Kanye West has gained something of a reputation for being a massive, massive tosser of late and when I say of late, I mean ever since he first became a bloated mega-star five or six years ago. This is a perception, held by most and probably held by you, that will not be destroyed by listening to this album. You will, however, realise one key thing; the man may have been right all along, he might actually be a genius.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been good at listening to lyrics, especially in rap/hip hop/whatever you want to call it, so a lot of Kanye and friend’s confessionals/boasts went right over my head (aside from one about a pornstar and another about choking a girl in a bathroom, they registered) as I became lost in the maze of the music. Even I paid attention to the lyrics for ‘Runaway’. The song begins with a simple, deliberately minimalist piano part, which underpins the whole song, before bursting out with a glorious mixture of drums and strings. It almost sounds like one of Moby’s softer moments, only slightly less beautiful and with more ferocity, or even Massive Attack. In any case, it establishes the song as elegiac and mournful before the first word has even been sung/spoken. Kanye lambasts himself, “I just blame everything on you/At least you’d know that’s what I’m good at.” Its startlingly honest, brutal even, some of his confessions and admissions are genuinely shocking and others are honestly touching. It’s a great song, and it shows that he stands alone as one of the few truly introspective rappers around today and the only one willing to portray his own life as anything other than bitches, money and parties.
Possibly the best song to put forward in defence of the “Kanye West may be a genius” statement is the absolutely fantastic and mesmerising ‘Monster’. This song could easily have been a bloated, lazy cluster-f**k of big name stars (and Bon Iver) but it turns out its title is a scarily accurate description. It’s deep and dark, with pounding, incessant tribal beats a distorted framing chorus from Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), odd, imperceptible noises that form the music, half spoken words, contorted and shaped into otherworldly and creeping whispers. The impression I got was that the music was the monster: Jay-Z can speak of monsters all he likes and Nicki Minaj can call herself whatever she wants, the real monster is the thing lurking below it all, the shifting, pulsing monstrosity of a backing track that underpins best and scariest song on the best album of the decade thus far (all eleven months of it).
A personal favourite on the album, simply because of the brilliance of the sample, is ‘Devil in a New Dress’. And boy, it is an awesome sample. The sample in question is, for those who don’t know, Smokey Robinson’s rendition of “Will you Still Love me Tomorrow?” It flits like a butterfly for most of the duration of the song, gliding on the silken beauty that is Smokey Robinson’s voice, looping and overlapping and interweaving with the rest of the track so much that, despite its obvious presence, you almost wouldn’t realise it was there. Other highlights include ‘All of the Lights’, which is in many ways a standard song of the genre but with a such killer production on the backing track that it elevates above standard fare. Another is ‘Blame Game’, with John Legend, and the first track leaked to the public, ‘Lost in the World’, which contains a brilliant contribution from Bon Iver. Well, that is to say a Bon Iver autotuned into submission, then transplanted with alarming success into a song it has no place being in. It works, for all that is wrong and bastardized about it, it works really, really well.
The album must count among the most bizarre, innovative and adventurous rap albums I’ve ever listened to (including The Beastie Boys’ seminal opus Paul’s Boutique). It shifts tone and style seemingly at a whim, throws in incongruous elements, outlandish and unexpected samples, schizoid buzzes and flickers, moments or stunning honesty and tranquillity, epic, multi-layered, multi-faceted 9 minute mini-masterpieces replete with instrumental sections and, sometimes, stretches of spoken word samples. It represents every facet of the man, every overblown, cocksure dickmove, every insecurity and foible, every neurosis, psychosis and more, it shows that underneath the man, and the image of an uncaring, jaded superstar, lies a full and complex person. It’s an almost overwhelmingly complex and dense experience, measuring up at almost an hour and ten minutes in length, most of it is stunning, it’s never boring or tedious and always inventive. This is Kanye West’s big statement of intent, he’s taken a stagnating genre (who can deny that rap has gotten a bit lazy of late?) in exciting new directions and showing everyone that he’s worth the hype. You’d better believe it, this is the best rap album since Stankonia.