album review: kanye west, my beautiful dark twisted fantasy
I ignored My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for a long time because honestly, I’m pretty sick of Kanye West’s antics. Sure, I enjoy College Dropout and Late Registration every now and again and even saw him perform at my alma mater back in 2008. I used to bump Graduation with the best of them. I always thought his musical or artistic talent lies more in production than in music-making, but whatever, I got down with Kanye like the rest of America.
Then he released 808s and Heartbreaks and I generally speaking, stopped being his fan. I truly dislike auto-tune because I think it’s both lazy and gimmicky. I enjoy it sometimes, like when I’m wasted at the bar or pretending I’m Beyoncé in my room, but I was so glad when Jay-Z finally told the rap community to take it easy on auto-tune.
Enter Kanye’s ridiculous public outbursts, most notably his total p0wn of Taylor Swift’s Best Video Award at 2009’s MTV Music Awards (head to 0:43). Like most people, I decided that Kanye had had his 15 minutes of fame, would never live up to the greats and was heading down an annoying path.
Enter November 22, 2010. Pitchfork gave Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy 10/10. When that news permeated my atmosphere, I had two reactions: 1. Big whoop; 2. Wait: Pitchfork NEVER does that, that type of admiration is usually reserved for indie rock bands if at all, and suddenly Rolling Stone agrees? What is up with that?
Then I heard about Kanye’s impromptu Bowery Ballroom performance just one day after that review went public. I hold the Bowery in a special place in my heart because of the great indie shows I’ve seen there over the past four years – to see Kanye charging upwards of $100 for a 300-person capacity venue was so blatantly capitalistic that I wanted to vomit at him telling the media his album is “art”. And when I saw l the leaked videos that forced Bon Iver to awkwardly stand there and be useful in the song for a terribly, auto-tuned destroyed version of that voice, I decided it was over between me and Kanye. He was hitting a little too close to home with all this shit.
I started listening to MBDTF last week because a friend of mine was defending Nicki Minaj’s cultural relevance by using the song “Monster”. After my mind stopped exploding, I gave the album a few go-throughs on Grooveshark and decided that Pitchfork was onto something. Would I give it a 10? No way in hell, but there are songs worth mentioning because they explore different artistic ground for Kanye, beyond bitches and booze.
On “Runaway”, he acknowledges what an asshole he’s been over the past two years and his various intimacy issues with a beautifully produced song and superstar directed video to match. The full version of “Runaway” is about 35 minutes long, but if you watch this 8 minute extended version and especially focus on the ballet that ends the song, you can see what I’m talking about. I think this important because not only is the thematic content something new, but also he develops the beat of the song with music first, not drum machines or a laptop, and allows us to hear his true singing voice. I think that the only way artists, of all forms and disciplines, only really grow when exploring something new. He’s done that here.
Another song I really like off the album is “Gorgeous”, featuring Kid CuDi and Raekwon. This song hasn’t gotten the critical reception that “Runaway” has, but it perfectly explains why this album is something worth listening to. It will just be easier if I quote his verse
Is hip hop, just a euphemism for a new religion
the soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing
But this is more than just my road to redemption
Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention
As long as I’m in Polo’s smiling they think they got me
but they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me
I thought I chose a field where they couldn’t sack me…
in my explanation of why MBDTF explores new ground. Sorry if this reads like a poetry student’s first-year essay, but in this selection he’s talking about racism, the public’s expectations of him, and his own self-loathing and doubts in his artistic talent. However, he uses thse third and final verse to end the song on a positive note. Musically, the typical hip-hop beat begins the song goes on to include instrumental guitar and piano additions and a backing vocal accompaniment. As a listener, you feel the musical progression match the lyrical; it’s very complete and well produced, in a way that most other rap albums are lucky to touch on.
The last song I’m going to highlight is “Blame Game”. As you know, I love John Legend. While it’s clear to me that his addition to this song gives it a much jazzier vibe, Kanye doesn’t let his message become overpowered by Legend’s smooth voice and piano-driven beat.
This song is uncomfortable in its exploration of the general hate/love of most meaningful relationships and gets right to the heart of Kanye’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy. His most meaningful verse reads as if it were a college kids’ intro to poetry take on being a human after a breakup:
Things used to be, now they not
anything but us is who we are
disguising ourselves as secret lovers
we’ve become public enemies
we walk away like strangers in the street
gone for eternity
we erased one another
so far from where we came
with so much of everything, how do we leave with nothing
lack of visual empathy equates the meaning of L-O-V-E
hatred and attitude tear us entirely
The emotional depth is not something for which West has tried to make himself known throughout his career. However, the song proceeds with a stream-of-consciousness distortion of his own voice that ends up sounding like West talking to himself through some deep emotions.
Most curiously, “Blame Game” ends with a strange cuss-laden dialogue in which Chris Rock is talking to a woman he’s …hanging out with…against the same charming piano beat that has driven the song. I encourage you to listen to that last verse specifically; it is certainly disturbing that he talks at and objectifies the woman in the song the way he does and that minute of misogyny almost singlehandedly ruins all the growth you feel like Kanye has made leading up to this point. The verse’s its presence at the end of a track that is so deeply emotional is perplexing because it seems like Kanye is the past the point of speaking of women that way – he’s not being an asshole just to be an asshole anymore.
So what’s Kanye’s point? Is playing the “tortured artist” West’s newest gimmick? That, my friends, I don’t know. Time will tell. All I can offer is that the paradox of “Blame Game” makes a hell of a good metaphor for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: sinister and deep, exceptionally produced, grotesque and exaggerated, and got me thinking.