For a pop star, Kanye West has always been shockingly transparent. His debut album, The College Dropout, dissected the highs and lows of the twentysomething worker bee with relatable everyman charm. When his mother passed and his girlfriend dumped him a few years back, he took to the airwaves with 808s & Heartbreak, which was one long Auto-Tuned emotional meltdown. His persona has always thrived on his weaknesses as much as his strengths — and his awareness of them. He knows his limitations, and if nothing else, his decision to write and produce his last few albums by committee communicates that. Only Jon Brion could’ve given Late Registration the orchestral, Ivy League pomp it deserved. DJ Toomp and Mike Dean’s bleating synths brought Graduation greater depth of musical character. Kid Cudi’s dejected but tuneful songwriting carried much of 808s & Heartbreak. Kanye is forever in service to the song, willing to call on whatever stable of talent and deliver whatever level of public self-flagellation that is required to get the point across.
For that reason, watching Kanye’s meteoric rise has always carried a hint of voyeurism. When things were going well, Kanye’s albums were all-access passes to his newfound celebrity. Recently they haven’t been going so well, though. In the wake of his drunken gaffe onstage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye quickly became the music industry’s biggest heel, enduring the ridicule of everyone from laymen to bloggers to fellow musicians to the president of the United States. Kanye seemed to vanish after the Taylor Swift fiasco, but it turns out much of the duration of West’s supposed exile was spent in Hawaii recording. West returned with the snarling, King Crimson-sampling “Power” in May and began a track-a-week music series called G.O.O.D. Fridays that gifted fans epic posse cuts that packed many of the music industry’s best and brightest into six- and seven-minute workouts. The G.O.O.D. Friday tracks were fantastic publicity: Not only did they slowly worm Kanye back into the good graces of the public, but they also prepared us, step by step, for what he had in store for us.
That next step is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a lushly orchestrated, regal gala of an album that is every bit as outsized and jumbled as its adjective-engorged title. The album benefits from the shared production and songwriting talent of a pantheon of artists from all over the musical landscape. On the first song alone, RZA supplies a sinister two-note groove punctuated by gorgeous choral breakdowns, vocals from Bon Iver, and a narrative from Nicki Minaj in a faux British accent. Elsewhere Kanye tricks out Bon Iver’s “Woods” on “Lost in the World,” adding tribal chants and percussion and a pulsating house beat. Bink’s beat for “Devil in a New Dress” peters out midway through, and a live band plays a sultry, emotive take on that beat.
That is to say, Dark Twisted Fantasy is an album full off melodic ideas, copious guest features, winding songs, unexpected twists, and improbable pairings. Its ethos is “more is more,” and where similarly extravagant outings have failed on the wings of their own excess, this one gets over for being rooted in Kanye’s most tuneful and accessible set of tunes in ages. The simple piano melody at the heart of “Runaway,” the triumphant trumpet fanfares of “All of the Lights,” and other flourishes cement Kanye’s skills as a talented pop architect with an undeniable ear for melody.
Sweet as it may sound at times, though, this album is called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for a reason. The lyrics chronicle the flip side of the “Good Life” Kanye toasted on Graduation. Anger is its currency. Surface friends, hangers on, and doubters are decried on “Monster” and “So Appalled.” The first verse of “Gorgeous” is a bilious rant about racial inequality. “All of the Lights” details a man’s struggle to restore communication with his family after domestic abuse. There’s a lot of douchebaggery here, “Runaway” notwithstanding. “I embody every characteristic of the egotistic,” he rhymes in “Power.” Dark Twisted Fantasy is very much a reflection on what it means to be the bad guy. Ever aware of his own reception and bad press, Kanye skulked off and crafted his response: a meticulously constructed, bombastic fuck you.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, like 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, derives its intrigue from the shortcomings of its creator. It’s a meditation on fame, on everyone thinking you’re the shit, knowing you’re the shit, and knowing everyone knows you think you’re the shit. It’s a sobering trek through the dark stretches of the mind of a notoriously hot-tempered musical visionary with a star-studded Rolodex. But all of the hands on deck are cast into roles that take advantage of their various strengths. Everyone involved in this thing kills, and Kanye has again pushed the envelope, filling these songs with instrumentation and structural elements that have more in common with progressive rock and the blues than with hip-hop. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West has lurched to the vanguard of modern mainstream music. Let’s toast the asshole.