'Monster' is a needlessly reductive and token posse cut, and almost works to blister an album so entrancing in its self-effacement and frequent catharsis. Likewise, Pusha-T's verse on 'Runaway' seems so arbitrary and contradictory with the track's valedictory stance that the fact that it may be the single worst verse in the history of the genre is almost obscured. West's love of music is evident, though, in that almost every other guess spotlight is appropriate and chosen with depth and dexterity.
But it is 'Lost in the World' that is the record's triumphal final flourish. After a record quite so rich and so enthral to satisfying its listener's attention, to be left with a statement so pure and lovely (and laced with Bon Iver) is less a treat and more like meeting a new friend, a kindred spirit. Casting off at last the chains of his grief at losing both his mother and most of the other female figures who've meant anything to him over the past few years, it shows a West terrified of this harsh climate which seeks to prey upon him, but honest in his hymn for redemption, sincere in his want to start anew. It's a primitive, sensual expression of desire, of a desire for something, anything, to cling to.
There's a reason you could aptly call 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' the greatest hip-hop record of all time, because it seeks reality and ends up confronting it. Even 'Marshall Mathers LP' had its graphic element of caricature to dilute the remarkable truth within it. However, there are few innuendos, knowing winks, or fancy-yourself sex passes on this album; Kanye says that life is too short and love isn't cheap enough for things like that these days. In a world wherein rap is deluded by its own sense of reality wherein the only corporeal attributes are cheap women, heat and ice, Kanye seems unafraid to show his vulnerability, that he is a man totally at odds with most of his peers and more aligned, vitally, with his audience. A non-conformist and a closet visionary, Kanye wears his flaws less like scars and more like medallions pinned to his chest. This record, so rich in its colours and bold in its pretence it beckons comparison to Disney's 'Fantasia', is plotted with those medallions in mind. West seems to say 'Let 'em shine': life is not clean, it is not perfect; you wear your imperfections, however riddled with them you are, until somebody wears them out. With no one else on his side, that is for us to do. Make no mistake, whatever your opinion on this mercurial piece of art and its creator, this is not a fantasy. This is real.