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Yeezy Does It

By John Brodeur

Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Nobody in pop music tries as hard, or tries as hard to let you know he’s trying so hard, as Kanye West. Though his outward persona might have suggested differently (all those outbursts after not being picked at awards shows) he’s a relentlessly self-analytical dude, often turning those public breakdowns inward to produce some fantastically ego-skewering singles (2007’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” for example).

Regardless of who calls him a “jackass,” those unhinged moments are what makes Kanye West relatable as a person—all his battles with the media, against the very star machine to which he’s so publicly aspired, are unique in popular music, and honestly rather refreshing.

He’s not interested in merely playing along; he sees something wrong and he wants to fix it, hence “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” or “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” Both of those statements, remember, were rooted in benevolence—and you can’t deny you agreed with the latter. He believes his truths to be universal, which makes him not all that different from a certain ex-President. See, he’s just like you and me.

By the time West came along with The College Dropout in 2004, he’d already been producing beats for major artists since his early 20s. But his first release as a rapper turned the genre on its head simply by way of being approachable. West was the hip-hop anti-archetype: a smart, middle-class kid from (suburban) Chicago who didn’t hide behind a tough stage name, who didn’t dress in baggy jeans and baseball caps. He came across as someone who had been told by his mother all his life that he could do great things if he was nice to people and tried hard.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of West’s late mother, Donda, on his career thus far. The overachiever in him certainly owes a lot to being raised in a single-parent household; the feeling of inadequacy that sometimes permeates his lines might also come from having to be the man of the house at such a young age. He wants to be the best, for mama. So he internalizes those award-show losses and, like a true artist, funnels that frustration (whatever’s left after he wrecks the hotel room) back into his music.

But in 2010, hip-hop isn’t just about music for West; it’s a life-or-death venture. He wants to be as good as he believes he can be—not just a critical and commercial success, but, to quote the artist, “The best living or dead, hands-down.” And he believes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his one opportunity to prove it. As he sings (via Kid Cudi) on “Gorgeous,” “No more chances/if you blow this, you bogus.”

He doesn’t blow this. Not even close.

Fantasy is a triumphant flag-plant in the lunar surface of hip-hop, an album that will be seen as a pop landmark for years to come. Never has West sounded so confident, nor so conflicted—and, surely, that’s the point. After a period during which he lost his mother and longtime girlfriend and found himself jeered by even the POTUS for his televised tantrums, he spent the majority of 2010 re-establishing his pop dominance through a series of free singles, a dazzling appearance at the same awards show he bum-rushed a year prior, and an artfully saturated 35-minute film that was easily the best thing Hype Williams has ever put his name on. He’s tired of being nice. He’s still striving, but he’s no longer concerned about the cost of his actions. When he calls himself a “motherfucking monster,” it’s not so much a self-criticism as it is his way of saying, “I am what I am, now get out of my way.” (Or, as he says himself, “My presence is a present/kiss my ass.”)

“My childlike creativity, purity and honesty/Is honestly being prodded by these grown thoughts,” he raps on lead single “Power,” against a hook partially sampled from, no shit, King Crimson. He continues: “Reality is catchin’ up with me/Takin’ my inner child, I’m fighting for it, custody/With these responsibilities that they entrusted me/As I look down at my diamond-encrusted piece.” He’s wrestling with the weight of his success versus that of his own mortal soul, and, as the song culminates in a suicide fantasy, he seems to be losing the battle.

A feeling of disconnection runs through the album—from the samples (everything from Gil Scott-Heron to Aphex Twin) to the title, which would be overlong if it weren’t accurate (though it might have been better stated as a list of fantasies, plural), West still sees himself as an outsider. He’s a superhero who “needs his own theme music” on one song; on another he marries and divorces a porn star in one night. West plumbs the depths of his own strange personal life for lyrics that smack of desperation, even at their most boastful. He envisions himself atop the mountain, but with nobody to show.

And so he has all of his friends come by and lend their talents. Indie-folk phenom Bon Iver sings a few hooks; Jay-Z (kind of weak, actually) and Fergie (kind of great, actually!) both lend verses; Alicia Keys and Elton John volley on the outro of “All of the Lights,” a song so bursting with fanfare it threatens to peak the album four songs in. The gang mentality plays into rap-album stereotypes—it’s a celebration of his ego; he wants us to see that he rolls with the biggest and the best—but also a way of saying, “See? I can play nice.” Why else would he let Nicki Minaj take the album’s best verse?

But these voices are also here to represent the battles inside West’s own mind, a theme he also touches on by continually manipulating his own voice. On “Gorgeous” he raps through a lo-fi filter over a practically non-existent backbeat; “Blame Game” finds him affecting not only the tone but the pitch and pan, creating a veritable mental board meeting on the song’s second verse.

And speaking of artful saturation, nearly every track breaks the five-minute mark, yet none of them wear out their welcome. (The three minutes of voice-synth at the end of “Runaway” comes close, but it’s used to play out that disconnected feeling to its maximum.) The 11 proper songs put the running time over an hour, yet it’s an endlessly repeatable hour. Kanye West has tried, and succeeded, at making one of the most thoroughly engrossing statements in not only rap but all of popular music, almost in spite of himself. While his final internal memo is “Run away from the lights,” let’s hope this time he ignores it.

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