Liking Kanye has never been easy. President Bush called his Hurricane Katrina benefit concert outburst one of the most disgusting moments of his presidency. In 2006 he burst onto stage during the MTV Europe Music Awards after the video for “Touch the Sky” lost to Justice’s “We Are Your Friends,” claiming that he should have won because his video cost a million dollars and had Pamela Anderson in it. Public Kanye meltdowns have become frequent occurrences and the egotistical public persona of Kanye West has totally eclipsed the Kanye West that brought rap off of the streets with his 2004 debut album The College Dropout.
The flood of media backlash after the now-infamous Taylor Swift “Imma letchu finish” incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards threatened to bury his career, but sometime during the long silence that followed, something unexpected happened: West became self-aware. Unfortunately, instead of working to correct his flaws, he turned his introspection inside-out, creating a year-long epic of television publicity stunts, blog tantrums and Twitter marathons all leading up to the album that will undoubtedly go down as Kanye West’s masterpiece and the one of the first truly great albums of the decade: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Musically, Twisted Fantasy is a majestic return to form after the baffling 808s & Heartbreak collection of auto-tuned crooners. Never has rap production felt so extravagant. The creation of the song “All of the Lights” alone involved 42 producers, musicians and back-up vocalists. The classic soul-sampling that made Kanye famous in the first place appears in full force next to big-beat bangers featuring indie folk artist Bon Iver, prog-rock samples, tribal drums and even a nod to “Iron Man” (that’s Black Sabbath, not Tony Stark). Kanye has always been a perfectionist, but the beats hit hard this time around; when he drops a line in the song “Dark Fantasy” like “How you say broke in Spanish? Me no hablo,” the fact that his Spanish is incorrect comes across as more an affirmation that Kanye West is bigger than Spanish than just another embarrassing Kanye line.
What really sets Twisted Fantasy apart from the rest of the Kanye West catalog are the lyrics. While Kanye’s earlier work can be credited with expanding the palette of things one can talk about in popular songs, here he aims to go deeper, and so we end up with a character study of a disturbed genius. Kanye’s sex, drugs and money lifestyle is on display as usual, but this time it is from the perspective of a man so obsessed with his own opulence that he has completely lost touch with reality. “Reality is catching up with me/Taking my inner child/I’m fighting for its custody,” he laments on “Power.” “All of the Lights” and “Blame Game” examine Kanye’s personal relationships in a starkly unflattering light. The latter song features some of the album’s most arresting moments: “You weren’t perfect but you made life worth it,” he sings, seeming almost warm and sentimental before immediately countering with, “Been a long time since I spoke to you in a bathroom/Gripping you up/F***ing and choking you.” At one point all the instrumentation drops out as Kanye mutters, “Somebody help” – a shocking moment given the hubris that governs most rap. In “Runaway,” Kanye raises a “toast for the scumbags” such as himself, while bidding a lover to leave him for her own sake.
Of course, the album isn’t all inward-looking darkness. “Monster” finds Kanye with Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj asserting their rap-God statuses with enough quotable lines to make you believe them. “Lost in the World” samples Bon Iver’s “Woods,” but totally recasts it with tribal drums, building up to a dramatic finale. All in all, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy gets away with hardly a dull moment; it is by far his most consistent, cohesive and addictive album yet. Following this up is going to be tough, but even if he never does, he will have left with something beautiful.