Kanye West as a celebrity and constant media character has alienated a group of people who would and should otherwise take interest in Kanye West, Musician. From what we know of his public antics, he can be repellant, impetuous, too-big-for-britches and takes himself very seriously. From his “Runaway” mini-film, we discovered he wouldn’t shy away from self-indulgence and artistic abruptness, pleasing himself with the whole hot mess as aesthetics took precedence over sound content.
Frankly, though, his albums – and particularly on "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" – have some of these same qualities, and sometimes all at once. And it sounds good. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t want the soundtrack to “Runaway” just as soon as its credits rolled.
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Because aside from being an ass sometimes, Kanye West sets his own trends – and not just on Twitter. On “Dark Twisted,” he’s informed by his constant stream of inspiration, from fashion, from women as his muses and pot-stirrers, from his own shift as poker-faced Chicago MC and producer to emo singer-songwriter and worthy collaborator. He’d rather cull a hit from a marching band or a crew of ballerinas than he would with a generic hip-hop street track. He’s not afraid, either, of calling himself an ass, owning it, and then hold out his hand for a Grammy. It’s audacious – or, as “So Appalled” says – it’s ridiculous. And it works.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the Brit version of Nicki Minaj say a quick hello on opener “Dark Fantasy,” before the question is posed: “Can we get much higher?” Hilarious, as the curtain’s raised on Ye’s singing voice, stripped of the auto-tune that dominated his last, neon-hued heartache album “808s & Heartbreak.” Kanye West can’t sing for sh*t but he settles into it and sets a twisted tone of flawed perfection for the rest of the 13-track set.
He stands up straight for “Gorgeous” with helpful verses from Raekwon and protégé Kid Cudi, and we’re off to the races.
Invigorating “Power” is a brilliant self-exploration of narcissus and self-destruction. He responds to accusations of being the “abomination to Obama’s nation,” giving himself an awful lot of credit – but then again, this is the same man who made headlines for hurting George Bush’s feelings during his presidency. It slams, even if it does feature a little of his whining how he doesn’t like how SNL made fun of him, months before he took the stage at the show (again) and brought down the house with the same tune.
“All of the Lights” features a peaceful interlude to break up the chest-beating of the first three tracks, then procures as good a hook as Rihanna’s sung this year. There’s a little pinch of Black Sabbath’s “Crazy Train” vocals, thematically making way for “Monster,” the star-studded snarler.
I can just imagine all three of them – West, baby/raga/Queens Minaj and Jay-Z -- lurching around a mile-long stage like an inflamed triple threat, launching into their respective rants. West uses it as a good excuse to rhyme “sarcophagus” with “esophagus” and Minaj comes in as Yeezy’s musical kindred, setting things straight: “First things first, I eat your brains.” Hov is breathing like a dragon exhaling fire.
“So Appalled” borrows Jay-Z again, though losing the hard-fought steam in its half-baked beat, loping rhymes and an inexcusable five guest spots (which explains the 6:38 clock-in). It invests too much trust in the string section to build tension, when it’s the sloppy overdubs overrun raps. However, “Devil in a New Dress” is served better by its Motown sample, as West boasts about becoming a religious lady love’s deity, concluding, “Hard to be humble when you’re struttin’ on the Jumbotron.” Ye vamps like he’s singing R. Kelly into a hairbrush before he lets an extended instrumental section fritter away a couple minutes. Rick Ross’ meaty voice does what it does, a sleepy walk up to near-perfect “Runaway,” addictive even at nine minutes long.
“Hell of a Life” borrows its hook from another famous Sabbath tune, “Iron Man,” and builds its crown around a thin line about “marrying” a porn star in a bathroom, with the honeymoon out on the dance floor. But I don’t find myself turning from it when it crops up, unlike pity-party “Blame Game.” It’s redemption comes in a skit, with Chris Rock playing West’s girl’s new man, extolling all the sexy tricks that “Yeezy taught me.” I find that repeated line less self-aggrandizing than slightly sexist, making her sound like a pitiable pleasure bot. But hey, it’s his breakup, his irritation with his ex exposed in all its ugliness.
Ye knew what he had with brain-buster “Lost in the World,” pushing the emotional recast of Bon Iver’s “Woods” with a parade of beats, shakers, a rousing sonic breakdown and circling back to the African voices that made the motif in “Power.” Gil Scott-Heron gets the last word with his previously release spoken word piece, exposed over congas, powerfully retorting the album’s first question “Can we get much higher?” with “Who will survive in America?”
After a few years now of putting out good records, West is allowed such certain artistic licenses. He cops those recognizable bits and often successfully spins them into his own tales. He can rope in a dozen guests without losing his own personality and talents in the mess (unlike, say, Drake, who rarely proved on his own effort he even had two feet to stand on).
He takes those extended solos in songs like “New Dress” and “Runaway” to set his own pace. And he can call himself a douchebag, asshole, jerk-off at the same time he lashes out at his critics with the same taunts. It wouldn’t be a “Fantasy” if there Kanye West didn’t sustain a certain level of unreality and whimsy. This album, West’s fifth, is sickly honest, and any lesser artist couldn’t pull it off. The man continues taking chances and just keeps winning.