DeRogatis: New Kanye record ‘landmark work of art’ | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Album review: Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

So distracting have been the high-profile antics and public eruptions from superstar producer-turned-rapper Kanye West—bum-rushing Taylor Swift, the endless string of self-obsessed Tweets, providing the low point for W.’s presidency (Worse than 9/11! Two wars! And a ruined economy!)—that accepting that the Chicago native’s fifth studio release is a masterpiece unfortunately requires the disclaimer, “Sure, he’s an a**hole. But….”

This hardly is a new phenomenon in popular music. John Lennon, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Trent Reznor… well, they all could be a**holes, too, but no one could deny the long list of brilliant albums that each has to his credit. We have to separate the art from the artist: Sometimes, despicable human beings make astounding art, and sometimes, the nicest people in the world put out sheer, unadulterated crap. In this golden age of solipsism, it’s harder than ever to discount the personality and merely judge the performance, but the former really is irrelevant… or at least it should be, especially when an album is as breathtakingly creative, ambitious, and successful on every level as “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

After the college trilogy of his first three discs—“The College Dropout” (2004), “Late Registration” (2005), and “Graduation” (2007)—pretty much remade the rules for hip-hop in the new millennium, both in terms of their genre-defying musical backgrounds and West’s rapping, alternately humorous and confessional, about the very real issues in his middle-class upbringing (and gangsta posing be damned), he took a radical left turn with the dark-night-of-the-soul introspection of “808s & Heartbreak” ( 2008), a Spartan classic inspired by the death of his mother and the end of his first true love. It was hard to imagine how he could evolve from there, but his latest splits the difference between the approach of the first three and the surprise of the last, and it betters everything that came before in the process.

If we no longer are surprised by Ye’s musical or lyrical innovations, the stunner here is just how extraordinary this new set of songs is. Musically, they are rich in melody, seductive in rhythm, and omnivorous in the scope of sounds they embrace and seamlessly incorporate—from nicking the hook to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for “Hell of a Life,” to sampling King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” in “Power”; from the lush layers of strings, to the fiery “guitar” solo that serves as the coda to “Runaway” (evocative of Robert Fripp’s stunning work on “Heroes” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” West created it by singing it into a vocoder), and from exquisitely intertwined but never overpowering guest turns ranging from indie-rock heroes Bon Iver to pop princesses Fergie and Alicia Keyes, to a snippet of unsettling Aphex Twin atmospherics. (Aphex Twin! On a hip-hop album!) And just as exciting are the lyrics.

West never has shunned from showing us his vulnerable side or daring to confess that he’s not cool; one thinks of the heartfelt scenes in earlier tracks at the deathbed of his grandmother, or his professions of love for his mom. But here, he’s questioning his very sanity… and not in a joking Cee Lo/“Crazy” way, but more in the manner of that truly frightening Crimson track he bites. “I fantasized about this back in Chicago,” he raps early on, thinking of the young aspirant dreaming of the superstar of the future. But now that he’s made it to the top, it’s driving him nuts, and prompting more than a little a**holish behavior that he is the first to criticize.

West can be funny in doing this, and he can be plaintive, but he’s never emo-whiney; he’s not asking us to forgive him, since he doesn’t really forgive himself. That is not to say he’s completely self-aware; what exactly are we to make of the hardly born-again assertion that there’ll be “No more drugs for me/P---y and religion is all I need”? Nevertheless, he ranks near the top of a short list of innovative and eloquent musicians so bravely willing to probe their own self-loathing and admit their inherent unlikeability. And gee, waddya know? That’s a list that also happens to include those other four a**holes mentioned earlier.

Like Lennon, Reed, Morrison, and Reznor, West is a signature artist for his age. And he has given us another landmark work of art.

Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) [rating:4/4]

Listen to the review on Sound Opinions below



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