Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

(Def Jam)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Congratulations; thanks to Kanye West, this week you are part of a Cultural Moment. West's clumsily titled, phenomenally strange and wondrous fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is permeating conversations, media, and listening habits like no other record in recent memory. There may not be a public consensus on West, but there is certainly an impressive roster of folks across all landscapes and identifications who are passionate about his music.

It's ordinarily difficult to retain enough perspective to be nostalgic about the days when a new record by, say, Bob Dylan or Prince or Neil Young would be greeted like a message from on high, a desperately needed State of the Union commentary from someone so intimately trusted yet so safely far away. These were the days of actual cultural architecture, the crafting of the vernacular that framed a lived-in world, a time more than a place, a cross-section of life more than a state of mind. Like all elements of our pop culture, music's now fragmented, and it feels more individualistic and bottomless that way: the possibilities of discovery are endless. But then an album like this comes around and that giddy, communal feeling of gathering around to hear the newest message returns; how often can we truly know, as we do this week with Kanye, that our discoveries are synchronized with those of so many millions of others?

It's a powerful, marvelous thing. Why's it happening with this particular album? It's not simply because it is the new Kanye West album, it's not simply because of the hype generated in the weeks ahead by the appearance of dazzling songs like the snarling anthem "Power" and the utterly triumphant "Monster" (featuring a show-stopping verse by Nicki Minaj), although that certainly helped. It's because it is an immaculately crafted, confessional work of art by a major mass-media figure with a can't-keep-his-mouth-shut complex on the order of John Lennon (except Lennon probably wouldn't have cared enough to disrupt something as benignly dumb as the MTV Video Music Awards). It's because West has passed the ultimate test of the creative genius who doubles as a media punching bag, the same test Michael Jackson repeatedly failed: he courts and embraces the attention by making the entire universe a stage for his darkest secrets, thoughts, fantasies. West is fascinating because he isn't afraid of his bizarre extremities, or of fucking up and admitting it later, or of not fucking up at all but apologizing anyway (as with his recently revived Bush comments of 2005). But his work is brilliant because of his apparently genetic gift of turning his own utterly ridiculous situations into a juggernaut of humiliating, heart-on-sleeve sulks in irresistible pop song form. West has always been special, but Fantasy showcases him as a master, as one of the all-time greats, as a man capable of being the best in the goddamned world, a man whose creative restlessness coalesces perfectly with popular emotion. This is his Songs in the Key of Life.

West has always been expert at the elevation of his undeniable eccentricities into universal problems. He gets flak for his idiosyncratic performance style and occasionally clipped, bizarre lyrics, but both have to earn credit for their humanizing force -- West is beloved as much for his technical flaws and periodic prodigal immaturity as were David Byrne and Brian Wilson in their days. That's what makes us trust him so intuitively; this is a man who found his way into national attention as a performer by rapping with his jaw wired shut after a car accident. His disinterest in glossing over his weaknesses is what enables him to not just impress but inspire amazement and adoration. One could spend an essay or two dissecting the wounded, malicious, heartbroken "Blame Game," full of the sort of shit most people would be embarrassed to even whisper in public, musically and lyrically; its every line suggests an extra meaning and a half, its every moment possessive of innumerable aural secrets.

So let's hear it for the weirdos, and the geeks; rock & roll's had their share of both, but few have made this kind of celebratory, naked hay of their alienation, and virtually none have been as articulate. It typically takes a certain confidence to hide so little; Marvin Gaye had it, as does Leonard Cohen. West often sounds terrified, lyrically if not in his performing, but refuses to allow this to stop his stream of invention. His chilly, minimalistic soundscapes on openers "Dark Fantasy" and "Gorgeous" offer disorientation worthy of Kid A. Sequencing is top-caliber as well: the three-dimensional shimmer of "All of the Lights" is offset ingeniously by the assaultive "Monster," the classic soul and cheerful experimentation of "Devil in a New Dress" contrasts the haunted, Age of Adz-like "Runaway" and the tortured partier "Hell of a Life" just enough to create the most divine three-track run of the year. All are plainly the result of endless tweaking and perfectionism; it's geek rock, folks.

Of course, West gained initial notoriety from his skill as a producer. The sound of Fantasy, nearly all of it coproduced by West, is another throwback in its sonic palette that dares everyone else to try and keep up, like the old days when each new Prince album would offer new head-spinning ideas to set the industry on its head, which this shares the potential for with few other recordings of its era. On "Runaway," "Monster," and the audaciously tricky "Lost in the World," West is mining new territory, going on tangents, and it sounds as though he's even holding back a bit on all but the most unapologetically hedonistic cut, "Hell of a Life." Even the most elaborate production, "All of the Lights," never comes off as overly busy. For all its length and extremity of expression, this is an arresting album of impressive restraint.

It's difficult yet to place this in the context of Yeezy's career except to note that it's the first of his records in nearly five years to really build on his initial promise: good as Graduation was, it felt like a classic third LP rehash; and while 808s & Heartbreak is an excellent album, it qualifies still as a stopgap experiment in comparison to the intense focus here. One improvement carried over from the prior two LPs is the near-absence of skits, lending the thirteen tracks an unadorned starkness; the songs are stronger, more complete, more fulfilling of West's eclecticism than anything he's done since his Jon Brion period. The record builds and sustains a mood, then explodes at specific intervals ("Power," "Monster," "Runaway"), but those sustaining, sweltering emotional moments are what make it so ingratiating and memorable; moreover, each cut stands completely on its own, from the pissy crankery of "So Appalled" to the undeniably grand Dropout throwback "Devil in a Blue Dress" -- opposite extremes that feel of a piece here. Discounting two mood-piece interludes that run less than two minutes each, not one song is a weak point.

2010 has seen a torrential downpour of exceptional releases from artists established and new; that a record released so near the year's end should position itself at nearly the top of the heap is remarkable, but it deserves the honor. The record is subtler, less immediate than The College Dropout, sure, but its cumulative effect is shattering, and the shadow it casts over one's impulsive feelings toward other music is most remarkable. The primary urge one has after a full listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is to hear it again, right now, this instant. So here's a bold-ass statement that shouldn't be: Kanye West is an asset to America. His craft and sensibility are the perfect expression of what pop music has amounted to as of 2010. Creativity, huamnity, individuality like this is something to jump up and celebrate. Fortunately, it seems that's what most of us are doing. Fuck the surely-impending backlash.

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