Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West

It is a difficult thing, in this day and age, to release an album as an event. It used to be easy, even a bit of a given, as the album was impossible to hear ahead of time, and often the best taste you could get was a single, released a month or two before. In modern times, with albums leaking as a regular course of events, the actual release is typically seldom more than a formality. The artists try to keep their albums a secret, but it doesn't work.

Kanye West has taken a different, very intriguing approach to making My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy an event; instead of hoarding to the best of his abilities, he has released a song every week for the past several months. Not all of them are on this album, but they were all produced in the same session, and a number of them are indeed featured here. The quality of the tracks was such that anticipation ratcheted up with each song, until finally this week the album was released.

The danger West faced in this tactic, of course, was that we would get the album and find that they put all the funny bits in the trailer. It was crucial that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in order for it to truly do well critically (commercially, West is at the peak of his powers, so there was no danger there, unless it was horrible, which, thanks to the inclusion of "Power" and "Monster," it couldn't be), make these songs work well together. I think the most impressive thing about this album is the feeling of an arc. When it finishes, you feel everything come together as a cohesive whole.

West's greatest gifts have always been in producing. His first big success was the track he made for Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," which relied on a sample of "I Want You Back" by The Jackson 5. An obscure sample it wasn't, but his utilization was great. The most interesting part of any West album, 808's & Heartbreak aside, has been the tracks. His skills as an MC have improved, certainly, but there are dozens of better rappers out there. I don't listen to Kanye West for how he rocks the mic. I listen for what's going on behind him. And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy provides some of his best. The sample of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" thrills me every single time I hear it. West leaves the first blast of saxophone after the vocal in, to propel the song into the next verse. It's perfection itself. His programming on the drum machine transforms Bon Iver's "Woods" from an intimate experiment in harmony into a behemoth of a tune, and it sends a chill down my spine every time those drums kick in. "All of the Lights" is the other standout, with a world-straddling horn loop.

As far as the verses go, the best ones are consistently provided by the guests, which brings me back to my belief that West shouldn't be an MC. But here's where the disappointment in this album lies. Previous West albums have had songs about faith, about trying to visit his mom in the hospital, about things that aren't common to rap. They were what made his otherwise-mediocre rapping interesting. Not what he was saying, but why he was saying it. If the sound of this album now soars above those previous releases, and it does, then he's made the words less essential. I've never liked that rap sticks to braggadocio so insistently, and I like it less when it's inserted itself in songs by a man whose statements have never been humble, but whose music has always sought elsewhere for inspiration. It works in one spot, on "Monster," because Nicki Minaj is so off-the-wall bats that she's wildly entertaining. But it wears thin on the rest of the album.

To summarize: The music on this album, straight through, is brilliant. Most of the songs are too long, and by several minutes at that, but the tracks are all fresh, inventive, and harbor great samples. With some aforementioned exceptions aside, the rapping will decide for you if this is a masterpiece, or just another example of why Kanye West should be the biggest producer, and not the biggest artist, in Rap.

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