I can’t write about food and wine every week. I also can’t be angry every week. For the first time in Satellite Show history, here’s an album review.
I was a reluctant Kanye West fan. I didn’t really come to enjoy his music until Graduation came out and it was actually the subsequent rediscovering his production work from the early 2000s which solidified my appreciation of his impact on hip-hop music, having rescued it from the boring beats of the “shiny suit” era. And while he has never been a great MC in terms of his flow, his weird, smart rhymes and wry sense of humor have stood out.
808s and Heartbreak wasn’t particularly appealing to me, so I wasn’t paying too close attention to the advent of his latest album, although the controversy over the artwork was pretty hilarious…
…and his Taylor Swift-shoving antics were also great. Sure Kanye West is an arrogant dick, but his arrogant dick public persona is so well-crafted and over the top that he has to be putting one over on us. A sort of Andy Kaufman of conceited swagger, he’s been setting the stage over the last year for what was to come with this album. Unlike Jay-Z, who comes across reserved and almost shy in his interviews and non-concert appearances, West is as big and weird in his public persona as he is in his recordings.
Which brings me to the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s fucking great. I knew something was up when I saw his blistering performance on SNL,…
…the best live performance on the show in recent memory, and saw that the album received a perfect 10/10 in the notoriously cynical hipster music rag Pitchfork. I downloaded it the day after it came out while visiting family over Thanksgiving. It’s a singular, game-changing album. In terms of production, West has put together some of the best beats I’ve heard and placed over them layers of sounds both sequenced and live (the personnel list reads like a chamber orchestra) and the shrewdest and most compelling samples since, well, whatever else West has produced. Samples are drawn from the usual 70s soul suspects as well as 70s prog and metal artists like King Crimson, Black Sabbath and Mike Oldfield–whose “In High Places” is sampled to great effect on the opening track “Dark Fantasy.” It’s all assembled into a gorgeous and dense wall of sound that demands either seriously good headphones or cranking up the volume on the stereo. It’s not background music.
(Of course West doesn’t get all the credit. He drew from a roster of talent for producing the album including RZA, No ID and Jeff Bhasker.)
Lyrically, West is at his most confessional and compelling. The swagger of Graduation is mixed with the introspective regret of 808 without the emo-fueled mopery and posturing. It’s stream-of-consciousness rap and it feels authentic. This is an ego–a very big ego–that is being completely uncensored and honest. Sometimes its funny, often awkward, always sex-charged and always interesting. Love his public persona or not, West is an artist who embraces his flaws, simultaneously celebrating them and expressing regret over them. It’s fascinating and beautiful.
If there is one weak spot in the album it’s that the guest spots are fairly uninteresting. With the notable exception of the blistering “Monster” featuring Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and (of all people) Bon Iver turning in killer verses and a soulful chorus from John Legend on “Blame Game,” the appearances from Kid Cudi, Pusha T and others do little to enhance the tracks and feel out of place. Notably, “Runaway,” one of the best tracks on the album, is almost ruined by Pusha T’s predictably rote verse about money and pussy. I’d rather hear West rap uncensored and weird about money and pussy–honest, uncalculated and unrehearsed.
While “Monster” will probably prove to be the hit from the album, it doesn’t fit contextually with most of the rest of the record and my personal standouts are the beautiful anthemic cuts “All of the Lights” and “Lost in the World” (another Bon Iver appearance) as well as the intensely personal tracks “Blame Game,” “Runaway” and “Dark Fantasy.” The weird, sex-drenched “Hell of a Life” is also excellent.
In fact, compared to Graduation and 808–and really all of his previous albums–which yielded breakout radio hits, no singles from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has yet gained the traction of “Stronger” or “Heartless.” West is moving out of pop territory and into album-oriented rock territory. He’s produced a record meant to be immersed in from start to finish. His artsy short film, “Runaway” is a modern call-back to the art-rock films of the 1970s, a sort of hip-hop Tommy.
It’s not very fair to call this album hip-hop. Like Primus before him, perhaps its time to create a separate “Kanye West” genre. This album is genre-defying and unfair to West who is finally able to produce music free from the constraints of the hip-hop mold which, as an educated slacker from an upper middle-class family, he’s always seemed uncomfortable in–sharing more in common with alt-rock bizarros like MGMT and Arcade Fire.
(I’d pay good money for an Arcade Fire/Kanye West tour, a Twitter assertion that earned a hash-tag-appended Retweet of “#straightguytweets” by my gay brother. Whatevs.)
I don’t really care what you think about Kanye West personally, get this album. It’s crazy good. And unlike other celebrity crazies, West’s only fault is believing in his talents too much. That beats anti-Semitism, hooker-beating, and faux-leaked sex tapes any day.