Say what you will about Kanye West. He’s egotistical, maniacal and arrogant. He’s someone who constantly manipulates the media with outlandish statements to consistently keep himself the topic of conversation. But like him or not, his music, where it really counts, consistently stays ahead of the curve and changes the game with each release. His vision and raw talent is undeniable.
After an unexpected auto-tune filled album and the death of his mother, he took a short break from the music world and came back reinvigorated with a slew of G.O.O.D. Friday releases culminating in this outstanding album that will hold your full attention from the opening spoken word intro on Dark Fantasy to the closing words from Gil Scott-Heron on Who Will Survive in America.
Most of these songs have already been released via these G.O.O.D. Friday releases but it would benefit you (if you haven’t already) to not play these songs to the ground before you hear the finished product as you’d be constantly comparing the unfinished versions to the final versions and nitpicking where it’s not necessary. In addition, these songs have much more impact when heard in proper sequence.
While most definitely a hip hop album, the way his epic songs are structured are so non-traditional that the rules of format and structure are thrown out the window. He frequently includes bridges and pre-choruses, extended musical breaks during the middle of songs and many false endings, all of which leaves the listener with so many unexpected twists that even the longer songs don’t outstay their welcome.
And there are a lot of long songs on here. This album is the hip hop equivalent to arena-rock, with ten of the thirteen tracks going past or hovering around the five minute mark (one track is almost eight minutes while another is nine minutes long). These long, cinematic, grandiose songs and added instrumentation essentially gives us the first Kanye album that captures the essence of his elaborate stage shows.
For the first time, Kanye enlists other producers to help craft the sounds of his album such as RZA, Bink! and No ID. However, Kanye adds his flair and co-produces the songs to give them an undeniably Kanye feel, despite being primarily produced by others.
While some aficionados may be turned off by the fact he handed off some of the production burden, I personally think it gives him a fresh soundscape. Even with his past records, I think Kanye works best when there are other creative and talented minds for him to work with.
None of this is more apparent than on All Of The Lights. This is an epic anthem filled with triumphant horns and features vocals from a number of high profile artists who mostly stay in the background (Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Drake, Kid Cudi, John Legend and The Dream just to name a few). In addition to them are a surprising Elton John piano solo and a rap verse from Fergie, who sounds out of place and almost ruins the song for me. Thankfully her verse is only a few bars long.
Sitting right in the middle of the album are two huge posse cuts, which are actually two of the most traditional hip hop songs on the album in terms of structure and sound. The first is Monster featuring Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross and Bon Iver. The simple beat allows the stars of the song: ‘Ye, Jay and Nicki to flex their lyrical muscles with typical braggadocio. It’s clear here how much of a difference mic presence can have on the listener. While I feel that Kanye had the best written verse and the smoothest delivery of the three, Nicki unquestionably steals the show and commands your attention with her crazy vocal inflections.
The second posse cut is by far my least favorite song on the album, though still not a bad song overall, which is a testament to how strong this album is. So Appalled features Jay-Z, Pusha T, CyHi Da Prynce and two totally unnecessary appearances from Swizz Beatz and RZA, who each take a turn with the repetitive and corny chorus. Even though I’m a huge fan of RZA and the Wu, his voice is not great and Swizz is just annoying so to bring them onto a song to only do the chorus just doesn’t make sense to me.
The second half of the album is just as good as the first, if not even better. Following So Appalled are two standout tracks. First is Devil In A New Dress. Bink! absolutely kills this soulful mid-tempo beat, layering Smokey Robinson vocal samples on top of each other, giving the music a psychedelic, dream-like quality.
This ends rather abruptly and almost sounds like they decided to suddenly cut the tape at the end (ala The Beatles’ I Want You [She's So Heavy]). While jarring at first, it segues nicely into the lonely piano notes that open the album’s centerpiece, Runaway.
On this, Kanye croons for us to “have a toast for the douchebags” and “a toast for the assholes”, in which he is referring to his own actions in the past few years. This is followed by a memorable verse from Pusha T (of The Clipse). We all thought he was an odd addition to the lineup when ‘Ye announced signing him to his G.O.O.D. music label but we all now see the beautiful result of it in his two features on the album and his appearances on the G.O.O.D Friday tracks. While obviously talented, it’s an understatement to say how refreshing it is to hear Pusha T stray from the typical coke raps that are expected of him when he is rhyming as part of The Clipse. But I digress.
Then just when you think the song is about to end at an already lengthy six minutes, Kanye brings the strings back and hits us with a three minute vocoder solo. It’s weird and unconventional but that’s the beauty of the album as it’s filled with unexpected surprises that, for the most part, work out really well.
While never considered a lyrical wizard, I think ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is one of his strongest efforts lyrically. Previously, I threw Kanye in the growing pile of great producers who had mediocre mic skills with a few notable exceptions but this is the first Kanye album where I felt the outstanding production didn’t overshadow his sometimes glaring deficiencies as a rapper. Take for example an excerpt from his excellent verses on Gorgeous:
“Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion?/ The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missin’?/ But this is more than just my road to redemption/ Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention/ As long as I’m in Polos smilin’, they think they got me/ But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me“
It’s introspective, witty, honest and even strokes his trademark ego as he refers to himself as “Malcolm West”. These themes are scattered throughout the album showing that the cold and calculating media master really is human and in a way, these types of verses reveal his insecurity and vulnerability.
While I definitely feel this is his most complete and cohesive album to date, I do have some issues with it, albeit minor in the grand scheme of things. Most notable is that on an album filled with features and guests, most are pretty good but a few are completely unnecessary and out of place.
As previously mentioned, Fergie’s rap verse on All Of The Lights almost ruins the song and we could have done without Swizz Beatz and RZA’s vocal features to recite the repetitive chorus on So Appalled.
Raekwon and Rick Ross’s verses at the end of Gorgeous and Devil In A New Dress, respectively, feel tacked on. While not bad by any means (I actually think their verses are quite good), they veer away from Kanye’s initial verses topically.
Lastly would be the skit at the end of Blame Game, which oddly features Chris Rock. It’s so hilariously bizarre that I didn’t mind it at first but quickly grew tired of it as it seems out of place at the end of such a depressing song.
Nonetheless, Kanye continues to do the impossible by successfully catering to just about every type of listener and straddles all audience lines. It’s sonically not too heavy and has enough incredibly infectious choruses to hook the pop and casual hip hop crowd. It’s musically diverse and varies enough throughout the songs that even musical snobs and people who dislike hip hop can’t hate on this album. And it’s lyrically dense enough that even the most stringent hip hop purists will be rewarded after multiple listens.
While it’s still too early to tell if it’ll last the test of time, I believe this is Kanye’s magnum opus. It’s a culmination of his previous work and by far his most cohesive, consistently enjoyable and visceral album to date, which holds the spot as the only Kanye album I can listen to from front to back without touching the skip button even once.
I thought to myself last month after hearing Kno’s ‘Death is Silent‘ that I don’t think I’ll hear a better hip hop album this year but Kanye proved me wrong. ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is an epic masterpiece from front to back and shouldn’t be missed by anyone.
Be sure to check out our other review on the album, done by Matt.
‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ hits store shelves on November 22nd, 2010