By now one thing should be clear: Kanye West is not a perfect man.
Heck, it’s debatable whether he’s even half-decent sometimes. From his notorious post-Hurricane Katrina outburst that “[George W.] Bush doesn’t care about black people” to his interrupting not one, but two awards presentations — first the MTV Europe Music Awards, then the infamous 2009 Video Music Awards incident with Taylor Swift — he has a knack for creating controversy.
Even President Barack Obama chimed in, calling West a “jackass.” Ouch.
With the release of his new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, another thing has become clear: West is a consistently masterful musician, throwing down albums that are not just good but also brutally creative.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is so great not just because of his talent but because of everything that has come before: his earlier albums, particularly the polarizing 808s & Heartbreak, but more importantly his prominent, checkered rise to fame.
What makes Fantasy come alive isn’t just that his flowing lyricism shreds anything in recent memory, or that the instrumentals are intensely emotive, inspired constructions of sound — they are, but that’s not the point.
It’s a special, critical X-factor that can make an album more than just a collection of well-made tunes. It’s what the Dow Chemical Company calls the “human element” — and boy, does Fantasy deliver on it.
How else can you explain West’s vulnerable personality on display here, which runs the gamut of schizophrenic, self-conscious, sneeringly boastful and simultaneously fragile?
It’s the first time he’s been this open, this honest, and it makes every song the better for it. Though other rap artists might show their softer sides, West does it on Fantasy without seeming contradictory.
When Nicki Minaj opens the album by declaring, Twisted fiction / Sick addiction / Gather ‘round children / Zip it, listen, the journey into West’s world begins, not relenting until the final note of “Who Will Survive in America” fades away.
It’s probably an understatement to point out that Fantasy does many, many things well. The first track on the album, “Dark Fantasy,” is a brilliant gateway to the rest of the songs, notable for both grand, subconsciously tragic chorus that asks, Can we get much higher?, to the lush, layered background of choral singing and orchestral strings.
In some ways the song is a very loose summary of the album itself: the theme of flawed power and humanity, the intricate instrumentals intertwined with minimalist, electronic influences, the inventive bridges and breaks that build and shatter tension.
This is not to say, however, that the rest of the album is predictable. Far from it, in fact.
How about the third track, “Power”? The vaguely tribal vocalizations are one thing, but the fuzzily distorted guitar melody? It’s perfect. The fractured, frenetic drum beat hints at the beats found on his previous album. And out of nowhere, a sample from “21st Century Schizoid Man” — a King Crimson song.
Kafka probably couldn’t have dreamed up a song with a more absurd blend of ingredients.
And yet West makes it work. And again following his motif, West first lets loose with a joyous declaration, I’m livin’ in the 21st century / Doin’ something mean to it / Do it better than anybody you seen do it, only to continue by telling the world he’s Trippin’ off the power, then to follow up by contemplating suicide. This would be a beautiful death / I’m jumpin’ out the window / I’m lettin’ everything go.
This isn’t just the egotistical, narcissistic West we’ve seen on TV, making a fool of himself. It’s the egotistical, narcissistic West, but one that’s full of doubt, lonely and defensive and faltering under the weight of his own swagger.
But it’s not just West doing West, either. The album features a plethora of guest appearances, all of them talented musicians contributing some of their best. Even better, the appearances aren’t just there for the sake of a glorified shout-out; instead, they play a significant role in Fantasy’s ultimate purpose.
Kid Cudi jumps in early on “Gorgeous,” playing both the part of Kanye’s inner thoughts as well as his ominous subconscious. “Monster” features an awe-inspiring extended verse by Minaj, who effortlessly spits fire from three or four different personas.
And the devastatingly haunting “Blame Game” highlights John Legend’s silky vocals and finishes with a comedic dialogue by Chris Rock, wholly unfunny not because of its delivery but because of the context the song establishes.
There’s not enough room in this review to compliment all the guests, or the lyrics, or the beats, or West’s execution. It’s perhaps a testament to the album that this is the case. There are maybe a few nits to be picked — “So Appalled” could be tighter, shorter — but it’s a reach.
There’s no filler to be had here, and no song should be treated as such; each piece stands tall on its own.
But the most special part of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is that West, by pointing so vividly to his own misfortunes, lessons, regrets and moments of clarity, asks us to not only see him for what he is — a flawed human being — but to see ourselves as what we are equally flawed human beings.
There’s nothing more soothing than knowing you can share not just success, but failure as well.
I’m so gifted at findin’ what I don’t like the most / So I think it’s time for us to have a toast, West says in “Runaway.”
Here’s to you.