This past year, Kanye West has been labeled many things—arrogant, insensitive, brash, to name a few—but one thing nobody can call him is opaque. West is the type of artist who will never need to have a biography written about him since nearly everything there is to know about him has been chronicled thoroughly through his lyrics and public persona.
It doesn’t take a Freud to know that ‘He has a few narcissistic tendencies, and it doesn’t take a Mozart to realize that Kanye is bringing a new meaning to the word “maestro.” With Kanye West’s fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye takes all of the sounds he’s arranged and trademarked over the years and showcases them in a mesmerizing magnum opus of an LP which proves to be a culmination of his most ambitious efforts.
Much of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is cut from the same cloth as his first four albums. You’ll hear the chipmunk soul samples of The College Dropout, the baroque string section that pervaded Late Registration, the buzzing electronica of Graduation, and even the somber auto-tune of 808s & Heartbreak. But listeners will not only relive the best moments of Kanye’s previous albums, they will be slapped into dumb submission as his sonic inventiveness forcefully kicks the door open to new possibilities.
Nicki Minaj introduces the album’s first track, using her best British impression: “Twisted fiction, sick addiction/Well gather round children, zip it, listen” basically sums up the lyrical content of the album. After Minaj’s intro, there is a sudden surprise, as if there’s one thing that most people don’t expect to hear on a hip-hop album, its vocal harmonies. After a collective of voices chant “Can we get much higher” the beat (one of the sharpest in years by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA) thumps into motion and “Dark Fantasy” begins. “I fantasized about this back in Chicago/ Mercy, mercy, that Murcielago,” he raps, seemingly astounded that he achieved everything he ever wanted.
“Act like I ain’t had a belt in two classes,” Kanye addresses to the haters in Dark Twisted Fantasy’s second track, “Gorgeous.” By “belt” he is comparing his ability to that of a karate master, and by “two classes,” of course, he is referring to his rapping and production skills—skills that come into fruition here. Over a crisp, entrancing guitar riff, Kanye channels some of the cleverest rhymes he ever laid to paper, from taking jabs at those who mocked him (“Choke a South Park writer with a fish stick”) to silencing the doubters (“Cause the same people that tried to black ball me forgot about two things, my black balls.”)
The next track is lead single, “Power,” a hard-hitting exposition of Kanye’s inner struggle with infamy. The lyrics imply that Kanye became so transfixed with the media’s negative attention that it hampered his creative process: “I just needed time alone with my own thoughts/ Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault.” “Power” samples King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a fitting sample since the song is about a guy “at paranoia’s poison door.” Kanye’s disillusionment with fame has never made him sound more poised as an MC. The abrasive, uncompromising beat matches the intensity of his flow and lyrics.
As dominant as Kanye’s presence on this album is, however, Fantasy wouldn’t be the same without an all-star supporting cast. Kanye brings his demented dreams to life by recruiting an eclectic array of guest artists, from well-respected veterans to rising up-and-comers. For example, in the album’s fourth track, “All Of The Lights,” you’ll hear Rihanna, Alicia Keys, John Legend, The-Dream, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Ryan Leslie, Charlie Wilson, Tony Williams, La Roux’s Elly Jackson, and piano from Elton John. At first glance one might roll their eyes at the guest list, looking at it as an overambitious attempt to garner radio play, but the guests appear briefly and are effectively egoless, each one working as a role player rather having the song centered on them. As a result, the succinct superstar contributions offer diversity and excitement to this forward moving jam.
After “All of the Lights” comes “Monster,” a six-minute epic that doubtlessly lives up to its name. On this track, Kanye, Jay-Z, and newcomer Nicki Minaj, as if a fire-breathing dragon came to life in their studio, spit the most scorching verses of their careers. Kanye rattles off a series of hysterical non-sequiturs including “It’s that goose and Malibu I call it Malibooya”. In the span of one verse, Jay-Z manages to name-drop not one, not two, but seven types of monsters. Additionally, he reveals that what he is lacking most in life is love, and diss all of the ungrateful “vampires and bloodsuckers” that turned on him after he made them famous.
But it’s Nicki Minaj who steals the show with her brilliantly schizophrenic verse that sounds just as fun as it does menacing: “Yeah my money’s so tall that my Barbie’s gotta climb it/hotter than a middle eastern climate.” On top of that, Minaj’s voice shifts frequently during the song, using a Jamaican accent one minute and a British accent the next. Each bar in her verse sounds more manic than the last leading to her final cathartic howl. All over one of Kanye’s best productions: a funneling funk beat that fluctuates at all the right times.
