Whether or not this is the best Kanye West album, this may be the one he's remembered most for, the one that may trump the version of him we cringe at on the red carpet.
We know the Kanye West story: He's the bad guy, the loud-mouth on an ego trip. He's the guy that said the President didn't care about black people. He upstaged a teenage girl at the VMAs. He made millions of Today Show viewers squirm with his awkward and, yes, petulant reaction to Matt Lauer's baiting.
But is it possible we're too hard on Kanye West? That this is just a story we've convinced ourselves of, that we're unwilling to change? With the exception of the VMA fiasco -- which there's really no defending, and Kanye knows it -- little is said about Lauer's amateurish prodding, not to mention the clear image of West's silent contrition that then turned snippy when Lauer pressed for a sound bite to go along with it. People talk about George W. Bush calling West's claim the most disgusting moment in his presidency, but few talk about the wild absurdity and lack of self-awareness inherent in that claim, or about Bush's own petulant tone when he said it. Hell, The New Republic's John McWorter recently claimed West was bullying the leader of the free world with his post-Katrina comments (reprinted at CBSNews.com, Nov. 17, 2010).
Bullying the President? Really? We're treating West like he's the first self-important, ego-inflated celebrity, and our inability to accept his remorse, when he finds it, is perplexing. It probably has less to do with racial coding -- which some might claim -- and more to do with our fascination with this sort of eccentricity. This megalomaniac image of West, though, is one we feed to ourselves, since the motivation and remorse behind these actions are murkier waters to wade into. Easier to ride the West-as-bad-guy train until we tire of it and the wheels fall off.
What's more, all that nonsense obscures us from a much more interesting side to Kanye, and that’s West the Rabid Music Fan Turned Artist. This guy has his own inconsistencies, but they're far more engaging and fruitful to discuss. This is the guy who took the silly Auto-Tune trend and used it thematically, to convey isolation, on 808s & Heartbreaks -- even if it was to mixed results. And now, this West gives us My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 70 minutes of music every bit as self-indulgent and lofty as their title, every bit as brash and mercurial as their creator's public persona. In the wake of controversy, this album doesn't lash out defensively, nor does it clamor to explain itself. It bursts forth with a staggering confidence, and responds to our perception of ego-mad West with an album that is, in the end, a mass collaboration.
Still, though he teams up with every rapper around, West is not about to get lost in the shuffle. Kanye has no interest in putting on a humble face to allay our claims of egomania. This is, after all, his twisted fantasy, and he's going to remind us (once again) of his position at the top of the rap game. After the lean beat and choir-sized hook on "Dark Fantasy", and the Funkadelic guitar chug of "Gorgeous", West hits us with "Power". "Haters start screaming, has a nice ring to it", he sneers. "I guess every superhero needs his theme music." See? No apologies here, but he also pinpoints our role in all of this, our collusion in crafting his persona, so when he claims "No one man should have all this power", he may be patting himself on the back, but he's also calling us out.
Of course, Kanye's typical bragging comes out in droves here, which muddies the waters on his indictments. However, when he claims he's "the best living or dead, hands down" on "Monster", it's overstatement, surely, but he's closer than ever to earning it. West's lyrics and delivery, which have steadily improved over the years, have reached a new high. He rarely falls back on his old, end-rhyme flow and gets more intricate and smooth lines of rhyme off here. And while the album starts off steady, "Monster" is the game changer.
It sets up a middle of the record that finds Kanye at his most inventive and consistently brilliant. "Monster" itself does a lot with a little, riding a thumping beat and low keyboard line for six minutes. It's all hard snare and thumping bass, and Kanye and company sound energized. Jay-Z seethes on the track, churning out his most vital verse in a long while, spitting with vitriol far stronger than the laid-back, shrug-it-off don we hear on his records lately. Nicki Minaj, though, steals the show. She shapeshifts through voice pitches, accents, rhyming patterns, nearly jumping out of her skin the whole time. She laughs at our worries about her short resume, snarling "if I'm fake, I ain't notice, 'cause my money ain't".
This album, from the volatile slow burn of "So Appalled" to the heavily orchestrated "Devil in a New Dress", has a cinematic size that hearkens back to Late Registration, but the best stuff here is self-indulgent in more interesting and varied ways. This nine-minute version of "Runaway" is a perfect example. What's interesting is how this is his most blown-up track, but also the one that confronts and addresses our image of him the most. It'd be easy to dismiss the snarky hook ("Let give a toast to the douche bags", etc.), but past that West digs effectively into his demons. He knows how his self-destructive impulses ripple out, and invites you to run away, fast. He trudges wearily through his rhymes, pulling phrases to their breaking point, but when you think the song is going to end, only the beat cuts out. We're left with cellos snapping off quick notes, a solitary piano note repeating, and a voice-modulator/keyboard vamping awkwardly over the space. It's an isolated and frustrated noise, one that puts Kanye on display not as the misunderstood genius, but as the guy who wishes he didn't come across that way but has no idea how to fix it.
It's these moments that make My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy endlessly fascinating, but not all of these expansive tracks works quite as well. The self-hating, lonely misogynist persona on "Blame Game" is convincing, but ends with an overlong skit that crassly lauds Kanye's sexual prowess. "All of the Lights" has a churning beat and a club-ready hook, but never quite gets going lyrically. Late in the record on "Lost in the World", Kanye uses Bon Iver's auto-tuned "Woods", but rather than play up the lonely mood of that song -- which would fit this record well -- he turns it into something close to boilerplate dance floor fare. It bumps, for sure, but next to the more ambitious numbers earlier in the record it doesn't play as well.
Nonetheless, this record features a staggering amount of excellent performances. Aside from Kanye's refined and varied delivery, which keeps improving with time, there are brilliant turns by Jay-Z, Pusha T, Rick Ross, Minaj, and Raekwon -- not to mention bit parts by just about any other rapper you can think of. In fact, like Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. 2, this album plays like a call to arms for hip-hop. This is a declaration from some of its top players, banding together behind West to remind us of their vitality. In fact, maybe this is some kind of declaration of independence. Nicki Minaj opens the record with a spoken-word intro, delivered in a faux-British accent. The record ends with Gil Scott-Heron reciting an excoriating, graphic piece that wonders in the end, "Who will survive in America?" We go from English pretension to a revolutionary view of America. Is Kanye West declaring his school of hip-hop as a sovereign nation here? Could be.
Or maybe it's just Kanye freeing himself from us. Because, in case we were wondering, he doesn’t need our help with his image. "I choke a South Park writer with a fish stick", he jokes at one point, but really his point is clear: He's got shit to figure out, he knows it, and he doesn't need our help. He doesn't need us to like him, what he needs is for us to hear this record. Because whether or not this is the best Kanye West album, this may be the one he's remembered most for, the one that may finally trump the version of him we cringe at on the red carpet.