Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Let me just be clear from the start: I love Kanye West. I love his production values, I love the ambition of his raps (even when he overreaches) and I love the impressive range of his sampling. But most of all, and this is where I break from the majority, I love his ego. These days, it's impossible to find a true egomaniac in pop music. There are self-absorbed celebrities a-plenty, but they don't have ego so much as adolescent petulance. The only time you see any true self-worship now is in the loathsome back-patting of the Bonos of the world, acting as if increasingly stale music and stage shows that suck up untold megawatts are going to save the planet. Kanye West doesn't waste my time acting as if he's important to the vitality of the Earth; he just comes out and lets everyone know that he's better than us, and when he's done singing to a crowd that paid top dollar for concert tickets, he'll go party like a king.

No one else has managed to combine product-placing, corporatist hip-hop culture with the equally hollow "fuck you" attitude of stadium rockers who live on merchandise sales. If West's ego wasn't as massive and self-sustaining as it is, he could never position himself as the last great rock star in an era that demands everything be small and manageable. You can't handle Kanye, and that's what I adore about him.

Thus, when he stripped his sound down to the mellow, minimalist electronica of 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye lost his most precious asset: his bombast. By the same token, it was a logical progression for the man who'd turned himself into the David Bowie of hip-hop, smashing together contradictory genres and complex, occasionally revealing lyrics through a removed, self-aware prism and somehow making it all work within the mainstream. Tom Breihan of the Village Voice rightly compared it to Bowie's Low, though I believe the comparison only applies to the thought process behind it, not the quality. Where Bowie found a way to deliver plaintive desperation through Krautrock hiss and beeps, West stripped the self-love of hip-hop to delve into ideas of loneliness and forlorn love via black roots instead of white noise. At times, the album touched upon R&B; in other places, it traveled all the way back to the tribal drums that formed the basis for all of humanity's music. A great many parts of 808s worked, and the decision to truly give into self-examination after circling the idea in previous albums was a surprisingly candid move for the artist, but he could never fit all his ideas into the sparer sound.

With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye finds the bridge between the introspective, forward-thinking pop of 808s and the swirling, cataclysmic excess of his fiery early work. Not only is it West's best album to date, it is the finest mainstream hip-hop album in years, perhaps since OutKast broke out of their rewarding but esoteric sound with Stankonia, or at least M.I.A.'s Kala.

West's latest album is, of course, colored by his tumultuous behavior in recent years. On-stage tantrums over malfunctions, huffy reaction to VMA shutouts (they're VMAs, Kanye. Like you can't just buy any kind of bookends to serve the same purpose?), a hilariously angry blog that poured from a stream of consciousness, all of these things reflected an increasingly erratic MC. People started to turn on Kanye, and even his mother's death from elective surgery could not win him a break as fans descended upon her still-warm body to cluck tongues and speculate over her plastic surgery. It all culminated, of course, with the 2009 VMAs, during which Kanye leaped on the stage as Taylor Swift accepted her award for Best Female Video with a now-infamous (and parodied to death) rant that set the media ablaze with condemnation. Everyone fell upon a black man for ruining some innocent, porcelain doll-faced white woman's moment in the spotlight, and even Jay Leno used the first episode of his execrable 10 p.m. show to humiliate West for ratings, having the gall to bring Kanye's dead mother into the fray. What no one mentioned was that Kanye was right: Beyoncé's video was better, and even MTV agreed when it awarded her Video of the Year -- and I don't recall anyone making a fuss over Beyoncé somehow making the best video period but not the best by a woman (or, for the matter, why artists are credited with music videos they have little to no creative input in). The damage was done, scarring West from the burns of the media and sustaining Taylor Swift's fleeting career for a whole extra year.

