Nobody is denying that Kanye West is controversial. The guy steals headlines for doing shit like calling George W. Bush out, claiming he “doesn’t care about black people”. He throws temper tantrums at awards shows when he doesn’t win things he was nominated for, and on occasion when other people don’t win things he felt they should have. It was after that whole Taylor Swift incident and the subsequent backlash that West really began to realize the world doesn’t bend to his every whim and desire. Well, he probably knew that before, but refused to give the thought much creedence. He wrote missives on his website about it, essentially apologizing and confessing that he needs to take a hard look at himself and work on both controlling his anger and thinking before speaking. It was the start of a self-imposed hiatus of sorts, where he disappeared from the media, from having an online presence, from showing up at friends’ shows to make surprise cameos. He went to Hawaii, one of the most beautiful and relaxed places on Earth, and found some mental health. Playing out like your traditional movie plotline, Kanye reached the low point where all hope may have seemed lost. His storied quest to become the greatest artist that ever lived hit its biggest speedbump as suddenly he had turned from hero to villain. Given the outspoken and completely honest manner in which he’s conducted himself since the very beginning of his rise to fame though, West has probably been playing the villain for some people longer than others.
Everyone loves a tale of redemption though, and after a few months of down time and personal reflection, Kanye West began working on a proper follow-up to his last record, 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak”. There were rumblings of a record reportedly titled “Good Ass Job” that was tentatively scheduled for release in mid-2010, but that failed to happen. Instead, West officially re-emerged from exile by showing up at Facebook and Twitter headquarters to do some impromptu a capella performances of some new material. Videos began to pop up online, and that sparked some interest. Soon after began the G.O.O.D. Fridays, in which West would give away free mp3s of new music once a week, thereby earning him loads of good will and renewed respect. It would have been largely for naught had the tracks he was handing out sucked, but as Kanye himself would probably tell you, “sucking” isn’t really in his vocabulary. The big comeback tour also included a stop by the MTV Video Music Awards, where just a year earlier his on-stage interruption was what sparked his fall from grace. Performing new track “Runaway” completely solo, West spouted off lines like “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags/Let’s have a toast for the assholes/Let’s have a toast for the scumbags”. It was pretty self-deprecating with just a hint of remorse for being one of those douchebag asshole scumbag jerkoffs. And so, Kanye West is officially back, the spotlight firmly on him once again with the much-delayed but finally released fifth album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” officially landing last week. It’s almost as if he wanted to make sure it was out just in time for all those year-end “Best of” lists.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Kanye West over his last few years and albums, it’s that he doesn’t do small. Case in point, the music video for his 9-minute opus “Runaway” officially runs 35 minutes and features such spectacles as fireworks and a parade. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” runs in a similar fashion, taking a mere 13 tracks and extending out to a grand 70 minutes. Eight of the songs extend beyond the five minute mark, and a couple of the shorter ones are merely interludes attached to bigger main tracks. Take the track “All the Lights” as one of the sharpest examples of excess, with over 42 people getting credit as having contributed something to the final product. There’s a whole brass section, strings, some woodwinds and about a dozen guest vocalists, most of which are impossible to pick out individually. The track itself is deceptively simple on the surface, but a close and studied listen reveals layers that go far beyond what any reasonable person might expect. So it goes for much of the record, jumping through a multitude of stylistic hoops with a who’s-who of guests that include everyone from Jay-Z to Nicki Minaj to Rick Ross and the WTF-ness of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Thankfully most of the Auto-Tune madness that completely covered “808s and Heartbreak” has vanished, though in its place are plenty of other vocal manipulations. “Gorgeous” has West sounding like he’s gone all flat with his vocals hit with a pretty strong mono filter that makes you wonder what hip hop would have sounded like were there recordings of it in the 50s and 60s. There’s also the robotic vocal breakdown near the end of “Runaway” and just a slice of Auto-Tune on “Lost in the World” thanks more to the sampling of Bon Iver’s “Woods” than anything else. But “Blame Game” features the greatest vocal acrobatics, as West’s voice goes from slow to fast to just plain weird speeds all over an Aphex Twin piano sample. It’s also one of his bleakest tracks to date, taking the album’s title and rendering it completely true from a lyrical perspective.
Kanye West spends much of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” talking about some heavy-handed topics. While getting into superhero lore on “POWER”, West also gets into a commentary about his increased loss of innocence and childlike wonder. There was a certain playfulness that took over on his first couple records, but it’s not like thoroughly depressing (but confrontational and real) topics are new ground for him. Hell, “808s and Heartbreak” was a record born out of a tragic breakup and his mother’s death. It was not a fun experience in the least. The fun on this new record really comes in the form of pure indulgence. Whether that means drinking and partying as much as you want or sleeping with a LOT of women, these are topics motivated purely by the pleasure centers of our brain. They’re also the part of the same section that houses the angry and violent urges as well, which is why on “Blame Game” he tells a girl he misses both fucking her and choking her. One assumes the choking bit is a sexual thing, but he says it with such malicious intent that it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Similarly, “All the Lights” comes across as a celebration of fame but also deals with the perils and pitfalls that go along with it. It’s less “I’m so famous, I’ve had to stop trying to grocery shop” and more “Restraining order/Can’t see my daughter”. This highlights the dichotomy that weighs on this record from start to finish. For every light there is a dark. For every good there is a bad. For every hero there is a villain. For every beautiful fantasy there is a dark and twisted reality. Kanye West is and is about all of these things, and the public perception of him is just as divided. We can see ourselves in it too, which is what makes West such a powerful force in music today. There’s always the intensely relatable moments, like somebody’s reading straight out of our diaries, but thanks to his unfiltered perspective, sometimes West also goes on about the things we WISH we could do or say but wouldn’t dare on account of social convention or what effect it’d have on the way others see us. West gets away with it because he’s one of the few people that simply doesn’t care…or at least not as much as we do.
For inquiring ears that simply have to know, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is a hip hop achievement of the highest order. Hell, it’s a musical achievement of the highest order. Kanye West once again proves he’s one of, if not the best and most talented artists in music today no matter if he’s got love from the general public or not. The whole Taylor Swift thing? You might as well wipe that from your memory because not only are both artists involved sick and tired of talking about it, but they both have extremely well-received new records that deserve your undivided attention. The one thing you can never accuse Kanye West of being is unambitious, and this new album weighs in as a highlight reel of great moments from his past, taking place in the present, with a sharp outlook towards the future. Of course where he’ll go next is anybody’s guess, but at the moment he’s taking a page straight out of his song “Stronger”. With his personal and professional life in complete shambles, West took a step back, assessed the situation, and has risen from the ashes better than ever before. Haters be damned, Kanye West is here to stay. Now if only somebody could get him to shut up about it.
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