2003 – Kanye West can’t get a record deal. People love his beats but his witty rhymes about everyday life don’t fit in with what’s hot and labels are unconvinced he can make an impact as a solo artist.
2010 – 14 Grammys and many millions of album sales later no one questions his talent.
Despite the accolades and all the critical and commercial success, Kanye West still has to win people over. When two successive Presidents take the time to comment on your actions you’ve reached a level of notoriety few attain. He’s been called everything from arrogant to racist and most of the public can’t stand him. Hounded out of America after Taylorgate, Kanye’s spent the majority of the last two years away from the spotlight. How does he return? By releasing the best album of the year – what else did you expect?
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his most ambitious work yet. Ambition isn’t always fulfilled, people strive for greatness and often fall short. Kanye doesn’t. This is incredible from start to finish. The sonic detour his career took with 808s & Heartbreaks has joined up with the main road, creating arguably his most accomplished effort to date. The sampling that made his name on College Dropout is present, there’s flashes of the orchestral flourishes that illuminated Late Registration, Graduation’s aim for “stadium status” survives and the emotional depth of 808s has stuck around. His career has been building towards this album – this is Kanye West on top form as a rapper, writer and producer.
Kanye dreams big. His Fantasy piles one huge song on top of another. Two of hip hop’s masters give birth to the album opener, “Dark Fantasy”, as the RZA’s trademark sinister sound is partnered with West’s ear for melody and the perfect sample. On “Hell of a Life” he imagines marrying a porn star over a backdrop of driving guitars and the ominous “So Appalled” is an all-star throwback to 90’s east coast rap. “Devil in a New Dress” sees his past and present clash beautifully – he reverts to the soul sampling of College Dropout with an epic guitar breakdown halfway through.
Mr West operates by his own rules. One of the album’s musical highlights is a sombre piano and cello interlude. Isn’t this supposed to be a rap album? The centrepiece of the album, “Runaway“, shouldn’t work at all. It’s a sparse 9 minute song with its extended outro sung completely in muffled auto-tune. It starts with a lone piano key and blossoms into a mesmerising ode to douchebags and assholes everywhere. You may have heard some of these songs before as GOOD Friday releases (Kanye releases a new song for free online every Friday) but arranged in this order each one feels fresh, organically following on from the track before it.
For all the criticism he gets for being a jackass there are few artists as introspective as Kanye. The man made a whole album about dealing with heartbreak and loneliness. It’s almost as if he’s only comfortable talking about his insecurities in his music, normally hiding them beneath boasts of “baby mama jets” and Cartier bracelets. The studio is his sofa and the mic’s his therapist. He’s self-critical and brutally honest – occasionally too honest as George Bush and Taylor Swift have found out.
Kanye opens up about his relationship issues on “Blame Game”, fires shots at the critics on “Power” and coldly addresses his own flaws on “Runaway”. He’s rapping like he has to prove himself all over again. Don’t think this intensity means that his sense of humour’s gone missing, one of the album’s standout lines is “the same people that tried to blackball me forgot about two things – my black balls”.
He also plays the role of master conducter, coaxing the best out of everyone he works with. It’s as if they all realised this was going to be great and they weren’t gonna be the one to let the team down. Raekwon doesn’t waste a syllable on “Gorgeous”, Jay-Z sounds more energised than in years and Nicki Minaj’s schizophrenic flow is the highlight of “Monster“. Kid Cudi, John Legend and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon kill their respective hooks. Even Chris Rock drops by for a hilarious skit at the end of “Blame Game”.
If one song summed up this album it would be “All of the Lights”. Look at the features list – *deep breath* Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Fergie, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Elton John, Charlie Wilson, Kid Cudi, John Legend, Tony Williams and Elly “La Roux” Jackson. It’s indulgent and extravagant – it’s also brilliant. Nothing feels forced or squeezed in. The song just works as a whole. It’s also got one of Ye’s best beats. Triumphant horns blare and then the heaviest drums kick in. The beat is juxtaposed with Kanye’s tale of an abusive husband who can’t see his family anymore – a metaphor for his own career post-Taylor. It’s so good that I enjoyed Fergie’s contribution – unheard of.
Say what you will about Kanye West as a person but music is all the better for his presence (something he knows himself – “my presence is a present, kiss my ass“). In my opinion, no one since Dr. Dre has done more to advance hip hop as an art form. He’s working on a scale no one but himself could possibly have envisioned – with output this accomplished, he’ll get the people back on his side eventually. Chris Rock sums it up best on “Blame Game”: “You know what, I gotta thank Yeezy”.
Buy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on iTunes HERE.
Complex have a great article on the making of the album and Kanye’s creative process as well as interviews with some of the main collaborators. Required reading for any fan. Click HERE to read it.