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Review: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

December 30, 2010

Buy it and stream clips on Amazon

Summary: Hip-hop’s most successful eccentric since Kool Keith uses every trick in his book to bang out 13 catchy and difficult songs about the continuing journeys of a man made weak and unique by his conflicting desires.

Fun Facts

  • While it was in development, the album’s original title was Good Ass Job. Then the whole hijacking Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech happened (not the first time), there was a public backlash, and Kanye had to go think about how things were going.
  • Kanye released about 25% of this album for free as part of his “G.O.O.D. Fridays” promotion, where he gave away a different new free song, every Friday (though sometimes they wouldn’t really drop until Saturday). “Monster,” “So Appalled,” and “Devil In A New Dress,” (which are all next to each other in the album track listing), were all part of the promotion. If you want to check out the album without dropping $10-13, many of the songs from the promotion should still be up on his website. You can get several cool songs that didn’t make the album (my favorites are “Chain Heavy” and “Christian Dior Denim Flow”) as well get a taste of the overall aesthetic of the album, which these songs share.
  • This occurred to me on a recent trip to the National Gallery of Art in D.C.: One of the recurring images West uses in the album’s artwork, promotional campaign, and related live performances is the ballerina, though upon several listens of the album I did not catch a single mention of ballerinas or dancers. Another artist who used frequently used ballerinas as subjects was the French semi-impressionist painter/sculptor Edgar Degas. Degas and West actually have a few things in common. Both derived their early works from the art of others (Degas drew several hundred copies of Italian Renaissance art; West built his best beats from old soul samples). Both are associated with specific genres and scenes (Degas with impressionism, West with mainstream hip-hop via Jay-Z and Roc-a-fella), but neither produced work that quite fit into those communities and sometimes distanced themselves from those networks. Both expressed anti-social tendencies in interacting with the public and both seemingly encouraged public perceptions of them as misanthropes. Degas died friendless due to his hostile tendencies and anti-Semitism. West has pulled some jerk moves in the 7+ years he has been in the limelight, but nothing so dire or unforgivable. (all Degas info from Wikipedia)
  • Note: I haven’t seen West’s 30+ minute “Runaway” video in its entirety, but one reason for its length is that it contains music from a good chunk of the other songs on the album. As such, I haven’t linked to previews for all of the songs.

Ups

  • On the production side of things, Kanye relies on the moves that helped make him a top producer and fuses them together with just enough variety and novelty to avoid rehashing. He goes back to sampling old R&B records, though there’s far less of his signature chipmunking. Occasionally he reaches for a higher-profile rock sound, like when he samples King Crimson on “Power,” but that’s no “oh snap!” moment like when he rapped over Daft Punk back in 2007. He uses lots of vocal processing, but it isn’t cleaned or robotic. It’s more like when his voice is pitched low and pasted onto itself to create an otherworldly feeling on “Dark Fantasy,” or on “Blame Game” when it’s panned around the stereo mix to sound like voices in his head (seriously, it’s quite the trip for your earbuds), or when he does an Imogen Heap impression at the start of “Lost In The World.” And sometimes, Kanye doesn’t process himself at all. He’s gotten more confident in his singing ability that he can go out on stage and lead a singalong or hold his own with John Legend. Meanwhile on the beat side, West rarely uses the same kind of drum track twice. For example he sticks to the basic drum samples on “Runaway” and “Dark Fantasy,” uses some off kilter rave beats on “All Of The Lights,” puts the lo-fi drum track way back in the mix on “Gorgeous,” and finishes the album off with some reverbed tribal drumming on “Lost In The World.”
  • One of the recurring themes in Kanye West’s work is duality. Lyrically the album continues the familiar West themes of gratification vs. guilt (“So Appalled,” “Gorgeous”) professional braggadocio vs. personal failure (“Runaway,” “Blame Game”), and challenging social conventions vs. buying into them (“Hell Of A Life,” “Dark Fantasy”). Longtime West listeners know he likes to use homonyms in his raps and unpack the multiple meanings of a word (which often results in a simultaneously clever and annoying habit of rhyming words with themselves). Considering that, there’s a reason “Power” and “All Of The Lights” and “Monster” are right next to each other on the album since those three songs each turn on their keywords. “Monster” is one of my favorite songs on the album. On its surface it’s an incredibly catchy dancehall-esque party track with West, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj celebrating their monster talents as MCs and the power they hold as professional entertainers, but as Jay-Z illustrates when he compares himself to a sasquatch, a ghoul and Godzilla, monsters are often feared and hated as a consequence of the powers they hold. The song celebrates that paradoxically ugly beauty.
  • As has been pointed out elsewhere, the only really double-take moment on the album is Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster.” Minaj stands out because as a fairly new talent she comes out hard, seamlessly morphs her voice into her array of characters like she’s Hank Azaria, keeps up her flow, sounds like she’s having a good time, and just plain kicks ass. Otherwise, most of the guests hold their own with few really stinking up the joint.
  • Overall Kanye mixes up his tricks (for both production and choice of guests) enough that nothing feels like a gimmick. On this album, it’s clear that West has an idea of what he wants to say, and he will arrange the elements in such a way that nothing overshadows the meaning of the song. The songs really cohere in a tapestry and aim for a consistent good over a series of moments.

