This is the second review I did of this, longer, for the college culture supplement I edit.
Kanye’s had a rough couple of years. Either you know the story or you don’t care, so I’ll skip it. There is only one important story now, and it has nothing to do with Rolling Stone’s confused 5/5 review, Pitchfork’s breathless 10.0 or the Guardian’s strange, condescending 2/5 that showed up at some point during the critical discourse. Kanye West has a new album, and it is fucking amazing.
The first thing that’s striking is the scope. It opens with Nicki Minaj pulling a faux-British accent on a fairytale opening: “Gather round children, zip it, listen.” It’s not the first time Kanye’s crafted a little world in one of his albums, but that was not particularly funny humour, Bernie Mac asking him where his bookbag was on Late Registration. This is earnest stuff. Look at the title of the album. You have two options. You can stick with the Kanye Interrupts guy in your mind and find it funny, further evidence of insanity and hubris. If you do, stop reading, you’re excused. Otherwise, take a deep breath. It’s a journey. Thirty seconds from when Minaj stops, a RZA beat drops and, for the first time in too many years, Kanye the Rapper shows up.
He’s always been in the shadows as an MC, owing partly to his production genius on his and other people’s stuff and partly to the fact that he stands near erstwhile ‘Best Rapper Alive’ Jay-Z a lot, but he’s stepped up his game. And he’s not just rhyming either. He’s Saying Something.
In essence, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is two albums struggling with each other for precedence. The one we meet first is devoted to redressing Kanye’s grievances – the cast of Saturday Night Live can kiss his asshole – and reminding the world that he is an abnormally talented man, capable of making incredible music and trying his hardest to do so. Call this half Power, after the most intense song, that one that commands immediate attention. It’s pure swagger, not the projected braggadocio of a Birdman or even a Jay-Z, but the strut of a man who knows that, regardless of bad PR, he’s on top of his game, and it’s a height rarely hit. By anyone. “I know damn well y’all feelin’ this shit,” he retorts to claims that he’s the “abomination of Obama’s nation.” But don’t forget the hook – “21st century schizoid man.” Well, whatever works, I guess.
It’s mostly like this up until So Appalled, halfway through the 68 minute runtime. Gorgeous in particular seems to wrestle with the ‘bigger’ implications of Kanye’s position. “And what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?”” he asks. That’s a pretty loaded question. First, obviously, comparing yourself to the Beatles is pretty much equivalent to the Beatles comparing themselves to Jesus, especially if you’re coming from a ‘rock music’ background, where hip hop seems to exist in a vacuum if at all. Secondly – does Kanye think he’s hated for being black? Maybe. But he’s going to fight the course.
After the huff and puff of the guest-heavy drone So Appalled (easily the worst song on the album, and that is meant as a direct diss to both Swizz Beats and Cyhi the Prince), things change. There’s a slow soul loop and the second half of the album comes into focus with Devil In A New Dress. But it’s the next song that dominates. Runaway.
If you watched the video Kanye released to trail the album, you’ll know this side. It was thirty-five minutes long and featured a phoenix-woman who crashed from space and ended up becoming his girlfriend. That’s her on the cover, I guess. The pinnacle came with Kanye sitting down at a piano in a warehouse during a large dinner party and singing – yes, singing, even though he was Kanye The Rapper twenty-five minutes ago – mournfully over a driven beat.
It’s self-aggrandisement vs. self-doubt. That’s Kanye’s dark fantasy, the conflict between two different people he wants to be. He wants to be the egoist, world-conquering musical genius, sure, and he plays it well. But he also wants to be less of a fuck up. “24-7, 365, pussy stays on my mind/I- I- I- did it. Alright, alright, I admit it,” he equivocates. Sums it up pretty well.
The interesting thing is that if you parse the album into its individual components – songs, loops, verses – you’ll find some flaws. So Appalled, Chris Rock’s weird skit about Kanye teaching his girl tricks, Jay-Z’s let down verse on Monster. You’ll also find some of the best most innovative pop music around today. The rip of All Of The Lights, the weird autotune spiritual hook of Lost In The World, Nicki Minaj’s scene-stealing verse on Monster. But that’s like reading chapters of a book you didn’t start at the beginning. This is a fairytale, remember? Nicki told you. It’s fascinating, huge and almost shockingly good. Millions of people are going to enjoy this, and VH1 are going to do documentaries on it some day. It deserves it.