Dark. Twisted. Fantastic: On his epic fifth album, Kanye West creates a manic, mutated, gorgeous world — with himself, as always, at the center
For a man who demands every nanosecond of our collective attention, Kanye West probably had a pretty crummy day last Tuesday.
That's when Apple announced that the Beatles catalogue was finally coming to iTunes, sending musty echoes of Beatlemania rippling across the planet.
West's noisy Twitter feed fell silent. The most anticipated album of his career was due out in seven days, and the only pop deities - dead and/or alive - capable of changing the discussion had changed the discussion.
West's music is strong enough to resuscitate a 40-year-old riddle: Will anyone ever eclipse the Beatles? It's also brave enough to suggest a new one: Why compete with the past when you can own the future?
Fittingly, his new album comes pre-loaded with an answer to both: "I don't believe in yesterday/What's a black Beatle anyway?/A [expletive] roach?/I guess that's why they got me sitting here in [expletive] coach."
And that's just a freckle of the petulant genius that coats every inch of "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," easily the most thrilling album of 2010 and the best of West's career. The weird, wordy title is the only thing about this opus that he'll live to regret - the rest is pure pop bravura, with hip-hop's biggest ego torquing self-obsession into unapologetic new shapes.
West's moment of post-Beatles anxiety comes during "Gorgeous," a song that moans and groans with a dark urgency that permeates this album. From the hyperventilating death rattle of "Monster" to the mutant gospel crescendos of "Dark Fantasy," this is some truly epic stuff.
And with most of these songs stretching out well beyond the five-minute mark, "Fantasy" should speak directly to an affirmation-needy Facebook generation while challenging its shrinking attention span. Crowded with maniac choirs, alien drum machinery and instrumental interludes that toggle between decorative and devastating, the grandeur never feels excessive. It feels necessary.
Of course, West's need to superimpose his brilliance on every passing moment is exactly what got him excommunicated from popland at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. (For anyone who forgot: He interrupted an acceptance speech by Taylor Swift because he thought she didn't deserve to win.) Criticism came swarming from all directions, including the White House, where President Obama off-handedly called him "a jackass."
Before that, West was basking in the afterglow of 2008's brilliant "808s & Heartbreak," an album on which he abandoned rapping for singing in a cold, mechanical R&B style. If "808s" still stands as an imaginative left turn into our technology-addicted future, "Fantasy" is this guy's masterpiece, exceeding the triumphalism of Jay-Z's "The Black Album," matching the curatorial sweep of Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" and approaching the imaginative stratospheres occupied by OutKast's twin treasures "Aquemini" and "Stankonia."
But West isn't trying to redefine hip-hop so much as define our times - a task maybe only he has the ambition (and talent) to attempt.
It wasn't always like that. Over the course of a decade, the 33-year-old has made a steady climb from shadowy producer to rap curiosity to hip-hop superstar to outspoken omnipresence. He wasn't born with Michael Jackson's precocious magic, nor with the Beatles' superhuman gifts. He had to work for success. Hindered by a near-fatal car crash, the sudden death of his mother and countless outbursts, meltdowns and hissyfits of his own volition, his rise has been long, painful and very, very public.
As his songs blanketed the airwaves, West appeared to be making his career out of jeopardizing his career. He lashed out in interviews and threw tantrums at awards shows. He made fresh headlines this month when George W. Bush cited West's infamous 2005 jab - "George Bush doesn't care about black people" - as the lowlight of his disastrous presidency.
West has since offered Bush a quasi-apology, but he remains hopelessly candid, unable to censor his rebel heart amid a constellation of pop stars too meek to ever say anything halfway controversial. As our information-age appetite for "reality" grows more insatiable, so does West's desire to deliver it.
"Power," West's new megalomaniacal theme song, maps out this turbulent headspace like never before. As a battalion of female voices wail along to a breathtaking military march, Stratocaster-toting phantoms noodle off into a purple haze while West describes ego, loneliness and creativity as three strands of a rope, intertwined: "Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic/'He know he's so [expletive] gifted'/I just needed time alone, with my own thoughts/Got treasures in my mind, but couldn't open up my own vault."
And then there's mortality. Rappers have long rhymed about dying young at the hands of another, but with "Power," West's take on death is far control-freakier. "This'll be a beautiful death," he declares, contemplating suicide from the ledge of a building. Because if anyone takes Kanye West's life, it'll be him.
Elsewhere, he surrounds himself with a sprawling and disparate crew: Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Elton John, Rihanna, the RZA, Fergie, the disembodied voice of Gil Scott Heron and others. Don't mistake them for a support group. West treats his guests like musical instruments. Gap Band founder Charlie Wilson lends his vocal elastic to "Monster," John Legend takes a breathless turn on "Blame Game," and Rick Ross and Pusha T play street-wise foils on "Devil in a New Dress" and "Runaway," respectively.
Each of these tunes surf on exhilarating torrents of rubbery percussion that abandon hip-hop's classic boom-bap for a resonant bloom-blap.
The drums come avalanching on "Lost in the World," the grand finale this album deserves. Joined by Justin Vernon, the helium-throated warbler better known as indie-folk act Bon Iver, West serves up high drama at a breakneck tempo, with pining melodies crying out for a redemptive moment. But there's no final act of contrition. West is too "lost in this plastic life."
And he doesn't want our forgiveness, anyway. He wants us to get lost with him - lost in every dizzying drum pattern, every delirious disclosure that defines this world he's so painstakingly created.
All you need is love?
According to West, all you need is him.
| November 19, 2010; 2:15 PM ET
Categories: Album reviews | Tags: Kanye West
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