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Posted at 2:15 PM ET, 11/19/2010

Dark. Twisted. Fantastic: On his epic fifth album, Kanye West creates a manic, mutated, gorgeous world — with himself, as always, at the center

By Chris Richards

Kanye WestKanye West's new album is the best of his career (Phil McCarten/MTV/Picturegroup via Associated Press)

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.

By Chris Richards  | November 19, 2010; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  Album reviews  | Tags:  Kanye West  
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Next: Coda: Kanye West drops the best album of 2010; U.S. Royalty is D.C.'s best dressed; Nick Cave is the best at everything else

Comments

How did this fatherless welfare dude get money??

Posted by: Smarg | November 19, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Cannot stand this racist idiot.

Posted by: highwaybluesoccer | November 19, 2010 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Did the author of this article get a shiver up his leg, too?

Posted by: LapWalk | November 20, 2010 5:41 AM | Report abuse

Is this commentator on drugs or what? This alblum is a mass of rambling rants that make no sense whatsoever. The beat is choppy at best, and as the alblum grinds on, you wish for a sedative in a five gallon bucket. It make you wish that West would hit the road because this alblum has certianly gone south. This commentator should really work on getting sober.

Posted by: Really22 | November 20, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Is this commentator on drugs or what? This alblum is a mass of rambling rants that make no sense whatsoever. The beat is choppy at best, and as the alblum grinds on, you wish for a sedative in a five gallon bucket. It make you wish that West would hit the road because this alblum has certianly gone south. This commentator should really work on getting sober.

Posted by: Really22 | November 20, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Is this commentator on drugs or what? This alblum is a mass of rambling rants that make no sense whatsoever. The beat is choppy at best, and as the alblum grinds on, you wish for a sedative in a five gallon bucket. It make you wish that West would hit the road because this alblum has certianly gone south. This commentator should really work on getting sober.

Posted by: Really22
--------------------------------------
Well every other credible review I've read so far has this album rated from good to legendary. Reviews from average music listeners have been overwhelming positive. I've yet to read a review from a credible music reviewer that comes close to matching yours Really22. So I guess the question is are you on drugs or what??

Posted by: 6thsense79 | November 21, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I think Really22 is on caffeine. That would explain why his jittery hands hit the "submit" key twice.

Posted by: MyPostID27 | November 22, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

LOL at the white hipster nerds on twitter getting upset about Kanye's universal great reviews.

I guess it wouldn't be Kanye if someones panties weren't in a bunch.

Posted by: GODalmighty | November 22, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

When I read Chris's review I had to give Kanye's newest a listen. After all, he called this an "epic" recording, of a "gorgeous" world, by a "petulant genius". Music that may "define our time". I for one certainly hope that it doesn't. To me this recording could not have been any less interesting. Most of the tunes seemingly constructed from one boring drum machine riff or another. There is no interesting variation in melody, rhythm, harmony, dynamics. The lyrics, made up primarily of angry ranting, includes the singer telling the listener to "kiss my ass" etc... This seems to be sounds meant to accompany a thug. There is no beauty, no harmony, no love, no subtly, no interesting lyrics or dialogue among musicians, singers, or characters... There was one rather pretty cello interlude. That was it. All in all, this recording is a waste of space and will take up no room in my library. Chris's article is pure hyperbole, made even more absurd by the fact that he compares this dreadful noise of no redeeming quality, to the great Art of The Beatles. Comparing his "resonant bloom-blap" to the fine crafting of tunes that has already been enjoyed by generations from all over the world. Think of all the great tunes The Beatles have written. The beautiful lyrics of love, politics, and fun. Creativity oozed out of them as they evolved from style to style. They defined the spirit of the time and led so many throughout the world into the future. I appreciate the sentiment of "All You Need Is Love" . Sadly, I have no love for Kanye West and his dreadful "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy". A fantasy he should've kept to himself.

Posted by: davidengel58 | November 22, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

I've listened to this album three times now and I'm beginning to suspect mass delusion is at the root of the rave reviews.

Did music reviewers the world over have a tweet up and decide to anoint one particularly disappointing album Best of the Year just for sh*ts and grins? Or did Kanye target the 10 most influential reviewers and agree to pay off their underwater mortgages if they pronounced this angry toss off "legendary"?

Posted by: McPanse | November 24, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

The quality of writing at the Washington Post continues to decline. What a load of hyperbole and crap. Check out this gem:

"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,'"

Freckle of the petulant genius? LMAO. Rippling the Beatles with expletives is genius? 50 years from now people will still be listening to the Beatles and Kanye West will long be forgotten.

Posted by: straw67 | November 25, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Keep hating haters!! George Bush(or half of you musically ignorant posters) hate any black person that speaks his mind. Kanye is better than your beloved, white princess Taylor Swift. So is Beyonce, So is Amy Winehouse, So is Pink, So is Ledisi, so are a zillion others. But in your moment of true racism, when Kayne did act like a jerk by snatching the undeserved award from Swift, and by stating the obvious about Bush, he has been music enemy number one for people who really know nothing about music!!! Top reviews by people who actually know about music, but nothing but 1st grade whine by others who are racist and don't really listen to music. The baddest jerk in the world has done it again!!! Shut up haters and go buy the cd. And listen to it in you mom's basement. Sip on some Tang and eat some watercrest while listening, losers.

Posted by: mackmusic78 | November 26, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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