I’m not going to say I was on board from Day One. I liked his production work, even though I didn’t know he was responsible. ‘Slow Jamz’ somehow went right past me, even though I heard and smirked at the line about light and dark skinned friends who both looked like Michael Jackson. Even the singles from that first album didn’t really resonate with me. I thought Through the Wire, and All Falls Down and Jesus Walks were okaaaaaay but not super awesome. But then I found a copy of the album around the offices of the college newspaper I was working at and imported it to my work computer.
If you read The Lance between 2004-2006, the News section was laid out to the sounds of The College Dropout by Kanye West. And for the next six years he’s made the exact sort of music I want to hear at the time in my life he’s released it, a tradition he continues with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With this album, he’s re-embraced everything that makes hip-hop what it is while simultaneously moving outside of it. This is the definition of next level shit, he’s gone beyond all of us with this one, and whether you like the album depends on if you can hang. If you can, MBDTF rewards like none of his previous efforts.
As I see it, Kanye’s fully moved into the second phase of his career. After perfecting the formulas of his early production styles on Graduation and veering off into the unfortunate if necessary minimalist synth detour of 808s & Heartbreak*, he’s taken his affinity for those synths and married it to the classic boom-bap sound of hip-hop’s golden age, and covering the whole affair in an armor of strings, rock and roll affectations and choir singing.
The opener, Dark Fantasy, lays the entire game plan out for the listener in a matter of minutes. A spoken word intro by Nicki Minaj (more on her in a bit) sets up the storybook concept before being interrupted by a booming choir heavy on the Imogen Heap-esque vocal effects before fading into a beat so 90s it sounds like an outtake from Illmatic. A single bar mute introduces our host for the proceedings:
I fantasized about this back in Chicago / Mercy, mercy me that Murcialago
And just like that, Mr. West discovers he likes rapping again. Not only that, he’s fucking good at it. I don’t know that Kanye’s ever sounded hungrier as a lyricist than he has in the last year or so. The next dozen tracks find him keeping pace with or besting collaborators as widely regarded as Raekwon, Rick Ross, Pusha T and the God MC himself, his big brother Jay-Z, with one notable exception in the young lady who opens the album.
ASIDE: Look,I’m no fan of the Minaj. I’m an old man, the voices irritate the shit out of me, but I can acknowledge that for some of the young’uns out there her originality is just what they need. But even I, as a non-fan, can deny how on-point, how vicious, how goddamn hungry her flow is on ‘Monster.’ She knows who she’s on the track with, she knows she has to show and prove, and she deads them both. Respect where due. END ASIDE.
Make no mistake, this album is his symphony, a fact never more apparent than on the album’s thematic center, ‘Runaway’. Yeah, you’ve heard the radio edit by now, but there’s no way to fully understand the power of that song until you hear all nine minutes of it, as the drums fall away and the string suite begins and Kanye sings into a thick mess of vocoder. The fact that something as beautiful as that can shift gears into the Black Sabbath chuggery of ‘Hell of a Life’ and not miss a step is further proof how thematically solid the album is (I’m not lying about the Sabbath, what does that chorus melody remind you of).
He’ll continue to frustrate, and piss people off, and make an ass of himself once in awhile, but goddamn, if the music is this good, who cares? What did Ali say about it not being bragging if it can be backed up?
On my ninth listen, I started thinking how similar in attitude Kanye is to someone like Will.i.Am. Both of them are looking to push the boundaries of what defines hip-hop on opposite sides of the art v.commerce coin. Will wants the Black Eyed Peas to be the biggest band in the world, and makes commercially calculated music in that pursuit. Kanye simply wants to be the best and most interesting musician working today, and MBDTF is his doctoral thesis. It can’t be said more plainly: it’s his most challenging album, it’s his best album, and it’s one of the best this year.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy comes out November 22.
*FOOTNOTE! I’ve actually learned to forgive 808’s for the most part, even if it’ll never be my favourite album of his. Paranoid and Street Lights are still good ass songs, though.