Truman Capote once said, “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m a homosexual. I’m a genius.”
And that’s sort of how I feel about Kanye West. He’s a colossal narcissist, even by the very forgiving standards of the music business. He talks too much and drinks too much, and as a result sometimes interrupts awards ceremonies to say who he thinks should have won (although, to be fair, who amongst us hasn’t wanted to do that at one time or another?). And don’t get me started on the diamond teeth.
But when it comes to his work, the man does have a gift. “Genius” might be too strong a word for it, but he has managed to intertwine himself with the zeitgeist in a way that demands some kind of respect, however warped through the prism of his fame and insanity. I mean, this was the man who told the world that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He’s got to love himself for that.
As to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I scarcely know where to start. This thing is absolutely sprawling at nearly 70 minutes for its 13 tracks, with individual songs clocking in at 9:08, 7:49, 6:38, and 6:19. It’s also totally overstuffed – with words, with emotions, with layers of sound, with guest vocalists. Kanye samples or interpolates everyone from Aphex Twin to Black Sabbath, from the Byrds to Rick James, from King Crimson to Smokey Robinson, from Mike Oldfield to Manfred Mann. The CD comes with a 93/4 X 14 foldout insert covered with small type, and that’s just the credits – not the lyrics.
To unwrap all the layers would take more time than I care to spend. So I think I’m just going to punt and sample things that other people have said about it.
Reviewer “The Baron” says:
MBDTF is a truly unique and innovative album, assuredly the blueprint for many future projects. Kanye West is one of a kind and truly the golden bastard child of pop music and hip-hop’s past decade of fornication. This being said, MBDTF is as flawed as any of his previous works, if not more so, due to its bravery and exploratory nature. Regardless I applaud the man loudly….
The first third of the album is carried by Kanye’s seamless fusing of two of his most important personas: the egotist and the consciously demonized minority…. After assembling a fantastic slew of tracks to open his album Kanye binges heavy on that white with his conglomerate of enablers taking advantage of the zoned out Mr. West. “Monster” and “So Appalled” are rare strains of sabotage. Willfully de-railing any chance of a album long concept materializing, anyone and everyone takes shots at the masterpiece Kanye had begun to assemble. Never, and I truly mean this, has an album gone from so promising to so disappointing so quickly. The oddest part being that Kanye, the man who in the past had used wack rappers as condoms and somehow legitimized them at the same time repeatedly on his albums allows himself to be brutally gang-raped for a total of 12-minutes on his so-called masterpiece. I’m reminded of the scene in Requiem for a Dream where Jennifer Connelly sells herself for some you know what.
In Pitchfork, Ryan Dombal says:
To be clear, Kanye West is not Michael Jackson. As he told MTV last month, “I do have a goal in this lifetime to be the greatest artist of all time, [but] that’s very difficult being that I can’t dance or sing.” He ended the thought with a laugh, but you get the impression he’s not kidding. Unlike Michael, he’s not interested in scrubbing away bits of himself – his blackness, his candidness – to appease the masses. And while Jackson’s own twisted fantasies of paranoia and betrayal eventually consumed him whole, West is still aware of his illusions, though that mindfulness becomes increasingly unmoored with each newspaper-splashing controversy. The balance is tenuous, but right now it’s working to his advantage. On Twisted Fantasy, Kanye is crazy enough to truly believe he’s the greatest out there. And, about a decade into his career, the hardworking perfectionist has gained the talent on the mic and in the control room to make a startlingly strong case for just that.
In the Independent UK, Andy Gill says:
Like Eminem, Kanye has realised that the most powerful form of hip-hop is not that carrying the biggest metaphorical firearm, or blowing its own trumpet the loudest – although he’s far from shy in the latter respect – but the one which reveals the darkest recesses of the heart most honestly. Kanye can certainly be an utter toerag at times, and it’s clear that when, on the nine-minute “Runaway”, he proclaims a toast for the world’s “douchebags, assholes and scumbags”, he’s including himself among their number. He proceeds to confront his own failings – his rudeness, promiscuity, hedonism, egotism and liking for tacky, bling-tastic glamour – but does it over a backing track on which delicate piano and sensitive cello are assaulted by nasty, distorted guitar, bearing out his self-assessment that he’s “just young, rich and tasteless”.
A similar alliance of aristocratic piano and cello with less rarefied elements underpins “Blame Game”, a brutal rumination on West’s sexual appetite, while the same lascivious territory is covered on “Hell Of A Life” to the accompaniment of buzzy synth motif, racing minimalist keyboard flourishes, and a vocal melody borrowed from Black Sabbath. But, as elsewhere on the album, the jarring musical contrasts – effectively between conservatoire and lap-dance club – are so magnified they somehow surmount the point of tasteful discomfiture and break through to another level where Kanye creates his own hierarchy of aesthetic needs, the better to serve what he calls “end-of-century anthems based on inner-city tantrums”. Like Picasso, he acknowledges that the chief enemy of creativity is good taste – which is just as well, since it’s not a quality with which he seems over-burdened on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For which we should all be thankful.
But to wrap it all up – and I can hardly believe I’m doing this – I’m going to give the last word to Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, who puts it as well as I possibly could have:
When Kanye West sings about “jerk-offs that’ll never take work off,” you’d best believe he means himself. Being crazy is this guy’s job, and judging from the sound of his music, business is booming. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his most maniacally inspired music yet, coasting on heroic levels of dementia, pimping on top of Mount Olympus. Yeezy goes for the grandeur of stadium rock, the all-devouring sonics of hip-hop, the erotic gloss of disco, and he goes for all of it, all the time. Nobody halfway sane could have made this album.
Last time, Kanye went minimal for the electro melancholia of 808s & Heartbreak. But on Fantasy, he gets ridiculously maximal, blowing past all the rules of hip-hop and pop, even though, for the past half-decade, he’s been the one inventing the rules. There are hip-hop epics, R&B ballads, alien electronics, prog-rock samples, surprise guests from Bon Iver to Fergie to Chris Rock, even a freaking Elton John piano solo. It’s his best album, but it’s more than that — it’s also a rock-star manifesto for a downsizing world. At a time when we all get hectored about lowering our expectations, surrendering our attention spans, settling for less, West wants us to demand more.
For an eloquent summary of the state of Kanye – and somehow or other, it seems like, the rest of us, too – circa 2010–11, watch the stretch of this video that begins at 13:35: