My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
(Roc-A-Fella Records, Def Jam)

1/2 (out of five)

Or 9.4 out of 10.0

Kanye West’s fifth album (a copy editor and grammar nerd’s nightmare), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, has the distinction of being the biggest, most hyped release of the Chicago MC’s career since his previous record. Ye’s been pulling out all the stops on this platter though: a dozen or so weeks ago, West started a serial mixtape, releasing a song every Friday through his Twitter feed (which I’ve been covering the hell out of), Yeezy “fabricated” a controversy over the album’s cover, and in a move that few could have anticipated, dude made a 35-minute art-house music video/film about a Phoenix-like character called “Runaway.” In other words, West has made almost every attempt to make sure he’s on the blogs, in the ear buds, and on the tongues of the music listeners nation-wide. If I weren’t so highly suspect of West’s ego, I’d say this was the finest bit of 21st Century marketing on behalf of a single cultural artifact.
But that’s just the problem, it’s been pretty clear for a long time that Yeezy is a borderline sociopath. West has an ego so large it threatens to swallow all of us whole, he certainly gets damn close to engulfing hip-hop with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There will be complaints of a lose or conceptually deprived project, especially following four fairly taut and centered albums, but the size and scope of MBDTF is the concept. Originally West had fairly modest ambitions to recapture and tweak hip-hop’s roots (early collabs with Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and the RZA are further indicative of that direction), but like Tetsuo in the landmark animated opus Akira, simple ambitions for driven individuals often expand quickly. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but this 10-minute sequence, the climax, from the 1988 anime classic is how visualize West’s newest venture.

West has been slowly eroding the boundaries, whether real or arbitrary, not just in hip-hop but in music (dude’s sampled Can, King Crimson, and Aphex Twin) and if Runaway is indicative of future trajectory, he’ll begin blurring lines between media too. There’s an argument for MBDTF incorporating almost all of hip-hop, the album’s a throbbing mass of ever-expanding trunk rattling beats, ring tone keys, backpack verses, and old-school boom-bap. And there are a lot of rap’s more disparate stylistic elements here, the good ones (or the one’s I prefer) and the bad ones.
For every Pusha T verse, you get a Rick Ross verse. For every Bon Iver appearance, you’re saddled with an abysmally weak Jay-Z verse. There’s a lot of tit for tat, teeter-tottering on MBDTF. The sea-saw has it’s most extreme teeters: the trio of G.O.O.D Friday cuts (“Monster,” “So Appalled,” and “Devil in a New Dress”) has some of the albums highest highs and almost all of the albums nadirs. The two MC’s I cited earlier, Jay-Z and Rick Ross, are both in this terrible trio, and Jay-Z is almost embarrassingly awful. Hova’s verses, taken separately, are their own individual trifles, but sequenced one after another, it almost seems like Kanye is trying to disgrace his “big brother.” Jay comes off as a defensive and arrogant child on “Monster,” decrying the quality of miserable MC’s milling around him and trying to soak up his spotlight, and follows that up with complaints about being ignored on “So Appalled,” even though he’s the biggest name in hip-hop today (as has been the case for almost a decade). And of course, is one of two of the finest young rappers of 2010 on each track to not just make up for Jay’s deficit. Nicki Minaj, who just released her middling debut, Pink Friday, makes “Monster” almost worth the inclusion. Minaj is truly a monster, maybe the only MC on the cut with any legitimate claim to that title, with her frenetic, frenzied flow and constantly shifting cadences and characters, it’s a tour de force on a level with Eminem’s emergence on to the national scene. Nicki Minaj left a serious mark, one significant enough to forgive her mediocre debut. CyHi da Prynce has a harder task: not just overcoming a jank-ass verse from the great Jay-Z, but also the abysmal hook and vocal contributions of my nominee for a very late term abortion: Swizz Beatz. CyHi’s flow is how the South sounds: it’s gruff but smooth, deep but light enough that it doesn’t get lost in your sub-woofer.
When things work, it’s so dizzingly, ecstatically successfull you almost forget about how lame Ross or Jay-Z are. West’s take-all-comers approach has largely minimalized the worst efforts of his collaborators here. One only need look at “All of the Lights.” The latest single for West’s new album has more guests on it than many LPs, most are part of a star-studded choir under Yeezy’s direction, only Rihanna and Fergie take significant supporting roles, and only one of ’em makes a negative impact. After attempting to cleanse myself of anti-Black Eyed Peas bias, I’m still left wondering why Fergie’s mediocrity is left to stand but that hasn’t stopped me from repeating the track over and over and even singing/rapping along with the Black Eyed Pea’s verse occasionally.
And that may get at the true brilliance of this record, even though I slap my forehead in wonderment or grimace at questionable decisions, I keep coming back. Maybe the strongest example of this conundrum for me is the album’s closing suite, “Lost in the World.” The achingly beautiful, autotuned croon of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is so disarming after the grandiose gestures of the preceding 10 tracks. And then the explosion of a beat that’s a hybrid of Detroit house and Euro-trash dance with Ye joining Vernon and on this anthemic, almost religious hook that can’t help but get your hands up or at least crack a smile of satisfaction at the master class you just received in sequencing and pop music construction. But the conclusion with the great grandfather of hip-hop, Gil Scott-Heron is an oddity. Over the same wonderful beat, now replete with a beautiful string arrangement, West samples Scott-Heron’s skewering of America in “Comment #1” from Small Talk on 125th and Lenox. MBDTF concludes with Scott-Heron questioning loudly over and over, “Who will survive in America!,” and I can’t help but wonder why Kanye would give the final word to the man who helped birth the genre when he’s spent an hour trying to speak for himself? Is it a daring commentary on how he’s been constantly projected upon or is it a cheap out taking the well-regarded words of a legend to lend his project further gravitas? It’s one of many questions you could potentially spend years musing over.
I don’t know what exactly West had in mind, but his vision was so myopic in some ways (despite the inclusion of so many voices and producers), that no one person, save himself, could even begin to think about derailing the proceedings.