New Soundbites: Kanye West – Album of the Week


Planet Earth’s most fascinating popstar returns with something rather special.

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
In a recent interview with a Sunday paper, director Martin Scorsese claimed ‘3D is liberating. Every shot is rethinking cinema.’
These are bold, yet perhaps not wholly surprising words from a visionary that’s always sought to push forward his specialist medium.
And in a post-Avatar world, it’s understandable to hear a man so fascinated with the mechanics of film wishing to explore new ways of boundary-pushing.
Kanye West may yet be considered such a legend to his art as the New York king of celluloid, but his attention to detail and considered production shares everything with Scorsese. He wishes, like all stars of hip hop proclaim yet rarely achieve, to take things to the ‘next level’ – and in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he has done just that.
MBDTF is a beast of a record. From it’s event-style release (the pre-hype made this a genuine happening of Michael Jackson proportions), to the seemingly endless cast list of guest stars to the gargantuan noise in the grooves, MBDTF is a 13-track fire-blowing monster it’s maker was clearly striving for.
Released two weeks ago, with promos for reporters at a minimum, the record received almost unparalled critical acclaim – Metacritic, the internet aggregator site, recorded a score of 92, an almost unheard of benchmark for a new album – a marker usually associated with classic re-releases. And it was predictable that some critics wafted away such praise, citing this as the Be Here Now of the decade.
To say that suggestion is wide of the mark would be a gross understatement. MBDTF may bear all the hallmarks of an overblown affair which has the critics frothing at the mouths – but it’s justifiably so, and where Be Here Now overdosed on excess, West’s fantastical creation is a feast of extraordinary ideas and production precision.
Typified by third single, Monster, the six-minute banger features his long-time collaborator Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon, Nicki Minaj plus three producers as West audaciously proclaims ‘I’m a mutha-fuc*ing monster.. I crossed the line – and I’ll let God decide,‘ all the while the multitude of MCs adopt new constructs and distorted voices; garbled, wild and wrapped in an untamed melody.
Lyrically Kanye’s overtly out to prove a point: he’s a self-obsessed egomaniac, a trainwreck of emotion, out of step with everything yet wanting it all – women (here depicted as porn stars, failed lovers – through his own misgivings – cheats and whores), fame and to be ahead of the game. And while there’s a million reasons for the listener to condemn him you can’t help but root for this open book of human complexity. He’s the Tony Soprano of hip hop.
Check Devil In A New Dress, a track dripping in soul, a dark sensual cousin to Marvin Gaye‘s Inner City Blues, yet here the tragedy isn’t black struggle, it’s personal struggle as West tackles female temptation with an endgame leading to inevitable loss: ‘I hit the Jamaican spot at the bar, take a seat, I ordered you jerk, she said “you are what you eat”. You see I always loved your sense of humour, but tonight you should have seen how quiet the room was.‘ Rick Ross then rears his gravelly tongue to announce ‘he’s making love to the angel of death,’ as a Santana-infused solo swirls overhead.
West brings the rock elsewhere on the King Crimson 21st Century Schizoid Man– sampling Power, a track which melds his own classic Jesus Walks with a thunderous marching beat, African chorus and a characteristic lyrical defiance.
Ironically, for all his proclamations it’s not West’s voice that owns the record, almost every track finds a new star stealing the show – Wu Tang‘s Raekwon‘s swaggering shuffle in Gorgeous‘ coda oozes roguish charm with a crunch like boots through new snow, Minaj on the aforementioned Monster bristles with ire, Gil Scott-Heron‘s Comment No. 1 closes the record with a clap of vocal thunder on Who Will Survive In America and one of the record’s standouts, Blame Game, a near eight minute confessional diatribe set to Aphex Twin‘s Avril 14th‘s exquisite piano motif is ripped to shreds by Chris Rock‘s hilariously filthy finale.
However, this is Kanye’s record, and a Kanye record will always contain grade A pop and MBDTF is chockablock with dance floor fillers. The RZA produced opener Dark Fantasy is a biblical melodrama set to the tune of electro gospel and dink-dink Dre-pianos. The outrageously OTT Runaway casts a David Lynchian nightmare of bleak R&B as Yeezy toasts all those in his corner – ‘the douchebags, the assholes, the scumbags and the jerk-offs‘ before a three minute vocoder drone eclipses all before it swallowing his voice and immersing the track into a vortex of paranoic psychodrama.
But best of all is All Of The Lights. The album’s Empire State of Mind kicks off with an Elton John (who else?) piano interlude before a legion of brass trumpets herald Rhianna‘s triumphant call to ‘Turn up the lights, extra bright – I want you to see everything in here.‘ A rallying call if ever there was for raw brutal honesty.
This honesty is tackled both politically (check Power‘s referencing, ‘Lost in translation with a whole fucking nation, they say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation, well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation,’) and personally (his love cheat, Chloe Mitchell, is sounded out on Blame Game) – and it’s also the reason why MBDTF succeeds on so many levels.
Most notably on closer, Lost In The World. Borrowing Bon Iver‘s The Woods‘ vocoder loop, West lays down a slamdunk beat painting as-clear-as-day picture of trying to escape the trappings of his soulless existence yet knowing that he’s hopelessly lost in the magnetism of superstar superficiality.
For all he wants to escape, he enjoys it far too much. Yet it’s this naked baring of the heart and soul which makes MBDTF such a transportative listen – and why Kanye West is perhaps the most fascinating pop star on the planet right now.