My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
My relationship with this man and his music has been one of love and hate. It seems that within the past couple years, my sentiments have slid further and further in the direction of the latter. It’s ironic that Kanye’s very (rare) artistic trait of unabashed self-expression is the very same trait that caused me to begin to lose interest in his work, not to mention respect for him as a person.
He was always known for having a hothead and a big mouth. Fine. During the early years of his media criticism, it amazed me that people seemed to forget that harboring a certain degree of egotism was part of what it meant to be an MC. It seemed like they were picking on Kanye West simply for being outspoken and unapologetic — something that the corporate media hates — and so I brushed it off as some sort of mainstream cultural-disconnect. Then there was the George Bush Katrina telethon statement: a little tactless and poorly-timed, but honest (and some might say truthful) nonetheless. For that one he got just as much of my respect as he did my disgust.
The Taylor Swift incident just confused me. I don’t think it’s any secret that those goddamn award shows are blatantly biased, but to disrupt another person’s moment of glory to state an opinion as if it was fact goes beyond everyday MC egotism. Now it seemed like Yeezy was just picking battles for the sport — to satisfy some sort of insatiable hunger to upset the very establishment that had initially embraced him on it’s own terms and not his.
Besides… c’mon, dude. It was a Beyonce video, not a Cezanne painting.
Speaking of timeless artists though, it was around this time that Ye began seeming less and less shy about announcing to the world that he was one. Referring to himself as a genius, and complaining about people not fully understanding his music — annoying shit that makes you want to ignore a man’s work and not even attempt to appreciate it. Then 808s and Heartbreak dropped. It alienated countless longtime fans, and even in it’s mixed critical reviews it signaled the possibility of career suicide. Initially it seemed like the last straw, but somehow we all knew that one day Kanye the MC would return.
Just to be clear, if you’re confused as to why I’ve brought up these over-publicized events and began analyzing his character within an album review, allow me to point to damn near every promotional interview that he’s done as of late in which he does the same. If he chooses to frame his latest work by continuing to address his past public outbursts, then it’s only fitting that I do so as well. After all, this is part of the Kanye West mystique. Even as he’s claimed to have curbed his arrogance and taken on a new air of artistic and personal refinement, his actions and his latest work reveal that these so-called character improvements are more like accessories added to his wardrobe — like that big flashy chain he wears in the “Power” video. Underneath it all, he’s essentially the same old Kanye. And while he let that persona of his run wild for a moment (culminating in an overly-experimental album that I personally disliked), it seems that the old Kanye is back. He’s brought the bars, and some shiny new toys and trappings to take them to the next level.
After Nicki Minaj’s psuedo-cockney-accented opening narration, Yeezy pulls one of his favorite tricks. He takes you to church — with an arrangement of spine-tingling, ever-rising vocals that ask a simple question, “can we get much higher?” And there lies the challenge that he sets for himself on his return from the far away planet that was 808s and Heartbreak. I suppose we should be thankful that Ye doesn’t actually return back to Earth on this one. The space he explores here seems to be one that exists somewhere between his previous releases and his most recent one. It’s a sound that for one reason or another — be it the perpetual religious imagery, the choir-backed choruses, or Kid Cudi’s soulful chanting — I can only describe using a term that Busta Rhymes coined about 10 years ago: a sort of cathedral-ish bounce.
The fact that those all too familiar poignant yet wittily-crafted bars of fire have returned to the forefront of his work is really the only thing that tethers it to something we’ve heard from him, or anyone else, before. But then again, it’s even hard to say that they’re really at the forefront any more. On “Gorgeous,” he treats his distorted vocals as if they were another instrument to be blended seamlessly into the mix alongside the muted electric guitar-riff. He spits:
“Penitentiary chances, the devil dances / and eventually answers to the call of autumn / all them fallin’, for the love of ballin’ / get caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin”
This track is an excellent microcosm of the album because it exemplifies the pinnacle of Ye’s visionary talent. In my personal opinion, I don’t really think Kid Cudi can sing; and I’m not sure why his generally off-key caterwauling is appealing to people, but here it’s hypnotically on point – matching perfectly with the track’s imposing tone. Ever since Late Registration, it’s become apparent that Kanye (much like Miles Davis) has the ability to bring out the strengths of his collaborators — squeezing out the essence of their artistic persona as highlights for the music that he creates.
If Yeezy was a director, he’d be Tarantino. And I guess the ensemble cast and jaw-dropping level of production that he’s carefully arranged them over makes this his Pulp Fiction.
He’s said himself that he chooses guest vocalists for their voices, not for their names. Although this becomes hard to believe when you see a track as packed full of star-power as “All Of The Lights.” The extensive list of big names immediately brings to mind the cheesiness of a “We Are The World” type-record. On the contrary, it’s actually somewhat difficult to pick out the voices once you hear the song — but then again, the first time you hear it, you’re so blinded by it’s awesomeness that I doubt you’d even want to expend the energy playing that silly little game. Rhianna commands the track over Tony Williams’ marching band-esque drum work. I challenge you to separate The Dream, Ryan Leslie, Charlie Wilson (and anyone else I’m missing) taking turns in flawless harmony right up until Fergie’s sassy break-down and Alicia Keys’ downplayed yet beautiful closing ad-libs backed by Elton John on piano.
Even the MCs that Ye features seem to be milked of their most impressive performances. Jay-Z’s typically laid-back delivery is invigorated with a fiery growl on “Monster” — a track that also features Nicki Minaj going even more bonkers with her flow than we’re accustomed to. Rick Ross steps his tired old coke-rhymes up to intense lyrical portraits on the final version of “Devil In A New Dress,” while Raekwon finishes out a year of extensive guest appearances with one of his stronger showings from it on “Gorgeous.”
As I’ve hinted at earlier, the production on this record at times seems bigger than life, and I suppose this is what happens when a perfectionist super-producer recruits legendary peers to help him create a conceptual masterpiece. Mike Dean of Scarface/Rap-A-Lot fame, No I.D. and even the RZA all added their creative input to varying degrees on the project. When the sounds aren’t overwhelming in scope and breadth, they’re intentionally minimalist. For example, the melancholy piano on the Aphex Twin-sampled “Blame Game” creates an excellent space for Ye to meditate over the causes of a failed relationship.
But sonically, the joy comes from the triumphant, painstaking arrangement that undoubtedly went into the production of tracks like “Power,” the aforementioned “All Of The Lights,” and the album closing “Lost In The World.” There is a sharp distinction between a producer and a beat-maker, and while Kanye started out his career as a Madlib with an MPC (no disrespect to Madlib), he’s grown into a Quincy Jones. Even in the darkest days of his experimentalism and the disturbing silence of his absence from the music scene, somehow I always had the feeling that he’d return better and bigger than ever. I spent this entire past weekend listening to this album on repeat, and the same question inevitably pops up over and over again: “can we get much higher?”
Only Yeezy himself can answer that one. I can’t possibly imagine what he’ll come up with to try.