Kanye West: love him or hate him, you have to at least acknowledge that he’s pretty much always trying to do something interesting. He’s consistently defying expectations; sometimes he does this by making genre-bending (or genre-defining) music, but other times he does this by being a self-involved jerk. And both aspects of Kanye West seem to inform his work on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
This album is nothing short of breathtaking. For all of the drama West inevitably creates, it all seems worth it when he takes his music so seriously, when he creates such dramatic musical moments. On this album he’s obviously wrestling with the fact that he values humility and family and simplicity, yet he lives a life of ego and supermodels and excess. And these contradictions in his life become a gold mine for seriously meaningful material.
This inner conflict is deftly presented in an early standout track, “All of the Lights.” It’s an excessive jumble of guest stars, which surprisingly doesn’t detract from the track as much as it sounds like it might (improbably, Elton John and Alicia Keys make appearances). But more substantially, the song itself calls for us to see not just what we want to, but all of the lights: “Cop lights, flash lights, spot lights / Strobe lights, street lights.” In a lyric like this, West seems acutely aware that, as much as we might see him (or a neighbor or any stranger) as just an asshole, or a thug, or a narcissist, the reality is infinitely more complicated. Through the bombast, it’s jarring, and kind of uplifting, to hear such a nuanced message.
In fact later in the album, on “Blame Game,” in a section that sounds like different parts of Kanye West all arguing and overlapping with each other, one of those voices briefly chimes in, “all of the lights,” echoing the earlier track’s lyrics, cadence, and sentiment. It seems like it could either be West excoriating a recent sexual liaison for falling for the excess, or himself for doing the same.
Nuanced messages are surprisingly peppered all over the place on the record. Think of it not as Kanye West, super-famous and super-hyped hip-hop genius, but as Kanye West the conflicted character. In that context, this is just a layered, honest, and really gorgeous study of that character’s weird paranoias and fantasies.
But let’s not oversell the seriousness here: the album is also legitimately fun. Chris Rock makes an actually kind of funny appearance as the man that Yeezy’s girl has moved on to in “The Blame Game” (a segment that is shudderingly reminiscent of the dreaded old-school “hip-hop skit,” something I never learned to appreciate). And as surprising and dramatic as some of these tracks are, they always manage to be really enjoyable to listen to.
West has never sounded better. He’s traded up the spare, electronica-inflected 808s and Heartbreak for sheer hugeness. There’s the stunt casting mentioned above, the big and brassy orchestra arrangements, and then there’s the samples. In is his most ingenious sample yet (even above the Steely Dan or Tears for Fears samples from his last record), West can only be describing himself when he pulls out King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” on “Power.”
(That’s to say nothing of the utterly jaw-dropping Bon Iver sample on the album’s closing track. On Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP, the standout track, “Woods,” sees lead singer Justin Vernon’s vocals run through a vocoder for a really haunting, arresting sound. Kanye West must have seen an auto-tuned kindred spirit in Vernon, because Fantasy’s closer, “Lost in the World,” makes astonishingly effective use of a sample from “Woods.”)
I don’t know if Fantasy is a perfect album (for instance, the album shows signs of dragging just slightly right around the Chris Rock cameo). And I don’t know that “perfect” is even a useful term when talking about art. The only useful thing I can say is that there’s a wealth of sound and thought here. It’s a piece of pop music that does what pop music should, but it’s also an introspective character study and a genuine piece of musical art that merits diving deep. In short, Fantasy seems, to me, to be a limitlessly rewarding pop-culture experience, something that raises the bar for pop music producers to come.