I’m not exactly sure what initially kicked off my recent hip-hop binge – but Kanye West’s recent 30+ minute music video/art film for “Runaway” definitely had something to do with it. In fact, if you’re one of the few who haven’t actually heard this album yet, can I make a suggestion? Watch that video first. Let this man’s ridiculously ambitious artistic vision wash over you in the most visually/aurally engrossing way – and then tackle this album with that visual association already hard-wired into your brain. You can say what you will about the man, but there’s just no arguing that he’s got a vision. Between the “Runaway” video, his recent performances on SNL (which were pretty fantastic), and his slew of G.O.O.D. Friday tracks, he managed to get me (and just about the whole world) pretty psyched for this ridiculously titled new record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
So does it deliver?
Well, at the time I started writing this post (Monday afternoon) the first clutch of critical reviews had already rolled in, and they’re all somewhere between “love it” and “infatuated with it” – so yeah, it’s a pretty good record. But more than that, it’s a pretty amazing experience in general. Kanye manages on Fantasy to create the kind of musical statement that has so often alluded hip-hop artists – the kind of engrossing experience that The Beatles and Pink Floyd pioneered in rock, and people like Michael Jackson and Prince pushed into pop territory. But Fantasy doesn’t just fit nicely in with those classic records – it’s something else altogether. It’s dark and hedonistic, self-aggrandizing and self-destructive, parts of it revelatory (see “Dark Fantasy” and “Runaway”), others just plain disconcerting (“Monster” or “So Appalled”) – but all of it pretty dang brilliant.
Of course the buzz several months back was over Bon Iver’s involvement with the album – and even now the idea of Justin Vernon being flown out to jam at West’s Hawaiian studio seems pretty surreal. The songs he appears on are arguably some of my favorite moments on the album – from his bookending the schizophrenic “Monster”, to his song “Woods” providing the sonic and emotional backbone to the record’s closer “Lost in the World” – but in the context of the finished product, Vernon is just one of many highlights – not least being the slew of Kanye’s guest stars. He’s got some big names here, but most of them end up being overshadowed by the fresher faces – see Nicki Minaj’s fairly epic verse on “Monster”, or Pusha T’s perfectly nuanced addition to “Runaway”. In many respects, the record plays like a big-name blockbuster film – huge budget, big stars, insane production – the main difference being that Fantasy actually pays off, creating something more akin to a great art film than, say, a Transformers 3.
That being said, I’m not in love with everything on here. After a nearly flawless first half, the second act dips into Kanye’s less flashy breed of brooding, with the only real highlight for me being the exceptional “Runaway”. Songs like “So Appalled” and “Hell of a Life” I don’t find particularly enjoyable in their own right, but instead seem to fill out a necessary part of the album – and as such, I tend to skip them. The same goes for the rather out-of-place Chris Rock skit tagged on the end of “Blame Game”. Still these are small qualms, especially considering how remarkable the bulk of the album is.
We’re not a critical site, and I’m not interested in throwing my hat in the “game-changer” ring – but I will say that on Fantasy Kanye has been able to congeal all of his disparate influences into a single remarkably cohesive whole – a record that has few equals in all of rap, or even pop in general. It’s dense and sonically richer than just about anything out there – and even though the majority of its content is just variations on Kanye’s brooding, the presentation makes it not just listenable, but somehow relatable. Kanye may be a self-proclaimed monster/douchebag/jerk-off/etc., but he’s an honest one, and he knows how to make a pretty dang entertaining confessional.
mp3: Kanye West – Power from the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (buy it here) mp3: Kanye West – Lost In The World (feat. Bon Iver) from the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (buy it here)
Tags: Kanye West