Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
How far we’ve come. Prodigious hip-hop producer, international hit maker, egomaniacal narcissist, heartbroken balladeer, social pariah—Kanye West has worn all these guises and more, often flipping through them from week to week, depending on how he sees himself and how the world sees him. Certainly no other pop star in recent memory has been scrutinized so thoroughly under the spotlight and remained so polarizing because of it. But even by his standards, West’s last few years have been particularly eventful. Following the tragic death of his mother and the dissolution of a relationship, he mourned on his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. Most notably, this culminated in his storming the stage at the 2009 VMAs during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, causing a massive public outcry—even President Obama called him “a jackass.” Naturally, West retreated from the spotlight, perhaps realizing that whatever he did, good or bad, would only get him in deeper with the public, an inevitable, if unfair, reality. Then, seemingly suddenly, he returned with a flurry of singles and videos, building up an enormous amount of hype, all of it leading to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album visibly sweating under the pressure.
It’s clear, even from the first few seconds where Nicki Minaj recites a poem and a multi-layered chorus joins in, that this is a bigger and more ambitious project than anything West has ever produced, hellbent on proving to himself and to everyone else that he is back and better than ever. Recognizing his considerable strengths as a producer and collaborator, West emphasizes the music here more than any other of his albums, even including interludes and extended codas for good measure. He takes inspiration from each of his past albums—The College Dropout‘s old-school samples, Late Registration‘s elaborate orchestration, Graduation‘s electro-pop, the subzero starkness of 808s & Heartbreak—and mixes and magnifies each aspect to create something new. This is as evident on the tough, pummeling “Monster” as on the epic ensemble piece “All Of The Lights,” the latter of which features dozens of guest musicians and vocalists. Occasionally he indulges a bit too much—does the vocoder solo on “Runaway” really need to be three minutes?—but it never really detracts from the overall flow. Musically, few other modern hip-hop records offer this much to savor.
What gives this record its staying power, though, is West’s dissection of his personality and public persona. During his hiatus from the spotlight, West reflected deeply on his own actions and the fallout afterwards, taking everything in until he had something to say. On “Dark Fantasy,” he realizes where he’s gone wrong (“The plan was to drink until the pain over, but what’s worse: the pain or the hangover?”) and looks optimistically into the future, while he self-deprecates and sympathizes with those he’s hurt on “Runaway.” Yet at the same time, West’s ego is larger than ever, and the album suitably explores his fantasies and desires, whether it be the sexual recklessness of “Hell Of A Life” or the casually blasphemous “Devil In A New Dress.” Prior to the album’s release, West cited Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor as lyrical influences, and he indeed merges the former’s paranoia and the latter’s melodramatic menace throughout the album, even on the relatively lightweight tracks. Like in his recent work, West sometimes stumbles lyrically, but on Fantasy, he hits with far greater accuracy, perhaps because the dichotomy of his insecurity and confidence results in him writing with a great deal more honesty. Ultimately, this same dichotomy makes Fantasy a genuinely human record: it offers no apologies for the man West is but instead is a warts-and-all self-portrait, making it arguably the finest record of his career.