My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Half of what Kanye West has done in 2010 has been straight hypnotism. He gave away most of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy before he put it on sale. He turned his stream-of-consciousness rambles into appointment Internet. He premiered a self-directed, 35 minute, Kubrick and Fellini-inspired music video on national television, in an era when music videos don’t live anywhere near national television. He did all this to engender good will, to commandeer the spotlight, and to prove (or re-prove) himself. If he could just hold your attention for a couple of minutes, that was enough. With unbridled ambition, he redefined the word “good” to mean “big,” and then made the big stuff good anyway. Because, for all the G.O.O.D. Fridays giveaways and hordes of ballerinas, for all the Twitter-rants and Michael Jackson comparisons, Kanye West’s real coup came when he revealed that the hypnotism, the grand gestures, and unbridled ambition are not just part of the show—they also ARE the show. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is about how ambition is an ugly, sexy, messy, (beautiful, dark, twisted) beast. Fittingly, it is an ambitious, ugly, sexy mess.
But don’t mistake that for ego. Ego thrives on control, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s most impulsive album yet. The College Dropout and Late Registration were formalist exercises—exciting in their creation of a vision, but rigid in the execution of it. On Graduation, the vision began to fray. Kanye split that album between faded copies of earlier, sample-heavy formula songs—like the Daft Punk-lifting lead single, “Stronger,” and the Steely Dan-based “Champion”—and richer stuff like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Flashing Lights.” 808’s and Heartbreak charged into the ether with 50 minutes of tuneless R&B—a fascinating diversion while Kanye recalibrated. Which brings us to now. Kanye seems to be searching for some elusive new vision on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He doesn’t quite know what it is, but it’s going to be big. He draws upon old-school rap and Prince-style new wave funk. He chooses songs and sounds based on audience feedback—“Monster” after its G.O.O.D. Friday release took off, and the vocal samples on “Runaway” after testing them on the MTV VMAs. His collaborations are actual collaborations—the surest sign of Kanye relaxing. He nurtures career performances from some of the biggest luminaries in the rap game, and then lets those performances define the album. When Rick Ross’s verse drops into “Devil in a New Dress,” the music opens up into the kind of lavish orchestration that serves Ross so well on Teflon Don; when Nicki Minaj shows up on “Monster,” Kanye reconstructs the beat around her. He chases after every idea has, and the result is a rough-hewn piece of work where even the awkward moments are enormous.
And the awkward moments are where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy thrives. Nearly everything here teeters on the brink of ridiculousness. For the longest time, Kanye’s rapping has been the weakest part of his music. Here, it has evolved into something between conversation and sermon. He’s got more in common now with Richard Pryor than Rakim. Instead of bending lines to sound musical, he finds the music within what he’s saying. On “Dark Fantasy,” he compares his rapping to Nas’s flow—and, while that’s patently absurd in terms of rhyme skill, in terms of the impact he could have on the actual sound of rap he might be onto something. Every couplet is an isolated thought, a world in and of itself. Sometimes his lines kill; sometimes they fail hard—but odds are that no two people could agree on which does which. Is “Too many Urkels on your team, your wins low” a good line? Is “Put the pussy in a sarcophagus”? I don’t know. I love them.
Musically, MBDTF gets even dicier. He samples King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” ten years too late, and uses it to turn Narcissistic Personality Disorder into a business expense. He nabs John Legend to sing the hook on “Blame Game,” sticks him with some Tyler Perry-sitcom caliber jokes, and has him sing in a frailer, more delicate voice than the soul singer typically uses—possibly so that he’ll sound more like Kanye. He has the stones to repeat a single piano note and play it like goddamned Jonathan Cain launching into “Don’t Stop Believin’,” except not a city boy riding the train to anywhere in the middle of the night—a self-professed A-hole, workaholic, sex-addict with an AutoTune jones and a persecution complex. Beyond that, the lines between Journey and Kanye West are blurrier than ever—except that Kanye will never sell as many albums as Steve Perry, he’ll just talk shit like he has. Kanye has more in common with the monsters of rock, or Bruce Springsteen, or The Who, than with the hip-hop nation. He is crafting world-beating, mythological rock with the kind of determination that turns platitudes into religion. The douchebag-toasting hook on “Runaway” is monumental without being cool; “clever” without being clever; precisely unsmart. It is a battering ram that speaks ironically to the people who hear the irony in it, but speaks honestly to the people that those people hate. It is proof that you can garner love from the very people you’re alienating. And it explains exactly why My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy resonates in a way that few other albums do: For all its naked ambition, it has little attachment to what has been proven—and that makes it wholly, fundamentally dangerous.
-Marty Brown, 2010