Review Summary: “The same people that tried to blackball me forgot about two things: my black balls.”
"Can we get much higher?"
So begins My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
, Kanye West's fifth studio album. The lyric is delivered in a soaringly theatrical, almost operatic manner, setting the tone for this unapologetically ambitious record: from that moment on, it's clear that West is no longer content with simply being one of the biggest pop superstars of our generation. No, he wants to be taken more seriously than that; just take one look at his Twitter feed. “Commercial art!!! It just came to me! That’s what I make!” Never mind that art meant for public consumption is hardly a new concept; Yeezy wants so badly
to be an artiste. Witness the thirty-odd-minute short film he created for “Runaway”, or the brief video released in promotion of “Power”. In the case of the former, West wanted to make something “like a Stanley Kubrick film,” with “Felliniesque imagery”; in the case of the latter, West insisted that the work be considered a “moving painting,” enlisting artist Marco Brambilla to create aesthetically stunning and historically nonsensical imagery that portrayed the star as some sort of mystical and vaguely heroic figure. He approaches his craft the way an art student would: with self-importance, overzealousness, and earnestness.
Earnestness. It's what makes West's rampant egotism different. Sure, he's a megalomaniac, but at least he’s an earnest
one. Besides, he's nothing if not knowing; "Fuck SNL and the whole cast/tell 'em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass/more specifically they can kiss my asshole/I'm an asshole," he raps on "Power". It would be a stretch to call the man who said on live television that "George Bush doesn't like black people" self-aware, but West understands his position as something of a social pariah, and, strangely enough, he seems to thrive in it. Graduation
and 808s & Heartbreak
, released at the height of West’s stardom, were ultimately empty records, what with the former’s shallow musings on fame and the latter’s ethically questionable fixation on an ex-girlfriend. But now, having hit rock bottom after one too many public displays of self-affection, he’s looking at himself in a new light, and it isn’t always pretty - on one of the five covers created for this album, West’s visage is cracked in a grotesque and vaguely cubist manner; on another, a sword is sticking straight out of his decapitated head. The thirteen songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
usually center around either race, class, or love, but all of them have an aura of melancholy about them. And when West raps “Me found bravery in my bravado”, it isn't just mindless boasting; it's a defense mechanism against what he perceives as a media conspiracy. In a way, then, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
is Kanye West's most self-centered work yet. But West doesn't sound all that satisfied with himself. On album opener "Dark Fantasy" he first asks a DJ, "You ain't got no fuckin' Yeezy on your Serato?" before asking himself, presumably rhetorically, "What the hell do I know?"
Much of the record is spent trying to answer this question, and the music follows suit. West samples Smokey Robinson on “Devil in a New Dress”, Bon Iver on “Lost In The World”, and, perhaps most brazenly, King Crimson on “Power”. He deploys these samples in a wild, almost uncontrolled manner, to the point of randomness - except that nothing Yeezy does is ever random; he’s too much of a perfectionist for that. Instead, he takes those samples and inverts them, turning Bon Iver’s “Woods”, an ode to alienation (“I’m up in the woods/I’m down on my mind,” Justin Vernon croons), into a defiant, stunning, and above all, communal dance track. The way that West slowly transforms Vernon’s original lyric into “I’m lost in the world” is ingenious, juxtaposing Vernon’s introspection against a more universal, extroverted sentiment. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
is defined by these moments that fuse polar opposites together to form something daring, exhilarating, and occasionally even discomfiting. "All of the Lights" is about an abusive father who wants to see his daughter again - or is it? When Kanye raps, "I slapped my girl/she called the feds/I did that time/I spent that bread," he could very well be talking about that infamous Taylor Swift incident. Admittedly, that's a pretty shallow allegory, but it's also uncomfortably accurate; looking at the furor that unfolded after West's obnoxious interruption, you'd think that he really did
“All of the Lights” is fittingly restless, with its slightly off-kilter beat and darting piano lines, but it’s also resolute and anthemic, horn blasts repeatedly punctuating the rhythms. The result is, quite frankly, chaotic, but it’s also thrilling. The song’s eleven guest vocalists add to the relentless nature of the track (save for an infuriatingly bad verse from Fergie, who sounds like a discount-store M.I.A.), a testament to West’s good instincts. For the most part, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
’s guests all make solid contributions; Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” has been widely (and rightfully) acclaimed, Rihanna’s voice fits better on “All of the Lights” than on “Only Girl (In The World)”, and John Legend lends his affecting tone to the bleak “Blame Game”. But what is by far most impressive about the album’s numerous guest appearances is how they never steal the spotlight. No matter how impressive Pusha T’s verse on “Runaway” or Raekwon’s on “Gorgeous” may be, West always remain the unequivocal star. It’s not that West is the World’s Greatest Rapper - he isn’t, and he probably never will be. But that doesn’t stop him from being the undeniable maestro of this whole affair.
Not that there aren’t moments of inspired lyricism here - “They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation,” delivered amid chanting and samples from “21st Century Schizoid Man” on the aforementioned “Power”, is a bitingly astute commentary on West’s paradoxical social status, and the self-lacerating lyrics of “Runaway” are both heartbreaking and uneasily intimate. But what makes “Runaway” so affecting is not so much the words themselves, but rather the overall effect they create. When West sings the now-immortal chorus of “let’s have a toast for the douchebags/let’s have a toast for the assholes/let’s have a toast for the scumbags/every one of them that I know,” he’s dead serious...and more than a little self-referential. In its five-minute single incarnation, the song was a darkly humorous earworm; you could hum along while chuckling at the foul-mouthed lyrics. But here, on the album, stretched to nine minutes, the song feels completely different. Coming off of the luxuriant “Devil in a New Dress”, the stark piano that opens “Runaway” sounds utterly lonely. Lost. Trapped. As the beat drops in, West deploys one sample, over and over again: “Look at you!” So what is this? Self-examination? Ruminating on things that could have been? “You’ve been puttin’ up with my shit just way too long,” West moans unhappily, pained but forgiving, sad but accepting. He’s been a douchebag, an asshole, a jerk-off that never takes work off. He admits it, and he begs, repeatedly: “Run away fast as you can.”
And then, suddenly, that lonely piano returns, unaccompanied. It plays over and over again for what seems like an eternity, and with held breath, we wait. The strings come in, playing gorgeous harmonies in a halting manner that is at once unsteady and comforting. Kanye returns, singing through his vocoder, but whereas that vocal manipulation served as an alienating device on 808s & Heartbreak
, here it’s a way for West to transcend his personal follies. Freed from his enormous wealth, the intense public scrutiny, and the responsibilities of being a pop star, West is joyfully lost in this world of his own creation, the product of his dark and twisted imagination. The song is emotional catharsis through dehumanization, an escape from the perils of reality in favor of art. Which is ultimately what West’s fantasy is all about, isn’t it? He’s returned to the studio, thought about what it’s like being universally regarded as a complete asshole, and rebounded with this, a trip through the mind of a man who has no filter whatsoever, who wears his heart on his sleeve, who posts rambling manifestos about The Today Show on Twitter...and it’s as arresting and dynamic as you’d expect. You need to hear this. You really