Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Music Review: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

You wouldn't hesitate to call Kanye West a narcissist, an egomaniac, a douchebag, or just stone-cold crazy. But would you call him a bad guy? I don't mean "bad guy" as in "villain"; that's a role Kanye's been more than willing to play, time and again. He revels in it all over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ("I thought I was the asshole") and on a number of his G.O.O.D. Friday tracks: "I figured out I'm not a nice guy/Shook hands, kissed babies/Gave it a nice try." But to call him a truly "bad man," an amoral rock star in the vein of Ginger Baker or Lemmy Kilmister? That's a different question altogether.

Kanye's new album is an expansive, galaxy-conquering masterpiece, a feat of wild musical and lyrical experimentation that is without precedent in Kanye's own catalog or, indeed, rap's entire canon. It is his best album since Late Registration and maybe of his whole career. And, I think, it's pretty convincing evidence that his heart, if not his mouth, is in the right place.
When I mention my rabid Kanye fandom to most people, I get some variation on, "I like his music, but I can't stand him as a person." It's hard not to be sympathetic to this view: he's insulted presidents, compared himself to Jesus (and not in the arch, semi-ironic, John Lennon way), and stormed the stage multiple awards shows (once to lobby for himself, and then again for someone else). A fellow Charge Shot!!! writer argued that Kanye the Personality has eclipsed Kanye the Musician. I guess, but only if you're not listening to the music.

And what music Yeezy has given us here. From the unbelievably sensual "Devil in a New Dress" to the stratospheric marching band histrionics of "All of the Lights," Kanye has here produced some of the most ambitious material of his career. The key word here is more: more instruments, more guest spots, more genres. West has never been content to stick with one sound, but on Fantasy he manages to indulge just about every one of his sonic impulses without blunting any one of them. The album slingshots from the hood-fab glitz to sinewy trip-hop without sounding the least bit schizophrenic.

Luckily, though, the excess comes from a glut of ideas rather than an inability (or unwillingness) to edit. Even some of the best G.O.O.D. Friday tracks were a minute or more too long ("Lord Lord Lord," I'm looking at you), but there isn't an ounce of fat to be found this time around. "Runaway," freed from the strictures of top 40 radio, stretches on for more than nine minutes, not a second of it wasted. Where the radio edit cuts out, the album version continues into an elegiac, string-assisted coda, complete with a three-minute vocoder solo from West. Here Yeezy puts his substantial melodic sensibilities to use, his mutated croon climbing steadily higher and higher until it virtually cracks in the final minutes of the song. It might be the most affecting moment on the album, and Kanye does it without a word.

Not that the rest of the album's short on emotional material. Fantasy turns West's most painful recent experiences (his break-up with model Amber Rose, the death of his mother) into the most uncomfortably confessional lyrics of his career. Since Kanye alludes repeatedly to the kids he doesn't have ("Restraining order/Can't see my daughter"), it's clear that West is experimenting more with storytelling this time around. Maybe that means that some of the darkest lyrics on the album ("Been a long time since I spoke to you/In a bathroom/Gripping you up/Fucking and choking you") are fiction. Then again, maybe not.

Regardless, Kanye's pen has never been sharper. He's been threatening to become one of the best rappers in the game since Late Registration (the last verse in "Gone" was already a classic), and it seems that his skills on the mic may have finally caught up with his producing accumen. Where before he was struggling to keep up with superior verses from his entourage of brilliant collaborators, now he's frequently giving them a run for their money, spitting the internal rhymes and tricky syncopations of his mentors ("I'm so appalled, Spalding balled/Bald and Donald Trump taking dollars from y'all"). His flow's finally caught up to his wordplay. Even the album's throwaway lines ("Mercy, mercy me, that Murcielago") are brilliant.

Brilliant, though, means something different in Kanye's world than it does in, say, Jay-Z's. Hov, for example, wouldn't be caught dead delivering a line like, "She find pictures in my email/I sent this bitch a picture of my dick." 'Ye even manages to heighten the uncomfortableness of that line by pronouncing that last word, "dyeeaack." But what might sound juvenile in another context comes across as admirably honest in the context of "Runaway"'s churning synths and careful piano. "Runaway," with its juxtaposition of stately instrumentation and guttersnipe poetry, epitomizes an album where high art and low sentiments mix freely.

But Kanye's juvenalia, however interestingly contextualized, might have become too much to take if it were allowed to run free. Thankfully, Yeezy let his stable of collaborators put their stamp on the proceedings, even while ensuring that his ultimate artistic vision emerged. Kanye's stable of top ten hits shows that dude is perfectly capable of making a beat on his own, but he relishes the skills that guest producers like the RZA, Bink!, and frequent collaborator (and mentor) No I.D. bring to the table. His solo albums, ironically, are even more of a group effort than the songs he produces for other artists.

The guest rappers on the album are no less impressive. Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and Pusha T turn in some of the best verses of their respective careers. Pusha's verse on "Runaway," so memorably debuted as he skipped across the stage in a salmon-colored suit at this year's VMAs, is a strong contender for best verse on the album: "Hoes like vultures wanna fly in your Freddy loafers/You can't blame 'em, they ain't never seen Versace sofas/Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet/Comes with a price tag, baby face it."

Everywhere, Kanye's worst impulses are pruned and his best augmented by the company he keeps. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as singular a statement as it is, is surely not the work of a man who recognizes no talent but his own. West could have easily sealed himself off in his recording studio and come out with a featureless, solipsistic bore of a record. Instead, he's released a fearlessly fascinating record, one that attests to the joy and potential of collaboration.

Fantasy is as tortured in its sound as it is generous in its intention. Kanye delights in sharing the spotlight with talents that stand up to his (admittedly high) standards: he flew just about all of the guests on the album to Hawaii and poked, prodded, and massaged them until they reached their full potential.

Most of all, though, Kanye gives the most to his audience. Who but Kanye would have locked himself away for months crafting what will no doubt become the biggest-selling album of the year, and then release 15 of the tracks for free on his website? My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is no doubt home to some bad thoughts, but it's the product of one of the most profoundly good, generous men in the music world today.