Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Album Review)

November 24, 2010

I tried to hold out on West’s latest work.
I tried.
Not that I have anything against ‘Ye…I ranked him as one of the top artists in hip hop here and I love his first two records and like much from his other two…
And then I heard “Power,” that whallop of a single with that overpowering beat and ‘Ye killing the bars as best as he can right now…
…but then, I heard a track featuring Justin Bieber as part of his “Good Fridays” series and reached for a fork to aim towards my ear…
…and saw his ridiculously self-indulgent short “film” featuring his love affair with an angel…
…and as captivating as the beats and visceral are on “Monster” and “So Apalled” I kept wondering where did Kanye leave his substance?

Then the work as a whole came out to near universal praise from every imaginable critic, no matter how diverse the publication. I decided I had to listen to it all, in its intended completion and make my evaluation that way.

Well…most of that substance still isn’t here. Most, not all, for some of it’s here just beneath the surface. But sonically? This is perfect 21st century hip hop and pop, treading that intersection without giving up on either at any time. It’s defiantly original and wears its contradictions on its sleeves. ‘Ye delivers rhymes that flip from excellent to weak but his voice never falters to let you linger too long over those weak lines. His wall of hip hop sound and his keen attention to detail pay off everywhere…this is a hip hop album, no bones about it–it’s not a collection of singles, it’s not a mash-up or mix tape, it’s a fully realized album.

What West does best is know how to orchestrate the details—he knows who and what would sound best at every moment, whether it’s John Legend on a haunted chorus, Rihanna belting out a balls-to-the-wall pop glow melody, Jay Z unleashed over a custom beat, Rick Ross booming in a quick snippet, a sample of an old Kate Bush song reincorporated as  just the keys, a piano interlude or a layered level of bombast, an unreined verse from Nicki Minaj that lets her then fade out before her precociousness becomes annoying, and Kid Cudi bringing that backpack indie vibe that rounds out certain edges in the spots Kanye slides him into that make him sound better than he typically does on his own full lengths.

“All of the Lights” is the highlight and centerpiece of this record, at least for me. The opening harmony that soon kicks into one of the best rhythmic drum beats ever before going to full on pop magic makes it instantly fuse to the area of your spine that feels a good song. One can assume this song isn’t from Kanye’s perspective since the protagonist slaps his partner, goes to jail, comes out broke and finds himself replaced by a new man raising his daughter. Its chorus is about negative lights (cop lights, flash lights) brought on by taking things to the “Ghetto University” level of behavior but tempered with the  urge to air the dirty laundry by turning “all of the lights on” to display it. Rather than being negative, it ends up being more of a celebration of striving not to live into the stereotypes and pitfalls society has for the narrarator.

Like I said, though, the substance is usually beneath the surface; Kanye’s first record gave us “All Falls Down,” “Jesus Walks,” “Through the Wires” and many other tracks that gave us personal anecdotes, emotional forthrightness, social commentary, and real depth even though it was rough around the edges. Kanye is in full on celebrity mode now; it’s understandable that an artist has to speak from where they are, so the contradictions he feels he is living in and the idea of what a celebrity is in good and bad ways is an understandable focus, but a great artist can open the scope up to observe the world as a whole and contribute to it. Do I expect too much of Kanye or Hip Hop in general to want that? As a friend pointed out to me when I griped about the change of lyrical focus between the proud civil rights family history of Kanye’s “I Get Down” years ago to “Monster” and it’s crude oral sex braggadocio (complete with the details of a “bruised esophagus”– how often does Kanye have to remind us he gets oral sex? ), not everyone can or should be the Roots or Talib Kweli. No, but an artist of Kanye’s talent and intelligence should and can be wary of their lows and avoid them sometimes–pop and fun- for-funs sake is good, and Kanye can deliver that, but playing into that “ghetto university” stereotype is something he should be aware of himself.

All in all though, from the “Dark Fantasy” opening to the “Who Will Survive in America” speech, this is a fully realized hip hop album made by someone sure of the artistic standpoint they are coming from. Is the album supposed to tell the story that that ill conceived short film did? Maybe. But forget that, because the real story is 21st century American excess, celebrity culture, shifting demographics, vanity, shame, et al. We’re “so appalled” by the extravegence of “exotic fishes,” celebrity lifestyle and sex quantity as currency and status while more than half the world seems  to go hungry. Kanye “raises a toast for all the douchebags” and warns female suitors to “Run away,” because he realizes his faults and really isn’t trying to change them at this point. Which makes for entertaining music when matched with someone so unafraid to be themselves and speak their mind who also happens to be a production genius.

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2 Responses to “Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Album Review)”

  1. david said

    good review. good review indeed.

  2. […] Wests’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” You can read my evaluation of it here. I tried to highlight what was great and not-so-great about it; ultimately some of those less than […]

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