I read a recent interview with Kanye West in which he expressed delight at the fact that he’s reached the pinnacle of stardom in the music world despite the fact that he “can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t play an instrument.”
Indeed, those would seem like important qualities (the singing and playing instruments, anyway) and 20 years ago it’s hard to imagine a man like West finding a career — as a performer — in the industry. He no doubt would have been a fine producer back then, and he’s one of the finest we have today.
But West is definitely not content to live behind the scenes. He craves the spotlight, despite (or maybe because of) the harsh light in which it paints him. On his messy, brilliant new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he spends 70 minutes laying bare his flaws, fears and insecurities and proclaiming himself the greatest artist who ever lived — often at the same time.
The critical adulation of this album has been almost comical. Reviewers seem to be engaged in an arms race to see who can spin out the most breathlessly hyperbolic cries of “Masterpiece!” If you believe some of these reviews, this album will not only cause anybody in a 2-mile radius to weep with joy while basking in its perfection… it will also wash your dog and balance your checkbook.
No, it’s not that good. It couldn’t be, and I believe overzealous critics are doing the album a disservice by proclaiming it the best thing ever. But I can understand the spirit behind the effusive praise, because My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is not the sort of thing you hear every year, every decade… ever.
The album features some of the hardest rapping of West’s career, and some of his most delicate singing. Its DNA is a tangle of 70s soul, 90s grunge, modern hip-hop and post-modern folk. It is cinematic in its scope and detail, brimming with theatricality.
All of this really has me considering what West said in that interview about not being able to sing, dance or play an instrument. In light of what he has accomplished here, that’s a bit like Steven Spielberg saying he can’t write or act. West might not be the most gifted performer, but he’s one hell of a director.
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West is working with a cast of a dozen or more superstar performers, including Elton John, Rihanna, Fergie, Alicia Keys and John Legend (and that’s on just one track!). He blends sampled voices, instruments and beats from a dizzying array of sources. He conducts orchestras and plays a toy piano with a single finger. And this entire wondrous, unwieldy sound collage, though it is made up of more parts than a Frankenstein monster, somehow feels as if it has sprung entirely from his head.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has me thinking a lot about the art of sampling. The haunting Bon Iver tune ‘Woods,’ which makes up the beginning of this album’s ‘Lost in the World,’ is a beautifully sorrowful lament on its own, but when distorted and double-tracked and paired up with a fanfare marching beat as it is here, it becomes something greater. On another track, a snippet of James Brown shouting in concert becomes a ghostly cry for help.
Finding beats, voices, melodies and sounds on other records and re-imagining them into something new is an art in itself. In a way, it’s the idea of the mixtape exploded into minute detail. Take the song ‘All of the Lights,’ which is sort of a mini-mixtape all by itself. It opens with a soft orchestral piece that builds to a burst of frantic bongo drumming and a triumphant Rocky-esque horn part. Rihanna kicks things off with the radio-ready chorus, Fergie turns up midway through for a rap interlude and during the last minute or so Alicia Keys and Elton john sing in call-and-answer style.
Kanye raps in there, too, but he’s clearly far more invested in coordinating every other damn thing happening in the song, and he somehow pulls it off.
The album is littered with guest spots. Jay-Z delivers a couple of verses, playing up his elder statesman role. Pusha T, The RZA, Kid Cudi, Raekwon, Rick Ross, Swizz Beatz and Prynce Cy Hi all make appearances (and no, I haven’t heard of half of those guys). Among the rappers, the scene-stealer is definitely Nicki Minaj, who unleashes a fiercely imaginative verse on ‘Monster.’
John Legend and Chris Rock stop by for ‘Blame Game,’ with the former singing the mournful chorus and the latter delivering a hilariously profane routine that purports to be a conversation between Kanye’s girlfriend and her lover accidentally overheard over a misdialed phone.
Much has been made of the fact that West released many of these songs on the Web in the weeks and months leading up to the launch date of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Was he killing his own chances for success? I’m still a “wait for the album” guy so all of the songs are new to me, but they definitely work more effectively in the album sequence.
The best example is the album’s centerpiece, ‘Runaway,’ which West performed at this year’s VMA show. I was unimpressed by it in that context but on the record it pretty much blows me away. Part of that is the additional production, I’m sure, but it’s also the way it slows everything down to a halt and takes over the album.
‘Runaway’ starts with a moment of silence and then 20 seconds of a repeated piano note. Just when you’re about to rip the CD out of your player the second and third notes are introduced and the sad little melody emerges. Then the beat kicks in and the blend of sounds is truly majestic — reminiscent of the grand helplessness in Peter Gabriel’s ‘We Do What We’re Told.’ In the lyrics, West is alternately full of shame and hubris, leading a “toast to the douchebags [and] assholes,” groups he clearly knows be belongs to.
Then the song fades out and transitions into three minutes of a pulsing string section and West singing and talking through an Auto-Tune recorder turned up so high that his voice sounds like static. It sounds absolutely ridiculous when written out but it’s an intensely emotional moment… the hopelessly distorted moans of a man who is constantly misunderstood, an expert at saying the wrong things at the wrong times and chronically incapable of doing anything about it.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is full of special moments like that one. And while the album could stand to be cut down by 10 or 15 minutes, the embracing of excess that causes it to feel so bloated is probably also responsible for everything that works so well.
Is it perfect? Absolutely not. The best album of the year? Not quite, but it’s the most revolutionary. It’s a masterpiece of sorts, a thrill ride and a tearjerker, something you don’t just hear but experience. Kanye West is working on a different level than his peers and while it may be lonely and crazy up there, it’s certainly fascinating to watch from down below.