Reviews

Where Does Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' Stand in the Canon?

Kirk Walker Graves' mix of fanboy marvel and critical detachment will convince even Kanye West detractors to give My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a close listen.


Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Author: Kirk Walker Graves
Publication date: 2014-06
Amazon

The 33 1/3 series doesn't explicitly declare that any album in its series is a masterpiece. On its official website, it modestly states that "33 1/3 is a series of short books about a wide variety of albums." However, given the list of albums profiled (see The Velvet Underground and Nico, OK Computer, There's a Riot Going On), it's not a stretch to say that many of the albums in the 33 1/3 series are indeed masterpieces of some sort.

That's what makes Kirk Walker Graves' profile of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy such a compelling read. At a scant four years old, Graves rightfully asks whether any album that young should be given a "Hall of Fame" treatment. In the introduction, Graves states "No sane person would presume to elevate the legacy of a four-year-old." He revisits this argument throughout the book by comparing some of West's most petty, high-profiled tirades to that of a temper tantrum thrown by a four-year-old.

To Graves' point, yes, no sane person would elevate the legacy of a four-year-old. But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is no ordinary four-year old. Released mere days before many critics had to turn in their "best albums of 2010" list, it still holds the record for the largest margin of victory in the history of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critic's poll. This mix of universal acclaim and short shelf life gives something most 33 1/3 books lack: a level of urgency. Graves essentially uses his book to lay out the argument that, yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does deserve to be placed alongside such albums as Thriller and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Each song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy gets its own chapter. In these chapters, Graves delves into the samples West uses throughout My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In addition, he ties in such pop culture moments as Walter White's downfall in the pinnacle episode of Breaking Bad, "Ozymandias", Elvis Presley's 1968 comeback special, and even The Great Gatsby to West's own attempt to rebuild his own image after his infamous MTV Video Music Award appearance where he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech.

Thankfully, Graves had a few pages to spare at the end, and he chose to focus on West's much-debated and very "punk" response to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's plea to be understood and possibly loved: the metaphoric "fuck you" known as Yeezus. In the final chapter, Graves expertly lays out those great internal "Is this awful, or do I just not understand it?" dialogues that critics and music lovers oftentimes wrestle with when they're presented with a baffling piece of work.

If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is West's Nevermind, then Yeezus is his In Utero. And after 20-plus years, people earn far more "street" music credibility by saying they prefer In Utero's brashness to Nevermind's glossy sheen. But Graves proudly declares his preference of the meticulously-produced big budget studio album over the album where West banged out the majority of vocals in a matter of hours. In the end, he claims he finally "got" Yeezus after seeing it performed live. But even his prose at that moment has a strong element of doubt.

West may be divisive enough to not win over his detractors, but Graves' mix of fanboy marvel and critical detachment is persuasive enough to convince even detractors to give My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a close listen. At the end of its 132 pages, Graves makes a convincing argument that this four-year-old deserves a spot in the 33 1/3 series. But perhaps more important, he does something that great criticism should do: he makes you want to listen to the album.

8

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Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

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