Counterbalance: Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'
No one man should have all that power. The 97th most acclaimed album of all time is living in that 21st century, doing something mean to it. Counterbalance has a listen.
Mendelsohn: Let’s talk about Kanye West. First order of business — yes, he is complete tabloid fodder. The tantrum-throwing, mic-snatching, Kardashian-marrying Kanye West is a freak of nature. The man went on TV and called out a sitting president for not being a compassionate conservative. Then, a few years later, Kanye gets called out by another sitting president for acting up on national TV. Kanye is some sort of a spacial anomaly that sucks up public attention — a black hole (or just an asshole).
If Kanye was just famous for being famous, it would be easy to dismiss him. But he’s famous because he has the talent to match his ego. And the dude has a huge fucking ego. Prince to the power of 10. It’s hard to argue with an artist who has racked up the type of accolades that Kanye has captured over the last decade. To date, Kanye has released seven albums. All of them are on the Great List. Four of them rank in the top five for the year they were released, and two of them are in the top ten for the decade they were released. There aren’t too many other artists who have that kind of batting average. Kanye’s greatest success to date is 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, currently sitting on the Great List at No. 97. Top 100, Klinger. The Canon is closed, yeah?
Klinger: I'll agree that Kanye West is both commercially successful and capable of keeping critics thinking, so I can see why he has managed to crack the Top 100. And the fact that West made a real, honest-to-goodness album right at the time when everybody was tolling the death knell for the long player cannot be dismissed, especially among critics and affiliated music snobs, who hold the album up as the cornerstone of the musician's art. I still maintain that the jury's still out when it comes to the long haul, especially if the Kardashinating side of him winds up taking over completely, but so far it all makes sense.
Mendelsohn: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is start to finish, grade-A, top notch braggadocio backed with an ever-questioning insecurity. And that may be Kayne’s greatest talent, his ability to place himself simultaneously above and below the listener. Sure, he gets to drive the hottest cars, spend time with the hottest women, and do all the hottest things in a lukewarm world. But at the end of the day, he still has to face himself in the mirror and he doesn’t always like what he sees. Is this too deep for such a seemingly shallow piece of pop art?
Klinger: I don’t think so, because I have to say that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a good bit more than a bit of pop, and it's nowhere near shallow. I'm on record as not having paid super-close attention to hip-hop in the last 20 years or so (my neighbors in the retirement community kick up an awful fuss), so I have to say that I've been utterly fascinated by this record. In fact I'd go so far as to say that it's been one of the most pleasant surprises in recent Counterbalance memory. West takes his own myth head-on, which only makes sense because he's one of the few artists going who actually has a myth. In terms of chart-topping pop musicians, our current landscape hasn’t been this bleak since 1961, and maybe that's part of why we as a culture are so baffled by West.
Mendelsohn: I’m not baffled. The man is a genius who suffers from a serious lack of humility. Maybe it’s an act to mask a deeper issue. Honestly, though, I don’t care because it has been fun to watch. Kanye has built himself up from an unknown producer to one of the biggest names in the world outside of the music industry. It took him a little under ten years. Along the way, he’s seen every level of fame and seems to have an excellent understanding of the trappings of stardom, nearly as much of an understanding of what it takes to create some of the most forward-thinking music of his generation.
What is it about this album that piques your interest, Klinger? Somehow I was hoping for a fight but if even the prickly Lou Reed can stand behind Kanye’s music, I shouldn’t be surprised that you are on board as well. Is it the complete synthesizing of the past 40 years of music? The unmatched swagger? The precise, laser intensity of production? The combination of high-brow references and low art?
Klinger: Well, of course I'm drawn to the many nods to stuff a guy like me would recognize right away. I laughed out loud at the reference to King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" that pops in "Power", and the use of "Iron Man" during "Hell of a Life" is ingenious. But I think it's actually the immediacy of West's entire approach that carries the day for me. He's taking an ambitious tack here, working within the constraints of the mainstream to explore what fame has given him and taken away from him. And maybe it's because his music is as polished as it is that whatever neuroses he chooses to reveal seem even more raw than they normally might. There have been times listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that I’ve found myself wondering just how different this is than, say, the Black Eyed Peas (a group I'm pretty sure I only hear at wedding receptions, but still). Then the lyrics kick in, with all their intricacies and allusions, and the distinctions become immediate.
Meanwhile, it occurs to me that while it’s true that Kanye West has a bottomless ego, he is also well aware of the fact that he has a bottomless ego. It's that level of self-awareness that makes him so fascinating, even while he's annoying you with his various shenanigans. It's interesting that he brought Elton John in to sing and play on this album, because I'm starting to see certain parallels between West now and Elton in his 1970s heyday. Both have a propensity toward flamboyance that regular folks find irritating and fascinating in equal measure, both aim straight for the center musically (and by now no serious rock nerd should be surprised by the notion that hip-hop is at the center of the pop sphere) and both use the mainstream arena as a means to ruminate on their unenviable position as millionaire pop superstars. And much in the same way that old Reg found it difficult to sustain his level of outrageousness (Google "elton john donald duck suit" for evidence), Kanye West may find himself adrift once the paparazzi move on. Or maybe he’ll focus on making music?
Mendelsohn: I hope it’s music. And I hope it continues to be the boundary-pushing, pack-leading, redefinition of pop music that Kanye has worked so hard to create. If he ends up in a duck suit, so be it. He has worked in the fashion industry; they do some weird shit. It wouldn’t be the first time Kanye pushed the fashion boundaries. The standard uniform of hip-hop has long been the sports jersey and baggy outerwear. Kanye brought in the pink polos and backpacks. Tight pants aren’t just for emo kids anymore, they are the standard fare in the closet of many hip-hop stars today. It is that type of cross-pollination that has help Kanye reach so many listeners. His stock and trade is hip-hop, but he knows how to speak across multiple platforms. For the rock generation, he understands how the Canon can fit into the evolving picture of music. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he quotes two rock albums lodged squarely within the Top 100 on the Great List.
Kanye is also adept at the universal pop sound — the sound that conjures the Black Eyed Peas for you, the sound that I so off-handedly refer to as shallow. Kanye kills that sound, putting his contemporaries to shame. Listen to the production throughout this entire record. It is so spot-on, so very intricate. It’s those little touches, the extreme attention to detail. Anyone can put together a big beat with big horns and get Rihanna to sing the hook, but Kanye can take it to the next level. Every time I listen to “All of the Lights” I hear something new buried within the production. Everything is in its place, in perfect lock step for total pop domination and then he’ll just flip the script and spend five minutes messing with the orchestration and a vocoder.
And then, after all of that, the man can spit lyrical fire with the best of them. Kanye’s lyrical approach pays homage to his hip-hop forebearers, and yet he is completely comfortable expressing some complex ideas within the truncated verse that is the preferred communication medium of the Twitter generation. Kanye is perfectly poised to continue his domination (if Yeezus is any indication), so here’s hoping he can continue to synthesize whatever it is he hears in the world into incredible records.