With that pressure still weighing on him, West has decided, after trying to make amends in noble but misguided efforts, to take the only sensible route: to laugh it off, get some shots in at himself, and then introduce the public to the most egotistical Kanye yet. Oh, you thought he was a jackass before? Well, just try to withstand the sonic onslaught of a rock star putting aside his personal record and returning to the arena. God help anyone caught in his path.

Opening with an electronic take on "Once Upon a Time" fairy tale introductions, "Dark Fantasy" wastes no time leaping into Ye's fever dream, backing up the invitation to read a hip-hop fable with choir vocals, at last sending West in to start upping himself from the word go. West's flow sounds immensely improved, no longer overstuffed with too many words that threaten to collapse the meter. Only the stray line "Too many Urkels on your team/That's why your win's low" screeches to a halt (it is the worst moment of the album, but at least it passes in an instant). With its church choir chorus, "Dark Fantasy" brings back the religious icon feel of Yeezy. Only West could use such a bombastic and self-serving track as the gentle introduction to his self-promotion.

"Gorgeous" moves into the other side of the album, in which West comes to term with the more insufferable side of his pompous personality. Referencing, among other things, South Park's scathing takedown of his arrogance, West takes stock of the down side of his ego, reframing it around the feeling of being hated by seemingly the whole world. That self-pity turns to self-righteous anger as West refuses to give in to these feelings of victimization, even as he softens his ambitions. "What's a black Beatle anyway?" he asks of his desire to be a legend, "A fucking roach?"

Elsewhere, Yeezy gets deeper into the heart of the war between his ego and the world. "Power" brilliantly samples King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," a song that described man with everything and nothing. "Nothing he's got, he really needs," intones Greg Lake through distorted vocals, a perfect encapsulation of where Kanye's at right now. The album's centerpiece, "Runaway" pays tribute to himself by way of honoring the "douchebags, assholes and jerkoffs." It's a 10-minute marvel, one of the most garishly self-loving pieces of music ever recorded, but the range of moods covered -- sarcastic, tragic, boastful -- is impressive. By the time it ends, you too will be ready to give a toast to the douchebags.

But not even Kanye can spend the entire time praising himself. "All the Lights" places a number of guests front and center, and the most affecting line is Kanye's brief mourning for Michael Jackson, one of his heroes. "Monster" plays out nearly as a rap duel, pitting Jay-Z, Rick Ross, even the frontman Bon Iver(?) against each other. Then Nicki Minaj bursts in and just destroys them. It's a fierce number, and another that Yeezy entrusts to others. Yet his hand guides these tracks, his expertise with production orchestrating the guests until they feel like conduits for Kanye's vision. I've heard a handful of complaints regarding the production values of this album, and I just cannot comprehend them. West has never been so able to capture the full bombast of his self-love, but here he at last directs everything back to its source: himself. It's utterly shameless, and utterly brilliant.

Wronged by the VMAs and humiliated at the hands of no less ignominious a villain as Jay Leno, West uses My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to make his own plaudits. When he closes out "Blame Game" with an extended Chris Rock bit, he makes his own talk show in which he is the beloved star, not the butt of a joke. It turns the album into a variety hour, complete with the parade of musical guests, all of them working to make Kanye look good. The voices come together on "Lost in the World," all auto-tuned to magnify the sound further as West gets some last minute proclamations in, and it's amazing how fresh the album still feels at this point.

With nowhere else to go, West releases us from his glorious present and looks to the future, taking a spoken-word performance by Gil Scott-Heron to tackle the vicious political climate that has resurfaced in America. Scott-Heron's portentous poem, punctuated by profane innuendo, lets us know that Yeezy knows of the problems that affect us mere mortals, but the hilarious suggestion inherent in the track is that West considers the self-immolation of the United States as it enters the final stages of its days as a superpower the only implosion more spectacular than his. "If God had an iPod," CyHi Da Prynce raps in "So Appalled," "I'd be on his playlist." It's a line West must wish he'd said himself, but by the end of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, even a self-promoter like Kanye must have realized that particular truth was self-evident.

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