Kanye West’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

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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.

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5 Comments

  1. avatar

    I think this is a very good review, and I like how you described the music. Like my own review of it I think the nature of the album does lend itself more to musical analysis as opposed to lyrical – it is a hip hop album but I’d say it uses the genre as more of a starting point to do whatever he likes, and a few punchlines aside Kanye’s strength has always been production as opposed to lyrics. I feel some assertions were clearly wrong though.

    “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.”

    How is this the “best rap album since Stankonia”? It’s a brilliant album but the feeling here is that unless it sounds like rock music, rap is stagnating. I’d argue that since Outkast’s release (a decade ago) to assert that the entire genre has not evolved really is unfair and ignorant. The entire Southern hip hop scene has blown up this past decade and the proliferation of sounds and studio techniques used in that particular subset of the genre has had way more influence on mainstream music than anything on Stankonia. By the same token, holding up that album as some kind of high watermark is more or less saying you like the genre only when they throw some guitar solos or “psychedelic” dressing into the mix. To dismiss more traditional albums from the past 10 years – including in the mainstream alone albums by the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye himself, Lil Wayne, and Eminem. It’s your opinion so of course you’re not “wrong” per se but holding up Stankonia and Paul’s Boutique as some kind of ideal for hip hop is at best misguided. It’s like saying Rage Against the Machine is what rock music should aspire to because the vocalist raps.

    • avatar
      Chris Dibsdall on

      I’m in no way saying it hasn’t evolved or that there haven’t been brilliant albums in the interceding decade, some of Kanye’s own work as producer (The Blueprint) and as an artist (The College Drop Out, Late Registration) are prime examples, as are Madvillainy, Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale and (in the last year) Big Boi’s brilliant Sir Lucious Left Foot. There has been evolution, but to my mind it has yet to be bettered this side of Y2K. Just like there has been evolution in rock music since London Calling in 1979, but I don’t think anything since has improved upon it yet.

      As for the artists you listed, let’s be honest here, Jay-Z hasn’t touched anything this good since the Black Album. He’s done good work, to be sure, but nothing on quite this level. Personally, I dislike Lil Wayne immensely, so there’s no real point even going there and the same criticism leveled at Jay-Z can be leveled at Eminem: he hasn’t done anything worth raving about in a very long time. If we’re talking about these guys as leading lights in the genre, then my point has been thoroughly proved; none of them has done anything that i consider to be a “classic” in a good long while and have instead settled into mediocrity and the younger artists coming through seem similarly content to follow suit. Except for Lil Wayne, who tried to experiment but lacked the talent to pull it off, and Kanye who had the talent and succeeded.

      My reason for holding up Stankonia as a high water mark is because in my opinion it is a high water mark, possibly the greatest album of the 21st century. The reasons I held up Paul’s Boutique are fairly similar. I could just as easily held up Ready to Die, The Low End Theory or Illmatic, but I felt, in terms of the production style, Paul’s Boutique was the best comparison to make, as was Stankonia. They aren’t an ideal, they just happen to be the albums which I feel are the most musically similar, even if they are two of my personal favorites.

      And while I am definitely more of a rocker than a rap enthusiast, I am in no way saying that unless it sounds like rock it’s stagnating. What i am saying is that unless it takes risks it’s stagnating, which is something I feel is a problem in modern rap music.

      Also, what is traditional when it comes to rap? To my mind this sort lyrical and musical adventurousness are the tradition, especially when you look at the productions of the old classics of the “golden age”.

      • avatar

        Yeah I guess I was just thrown by “best album since Stankonia” considering Blueprint/Black Album, Marshall Mathers LP and Fishscale (and even Supreme Clientele) were all released at the same time/after. I agree that it’s a good comparison in terms of the musical territory they both covered but I don’t think it’s by any stretch the best album of the past 10 years (not that I know what IS, to be fair). Carter 2 by Wayne is really good btw :p You can pinoint the “lack of risk taking” in modern rap music but that’s a criticism that can be levelled at lieterally any mainstream genre. And even in that narrow field you’re more likely to hear something “different” in popular hip hop than in a lot of other genres but I take your point.

        • avatar
          Chris Dibsdall on

          I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree about Stankonia. I think hip hop has become less adventurous because it sells so well, so they are more likely to stick to what they know sells and they know they can do. Rock/indie etc. are less constrained by concerns about selling well because they’re less popular now saleswise. Admittedly mainstream rock is as lazy as anything (Kings of Leon for example), so you’ve got me there even if my point remains valid insofar as hip hop is concerned.

          I suppose what impressed me so much is that such a massive artist as Kanye West took such a creative risk as he did with this album, and that it payed of so spectacularly.

          • avatar

            Yeah no I agree it’s good when mainstream artists expand creatively. It’s easy to take a “risk” if you’re an udnerground artist preaching to the converted but much more effective and worthwhile when someone with a massive platform does so. Although I’d say 808’s was more left field but there you go.

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