Kanye West’s fifth studio album drops today amidst the usual sideshow that accompanies this sort of thing, when West is involved.
West’s ongoing, uphill battle against the forces of media and public perception is a struggle that has almost nothing to do with his actual music but everything to do with him. His actions and how we decide (or are swayed) to take them.
It’s almost unfair. Classic material sits on our collective backburners while we wait to see what he does next. What’s he going to say? What’s he going to wear? Who’s going to be on his arm? Who’s he going to offend? We’ve all been sucked into the Kanye West media machine but are we paying attention to his music?
Artistically, there hasn’t been much to question. Even his potential missteps and brief infatuation with Auto-Tune produced artistically sound material, with depth and layers his peers didn’t seem to care for.
Let’s face it: Kanye West has been one of the most successful and consistent artists of his generation. Coupling a flair for the dramatic and a willingness to push the boundaries of what we know as hip hop with an International, commercial appeal many wouldn’t have expected when he was just the kid who made beats for Jay-Z and was buried on the Roc-A-Fella depth chart.
With that said, being so good and so consistent has it’s drawbacks. The release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, didn’t come with the fanfare one would warrant or expect for one the best artists working. Instead, it was the typical controversy that’s made him a household name to people who couldn’t name two of his songs. We’ve completely taken his music for granted. A given to the more enticing storm that surrounds his every word.
It wasn’t always that way. He’s a far cry from the humble, backpacker we were introduced to on 2004’s The College Dropout and has handled his rise to iconic status about as a gently as a bull an antique shop. But even West’s concerted efforts to move beyond the things he’s been criticized for have gone left and again, his music falls out of the headlines.
There was his recent Today Show interview with Matt Lauer where he tried to delicately address his past transgressions before it too became just another clip for the West villain reel.
While we’ve made the main attraction West, he’s quietly made it his music. He made his already huge star even larger by becoming a social media darling. Venting like a teenager with a LiveJournal at times or laughing alongside us on Twitter. All the while, deflecting the buzz surrounding him into the sideshow to get us to his music.
When people were too busy speculating the cause of his Hawaiian hiatus. His hush-hush split with Amber Rose and proverbial backlash, collaborators were flying out and using the island backdrop to create his most complete body of work to date.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn’t nearly as dark as advertised but its beauty is unquestionable. The accompanying short movie, Runaway, answered many people’s questions leading into the album about it’s direction and the point of his G.O.O.D. Friday campaign on Twitter. Fans will appreciate West not overloading Fantasy with tracks he’d distributed for free, although a few did make the album.
Long-time listeners will find familiar rhymes, oozing the usual wit, chilling calmly next to subtle swipes, honest quips and keen observations of culture, in an unfamiliar but, sonically unique, package. These aren’t just beats. They’re meticulously executed, genre-bending, compositions.
Distorted vocals by West and Raekwon stick out on “Gorgeous” with lyrics about stardom having no sway over racial profiling and this album being more than just road to redemption, pairing well with a hook Kid Cudi made his own. The anthemic, “Power,” flipped King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” into a stand alone moment for hip hop, which had his lyrical honestly and complexity sail under the radar of it’s starkness.
A posse record if there ever was one, “All of the Lights,” was a pop-gasm who’s All-Star roster includes; Elton John, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Rihanna, John Legend, Kid Cudi, Ryan Leslie, Elly Jackson of La Roux, past contributor Tony Williams and an almost out of nowhere, Charlie Wilson. Even the corniest of West’s lyrics here are a testament to things only he could pull off.
The previously released, “Monster” and “So Appalled,” were this album’s street records. Both were left out of the Runaway movie, but both featured a very West twist to it’s, plainly, hip hop lineup.
“Monster” brought together Jay-Z, Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj with folk singer/songwriter, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). Plain Pat’s touch is felt as even the most critical listeners of Nicki Minaj will note the feature as one of the best of her brief career, rapping from multiple voices and points-of-views.
Jay-Z shot at MC Hammer on “So Appalled” inspired a diss record from the 90’s rap star himself and tons of unintentional comedy but also had Clipse’s Pusha T spitting his O.G. crack rap as skillfully as ever. Cyhi Da Prynce cozied up alongside the RZA, Swizz Beatz and the other seasoned vets, holding his own.
The Smokey Robinson sampled, “Devil In A New Dress” has become every rising rapper’s freestyle favorite and is pretty straight forward about it’s intent. Rick Ross stands out on this track that may as well have been a fastball over the heart of the plate for him, totally in his zone.
“Runaway,” also the name of the accompanying, 35-minute music video is a 9-minute odyssey, toasting the douchebags, assholes, scumbags, jerk-offs and warning potential suitors of what might come along with dating him. In the same vein but different spirit, “Hell of a Life” features lyrics that need no decoding with West championing all he needs is “pussy and religion.”
“Blame Game” with John Legend and Khloe Mitchell will illicit flashbacks of “Never Let Me Down” with Jay-Z & J-Ivy on his first album. Mid-track spoken word goes from a dope touch to quickly being overshadowed by Chris Rock in hilariously rare-form.
Auto-Tune peeks it’s head out on “Lost In The World” where Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) flips his own track, “The Woods,” adds touches of Gil Scott-Heron “Comment, No. 1” are creates something totally unique.
The album ends with “Who Will Survive In America” which features huge portions of Scott-Heron’s “Comment, No. 1” being played over the same “Lost In The World” beat. Don’t know if it’s an understated nod to his political statements in the past or a opportunity where someone else said what he’d like to say better than he ever could.
West’s approach on Fantasy is child-like. Devoid of barriers, yearning to impress, teeming with puppy dog eyed guilt. Even the album’s cynicism is blanketed with an honesty and transparency that’s earnest and worthwhile. It’s not like he’s been lying to us in the past, but this time he’s looking us in the eye when he tells us the truth. Cynics’ approval may not come so readily but West can rest assured that he’s laid it all out for them to stew on. Quite beautifully, at that.