Downs

  • For an album where many of the tracks are over five minutes long, there aren’t too many duds here, though a few songs unnecessarily meander. While some songs are fine in the extended length because there’s enough varied content within (West raps and sings in “Blame Game,” there are maybe five guys sharing time on “So Appalled”), I can’t justify the length of others. The sore thumb is the extended outro of “Runaway.” Though West’s super vocoding is cool the first time around, it almost doubles the length of the song. In a concert setting I understand. The purpose of a musician noodling onstage for 5 minutes is to (1) show off his/her technical prowess and (2) give everyone else in the band time to go get a drink of water backstage. In a studio setting though, this just comes off as pointlessly indulgent.
  • Devil In A New Dress” reminds me of some of the weaker moments in The College Dropout with its lethargic pace, vanilla soul sample, and ridiculous rapping (though it’s worth at least one listen when Rick Ross shows up at the end and does the musical equivalent of scenery chewing).
  • Maybe I’m misinterpreting things, but a recurrence in the lyrics seems to be the porn star/stripper (juxtapose those lyrics with the ballerina pics). When West fixates on sex, he does it in a puerile, visceral, and sometimes creepy way, similar to Goichi Suda’s work on the Killer7 and No More Heroes video games. While West admits this and sometimes criticizes himself for his behavior (mostly on “Runaway”), the subject matter can still be as adolescent as a crunk song (“Hell of a Life”) and as resentful as an emo song (“So Appalled”). Chris Rock’s post-coital outro on “Blame Game” is as ridiculous as Rick Ross’s appearances on the album, but the narrator’s fixation on all the things his woman does in the bedroom makes it seem even crasser (though it makes sense coming from Rock, a comedian who has been incredibly sharp and funny when riffing on race and class issues but has demonstrated a somewhat misogynistic view when making jokes concerning men vs. women and relationship dynamics). I don’t know, maybe the sheer ridiculousness of the way the ribald subject matter is conveyed is meant to show how shallow that kind of fixation is and cast the protagonists in the light of depravity (kind of like the aforementioned video games). Then again, it’s unfair to single out West and co. for acting like teenagers when so many artists in pop culture (music and otherwise) do the same thing. At least West undercuts the objectification celebration in the lyrics with bleak beats to show something is amiss. I guess my point is that I sometimes felt uncomfortable, and maybe that was how I was supposed to feel.

Conclusion: MBDTF is very much a return to form for Kanye West in terms of both lyrical themes and production style. It’s denser and more difficult than his earlier work, though I feel there are fewer actual duds on this album than on his last two. I’ll admit that it’s difficult to root for Kanye or the way he conducts himself in public. I can understand a reluctance to buy the album in that one could make the argument that buying the album is enabling the asshole. However, I feel that here he has made an interesting record chock full of introspection and cultural criticism concealed in a baker’s dozen of club bangers. This is one of my top albums of 2010.

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