Anyone who enters his new album looking for an apologetic, humbled Kanye West based on the events of the past year or so need not bother. Those seeking an artist in his prime going for broke at every turn and hitting his mark far more often than not really shouldn’t look anywhere else.
Say what you want about West’s public image, which sometimes takes a beating and often rightfully so. I personally like artists who speak their minds, even if West could probably stand to choose his battles more judiciously.
None of that ephemera matters though when Kanye gets down to the brass tacks of turning his own obsessions, frailties, fearlessness and skill into hip-hop without boundaries. Musically, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is wonderfully all over the map, weaving styles and samples with effortless virtuosity. Lyrically, West has infused the smart-alecky, braggadocio flow of his first three albums with the anguish he brought to his “sung” album, 808’s and Heartbreak.
The result is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of an artist impervious to critics but vulnerable to his own demons.
Much of the press about this album has had to do with the impressive guest list that West brings to the table. When you can boast contributions from everyone from Elton John to Chris Rock (who does a hilarious cameo on the otherwise downcast “Blame Game”), you know you’ve pulled out all the stops.
At times, the cast of characters can be overwhelming (“All Of The Lights” seems like little more than an excuse to show off Kanye's Rolodex). It can also be inspired though, as when West take’s Bon Iver’s melancholy “Woods” and twists it into an Autotuned assault on “Lost In The World.”
West also allows several of hip-hop’s leading lights the opportunity to make their presence felt. Jay-Z brings his A-game to “Monster” and “So Appalled,” leaving all of his biters sprawled in the dust. “Monster” also features a gloriously unhinged turn from up-and-comer Nicki Minaj.
But Fantasy is never more thrilling than with the star of the show takes center stage. West fearlessly dissects racial politics on “Gorgeous,” demonstrating how his public image doesn’t always jibe with what the media wants him to be: “As long as I’m in Polo smiling/They think they got me/But they would try to crack me/If they ever see a black me.”
On “Power” he emerges triumphant over a bed of chanted backing vocals and a King Crimson sample, even as he fantasizes about a flying leap off a building at the end of it.
This album can be a bit exhausting; a little more of an ebb and flow could have given listeners a bit of a breather from the relentless, go-for-the-jugular musical attack. Better editing also could have weeded out some of the unnecessary, rote misogyny in the lyrics, both from West and some of his special guests.
All is forgiven though when West uncorks a track as endlessly inventive and fascinating as “Runaway.”
Building from a few stark piano notes into a moody maelstrom of sonics, the song features West desperately trying to make sense of his relationship failings and warning all of his potential paramours to head for the hills. “I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most,” he intones, a stunning bit of a introspection worthy of Kurt Cobain, before drinking an ironic toast to all those like him who come up short of their best selves.
In the end, that kind of self-dissection is the real secret to Kanye West’s winning blend. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can feel at times like a victory lap, unassailable evidence that he’s operating at a level most artists in any genre can’t hope to approach. What truly sets him apart though is that he is willing to admit that such adroitness isn’t always enough to make him a happy man.
A listen to Blame Game: