ALBUM REVIEW Kanye in the eye of the storm

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is very close to being masterpiece, but does it live up to the hype?

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West

Released November 22, 2010

Def Jam Records

Here are some of the things critics are saying about Kanye West’s latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:

“Picasso-like, fulfilling the Cubist mandate of rearranging form, texture, color and space to suggest new ways of viewing things” — The LA Times

“A startlingly maximalist take on East Coast rap traditionalism” — The NY Times

“A staggering, often breathtaking work [...] masterfully engineered and sequenced, each song bleeding over like some long night out into the hazy morning after” — The Village Voice

One may take my opinion of these reviews with a grain of salt, and I cannot say I’m able to verify the following claim, but I dare say that the Sistine Chapel, in its 500 years of life on this earth, has yet to amass half as much glowing praise.

It is possible, though admittedly improbable, that before shipping out review CDs to newspapers and music websites, Kanye carefully lined the jacket covers with $100 bills. It is possible, though improbable, that his hired goons traveled across the country, watching diligently as newspapers and music websites published reviews of MBDTF next to a loaded gun, conveniently pointed at their heads. I can say this is possible because the album absolutely reeks of a grandiose bombast that one could only expect from a child like Kanye, who is still about as brash and as woefully arrogant as an 18-year-old boy who had just experienced sex for the very first time. His accompanying short film, Runaway, while cinematically beautiful, is nauseatingly pretentious (If you should be so inclined to watch it, I urge you to do so with a trash bag around your knees). But I say that it is most possible, and most probable, that these reviews are a product of newspaper and music website critics who have tragically lost the use of their brains, partly due to atrophy, but mostly due to the orientation of their heads, which long ago had disappeared comfortably into their own rectums.

It would thus be unfair to Kanye West, as well as the multitude of rappers and producers and writers who helped orchestrate his latest album, to pay any sort of honest attention to these silly reviews. I personally made the mistake of reading a few before hearing the album, causing me to fall temporarily into such a blind, hipster-loathing rage that I was unable to appreciate the album to its fullest extent on my first listen. However, after calming down and sweeping up various new broken pieces of furniture in my room, I ran through the album again, and found myself concluding that Kanye had come very close to masterpiece.

The album indeed carries vastly more dimensionality compared to College Dropout and Graduation, (two outstanding albums in their own right). In a sense, it seems to be the logical spiritual successor to 808’s and Heartbreak, another foothold as Kanye continues his reckless expedition of his unique brand of producer-centric hip hop.

Kanye is an immensely creative technician, who is never afraid to pull a strange sample or experiment with an odd effect. He loves the old school, embraces choir bands and orchestral symphonies and jazzy riffs, as if they were all distant but beloved relatives at a hip hop family reunion. It’s what made Pete Rock arguably the greatest hip hop producer who had ever lived, and Kanye is a worthy protégé.

Also contributing to the success of MBDTF are the biggest names in hip hop, assembled by Kanye for the album — Pete Rock, RZA, Raekwon, Jay-Z, John Legend. He samples from a diverse range of artists, not the very least of which include Rick James, Black Sabbath, Aphex Twin and Bon Iver. These names make my mouth water and ears tremble, and deservingly so, their small cameos are the crown jewels that shine from Kanye’s compositions.

All of this combines together in MBDTF to form some incredibly stunning music. “Dark Fantasy”, Kanye’s thematic, mildly melancholic intro to the album, is a wonderful example of all things done right in this album. Kanye demonstrates a fantastically keen ear for sampling, as he takes a page from Mike Oldfield’s “In High Places”, supplementing a great thumping 4/4 beat and piano and choral inspired breaks.

“Gorgeous” is darkly chill medley featuring the seamless teamwork of Kanye, Kid Cudi and Raekwon, the former of whom contributes his droning, bitterly aromatic croon to the chorus. It seems like the album Kid Cudi was born to be featured in. Painfully however, the song is all but ruined by Kanye’s gratuitous employ of overdrive, giving a compressed, massively trebly warble to the whole song, like a teenager experimenting with Ableton.

“All of the Lights” is an upbeat transition that makes excellent use of Rihanna’s trademark voice, backed by a frenzy of horns and instrumentals that at times seems almost too messy. “Monster” is an interestingly minimalist, almost African jam that shines thanks to Nicki Minaj’s dynamic, almost humorous lyrical delivery. “Blame Game” concludes the album with a tribute to Aphex Twin’s hauntingly beautiful “Avril 14”.

In other places, Kanye goes a bit overboard. The guitar riff in the background of “Power” slightly damages the thematic and rhythmic buildup, and the entire song is almost too rich in layers to absorb.

I have no idea what he was trying to do in “Runaway”, nor do I care. A few of the tracks seem like rushed collections of too many samples and too many voices all clamoring at once to overwhelm the listener in an attempt to create a cathartic aural experience. Yes, the emotive quality is there, but good music is about replayability, and not just a violent emotional appeal. I can’t see myself listening to jamming along to “Power” a year down the road, the same way I can to “Touch the Sky” or “Good Life”.

The greatest detraction to MBDTF, however, is not Kanye’s production, but rather his voice. Incidentally Kanye himself demonstrates my point perfectly on hi single “Power”:

Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation

At the end of day, goddammit, I’m killin’ this shit

I know damn well y’all feelin’ this shit

I don’t need yo pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick

Mind you, the reader would also do well not to dismiss the album solely because of Kanye’s lyrical effort, or lack thereof. Yes, he has a bad sense of vocal rhythm, and not enough vocal percussiveness in his voice, which is nasally and annoying. His lyrics are at best mildly poignant in written form, but rarely does he make any effort towards complex rhyming schemes. But recall that Kanye West made his fame (rightfully so) as a producer, not a rapper, and the fact that Kanye is not a good rapper, by any objective or subjective qualification of the term, shouldn’t be the entirety of the criticism to his work. I defend him because I truly appreciate this album, and we’d be better off imagining that Kanye uses his rapping as a supplement to his excellent ear for production, and not the other way around.

At the very end of the day, however, barring critics and fans and detractors alike, this album is not Kanye’s. Each song is saddled with so many credits and contributions to render any claims of single ownership of any part of the album hopeless and egotistical. Kanye samples and features from not only hip hop’s most celebrated figures, but also dips his record into the calm rivers of folk, jazz, electronica, and classical composition. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, then, might be thought of as a whirlpool of the outpouring of human souls, sometimes beautifully heterogeneous, sometimes discordant, with Kanye in the eye of the storm, doing what he does best.