“So Appalled” contains the grittiest, most anguished production of the album, which is ironically coupled with lyrics portraying Kanye’s triumphant star-studded success. When Kanye utters the phrase “Five star dishes, different exotic fishes” in the chorus of the song, the tone of his voice sounds more dismal than celebratory. As Kanye sucks the joy about being famous, his collaborators follow suit: Jay-Z underscores the jealousy he has to face on a regular basis when he raps “I went from the favorite to the most hated/But would you rather be underpaid or overrated?“ Pusha-T has his own frustrations as well, as he quips about how the media thought he’d simply wind up as another African American casualty: “An arrogant drug dealer, the legend I become/CNN said I’d be dead by 21.” Overall, the song teaches a valuable lesson that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, rather, it is a double-edged sword.
A lush, soul-infused melody opens up “Devil In A New Dress,” perhaps the easiest song to like on first listen. Over piano flourishes and a scintillating string section contain some of the funniest tongue-in-cheek lyrics about women Kanye ever managed: “I hit the Jamaican spot, at the bar, take a seat/ I ordered the jerk, she said you are what you eat.” Kanye might be on his quest for love, but he still isn’t able to tolerate gold-digging girls who are only after his cash: “And outta all the colors that are still up the skies/ You got green on your mind, I can see it in your eyes.” The snide statements that Kanye effortlessly shrugs off make this song one of his most entertaining lyrical journeys.
But what elevates “Devil In A New Dress” to classic status is the appearance of Rick Ross. Ross, a rapper who many had written off after 50 Cent had outed him as a former correctional officer, delivers a career-high performance here. He begins growling his verse sounding like he has something to prove, but by the end, Ross’ flow will knock listeners so far out of their socks that they will believe he had transformed into the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight champion of hip-hop. He concludes with a snarling grunt, suggesting that he’s not only devoured his verse, but is actually getting hungrier.
Perhaps the song that best exemplifies the album’s style is “Runaway”, as it finds Kanye reveling in the same flaws that made him a national pariah. “I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most,” he admits, well aware of the havoc of his negativity. Perhaps he likes the idea that everyone should “Have a toast for the douchebags,” but deep down, Kanye realizes the dark side of douchebaggery, as in this song he recollects some of his most humbling failures: “Never was much of a romantic/ I could never take the intimacy/And I know it did damage/Plus the look in your eyes is killing me.” Kanye and his guest Pusha-T deliver their verses over a brooding synthesizer and a simple but stirring piano movement. And then, right as when one expects the song to end, Kanye, backed by a gorgeous string section, delivers a face melting solo using purely auto-tune. He sounds like a robot that has lost his best friend, yet somehow remarkably comes off more human than ever.
“Hell Of A Life,” begins with a fuzzy, grimy bass line that should please rap and metal heads alike. The lyrics are the most decadent on Fantasy, as Kanye describes his obsession with someday marrying an adult film actress. According to Kanye, since you only live once, you might as well indulge in as many sensuous pleasures as you can: “We headin’ to hell for heaven’s sake, Huh/Well I’m a levitate, make the devil wait, yeah.” The click-clock rhythms combined with the wild keyboards in the chorus make the song a hectic, livewire production.
Grammy award-winning singer John Legend guests in “Blame Game,” and delivers a sweet, heartfelt chorus that will stick in your head for days. Kanye’s verse is extraordinarily trippy as his voice is manipulated to sound like it is constantly changing speeds, sounding slow one second and ultra fast the next. The vocal adjustments are certainly attention grabbing, but the real strength lies in the poignancy in some of the lyrics, and among the most notable sentiment is: “Lack of visual empathy equates the meaning of L-O-V-E/ Hatred and attitude tear us entirely.” “Blame Game” samples an evocative clinking piano from Aphex Twin that builds drama and tension.
“Lost In The World” opens rather softly, with a layered, quietly intimate vocal from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. But soon enough, Kanye transforms Bon Iver’s melody into the most boisterous finale Kanye has ever unleashed, an elaborate epic boasting pulse-pounding rhythms, tribal chants, and a fiercely bipolar verse from Kanye: “You’re my devil, you’re my angel/ You’re my heaven, you’re my hell/ You’re my now, you’re my forever/ You’re my freedom, you’re my jail,” he emotes. Furthermore, Kanye has always been able to mix spirituality and sex seamlessly into his lyrics, and his final words on the record reflect his simplest ideals regarding the two: “If we die in each other’s arms, still get laid in the afterlife”. The record concludes with a spoken-word sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1”. “All I want is a good home and a wife and a children, and some food to feed them every night,“ says Scott-Heron. When all is said and done, perhaps that’s all Kanye wants as well.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may very well be the defining moment of hip-hop’s most divisive superstar, but I’d be reluctant to call it merely a hip-hop album. This record pays homage to chamber-pop, soul, R&B, and even hard rock. As a person, Kanye may have to make at least a few tweaks, but there’s something inspiring about a man delivering an album this innovative amid the turmoil he’s faced. Very few records this past year—nay—this past decade, have captured the bravado, vigor, and vulnerability of the human spirit so beautifully.