It’s one thing to not like Kanye West’s music. I’m a reasonable guy, and I don’t expect everyone to like everything. I can even understand if you’re not a fan of hip-hop. Well, I can’t understand it, but I can give you a pass. However, it unnerves the hell out of me when people criticize Kanye’s art based on his public persona-especially when all they know of him is maybe the four or five songs they hear on the radio (or less). When someone spouts off on Kanye’s music without having actually heard one of his albums in it’s entirety, they’re really saying they don’t like his persona. My ears somehow translate that into “boy, stay in your place” (and occasionally, “boy” is replaced by a significantly more racially inflammatory word).
Sure, Kanye is loud, brash, egotistical, opinionated and occasionally rude and out of line-all things that the majority of America has no issue accepting (whether in the recording studio, on the concert stage or in the boardroom) from a white person (or more specifically-a white man). He’s also the most driven, most complicated pop star currently on the radio. He’s a throwback to the days when hip-hop aspired to art as opposed to clothing deals, but he’s also got an eye towards mass appeal. However, he’s obtained mass appeal without ceding an inch of his vision, which is admirable (and especially admirable for a black hip-hop artist) no matter how often he puts his foot in his mouth or how much he annoys me personally. As a black man who spends a lot of time attempting to navigate the waters of corporate America without selling out, I’d have the utmost respect for the man whether I enjoyed his music or not. I certainly see myself in him and there are plenty of times when I wish I had the means to be as unfiltered as he is. The fact that his albums are consistently dope helps quite a bit also.
Kanye dick-riding aside (I’m being semi-sarcastic here), I was afraid for Kanye’s fifth album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. He’s been releasing tracks every week for some time now-some from the album, some not. Most of those tracks fell flat for me upon first listen. They didn’t give me the same thrills that “College Dropout” and “Late Registration”-easily the two best hip-hop albums made so far in the 21st century-gave me. Of course, had I actually stopped and remembered the fact that his albums work more as complete pieces of work than collections of individual tracks, I may not have been so disappointed initially.
As the release date neared, I was even more put off by the glowing reviews the album got. Sure, I guess I qualify as a music critic of sorts, but it’s also not often that I’ll buy an album based on a review written by someone whose musical taste I don’t trust implicitly. How contrary (or at least confusing) is that? So the perfect 10 on Pitchfork (a site that I’ve maybe read 3 or 4 reviews on in my entire life)? The 5-star review on Rolling Stone? Meaningless. Even the exemplary reviews given in XXL Magazine and The Source (which I honestly had no idea was still around) had the opposite effect on me. Kanye had set ridiculously high standards in my book already. The fawning press just gave me more reason to prepare my side-eye.
Well, folks, after a handful of listens, I can tell you this: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is a lot of things. It’s egotistical, it’s messy, it’s sprawling, it’s ostentatious, it’s occasionally clumsy, it’s fairly uncommercial, and if it isn’t the best album I’ve heard so far this year, it’s pretty fucking close.
One thing that gnawed at me when listening to all of Kanye’s “G.O.O.D. Friday” leaks was the feeling that he’d “gone Hollywood”. While many of the themes in the songs that initially made me a fan were “regular guy” themes (or at least themes I could relate to), much of the subject matter in the new songs seemed to be his version of the flossy, braggadocious lyrical content that defines much of the work by my least favorite rappers. However, once you actually think about everything that’s happened to Kanye in the last eight years, you realize that Kanye’s perspective has changed because his LIFE has changed. He’s not a semi-nobody trying to get put on anymore-he’s now viewing the world from his perch as one of the biggest and most influential musicians in the world-and his music, if it’s gonna be a true reflection of his life, absolutely should reflect that.
Facing a backlash after his antics at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, conventional wisdom would expect Kanye to either come back with a palatable set of pop-radio anthems (an album of “Good Life”s wouldn’t be so bad) or go off MJ “HIStory” style. Fortunately for him (and for us), he does neither. “MBDTF” (because that album title is too damn long for me to keep typing) doesn’t have very many pop hooks, and although Kanye references the MTV controversy obliquely (and addresses his beefs with “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park” in MUCH more direct fashion), there’s not the overwhelming sense of whininess that you got from Michael Jackson’s more pitiful offerings. Or maybe it’s just that, despite the bitching from Kanye, he still maintains a sense of humor about himself. More importantly, he maintains a sense of adventure within his work. Listening to this album, you can almost hear him pulling out all the stops to outdo himself and he stops just a fraction of an inch short of not knowing when to say “enough”. Looking at the sheer number of guest performers on the album would suggest that Kanye’s overdoing it just a bit, but whether the collaborator is Rick Ross, Bon Iver, Aphex Twin (via sample) or Fergie-not only does Kanye make it all work (c’mon, the guy made me like a record that contains not one, but two Rick Ross verses), but the surplus of cameos never takes away from the fact that you’re listening to a Kanye record.
I could go on and on about the things that impress me about this album. Whether it’s the fact that it KNOCKS harder than any previous West album (those of you that listen to music on your computer…please pry yourself away and listen to this album on a set of stereo speakers…it’ll sound worlds different), or the fact that there are songs on this album perfect for when I want to get my Brooklyn attitude on (peep ‘Ye’s verse on “Monster” for an example), or the fact that I busted out laughing after hearing at least 5 different lines (I must admit-‘Ye has stepped his rap game up quite a bit), “Fantasy” is one of those albums that I don’t know if I’m a good enough writer to truly express my feelings about it. Lyrically, thematically, musically, sonically-there’s virtually nothing to complain about in any respect.
I’ll sum up by saying this. Many, many assholes have become icons over the years. Shit, it’s practically a prerequisite. Many of the entertainment industry’s greatest artists and icons are people you might not necessarily want to have dinner with. A lot of folks who talk shit about Kanye still think Phil Spector (murderer) is one of the greatest producers of all time or consider Jerry Lee Lewis (pedophile) a rock and roll icon. Even notorious egomaniacs like Bono get passes from some of these folks. If you let the way you feel about Kanye West color your opinion of his art and refuse to give it a fair hearing because of his (relatively harmless) public persona, you’re missing out on a musical winning streak that is possibly only rivaled currently by Radiohead, The Roots and The White Stripes. Believe me when I tell you, it’s your loss.