Monday, November 22, 2010
KANYE WEST: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Why do we blog and Tweet and use Facebook? So we can mythologize and idealize ourselves. So we can be obsessed with ourselves in front of everybody. So we can use the vernacular of meme and pop-culture to interpret our feelings. So we can justify our behavior and draw out other people's feelings about us. So we can launch an opinion into the public square and carefully control the extent to which (and the context in which) we take responsibility for it. The only difference between Kanye West and the rest of us is the fact that he has the resources to do this on a gigantic scale in front of not hundreds, but millions of people. He is social-networking writ large. Writ HUGE.
In addition to possessing the resources to do it big, he possesses the imagination to do it compellingly. That he does it it at all makes us hate him, because we see in him an unpleasant portrait of our own insecurities and vanity. That he does it so well makes us love him, because he turns our anxiety into something beautiful.
Just like his previous work, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy displays Kanye's mastery of the pop song. Rock, soul, jazz, and hip-hop all produce art-music and pop songs, and the pop song doesn't vary substantially between genres. The ingredients are easy to spot but difficult to master: a distinct hook that immediately sticks in the listener's mind, a structure and pacing that feel familiar, and an emotional snapshot that is relatable and vivid. If you've never tried, it's easy to believe that writing a durable pop song would be easy, but it requires a skill that few posses. The Gershwins had it. Lennon & McCartney had it. Kanye West has it. And unlike the Beatles (who had to rely on George Martin's expertise) Kanye also excels at the art of the pop record, building on both the innovations of Phil Spector's wall of sound and the careful construction of sample-centric hip-hop. Sampling adapts the appropriation and transmission of the folk tradition to a technology-based and product-centric musical climate, and the up-to-the-minute tabloid specificity employed in Kanye's lyrics connects his music to a certain place, time and culture. His almost-unbearable candor is a populist, if circuitous, examination of a zeitgeist. More than a popsmith, then, Kanye is a folk musician.
I know what you're thinking: "Michael, I'm-a let you finish. Kanye's album is good, but Radiohead made one of the best albums of ALL TIME!" Acknowledged. I'll concede that Radiohead is more consistent and does things Kanye West could never do, but Kanye West also does things Radiohead could never do. Their records are admirably impressionistic, but there is no protagonist. There is only a formless existential crisis moaning through a technocratic nebula.
Meanwhile, Kanye's records give us a champion of sorts, an anti-hero who battles not with political forces or the wiles of nature, but with his own materialism and self-absorption. We have a stake in this battle, because we're fighting it too. We're not afraid of the Karma Police, even if we should be. Instead, we're afraid of the way trivial preoccupations vaporize the potential for meaning in our lives. Kanye West glares so unflinchingly into this vapor one doubts his ability to flinch.
This oblivious/astute gaze is more folly than epiphany, and the albatross of Kanye's public persona tempts us to emphasize the former. That albatross is a part of the show, however. The game he plays with the media (a game equal parts accident and strategy) is referred to numerous times in the lyrics, and Kanye (one of the few rappers to release music under his actual name) is even more self-referential than his peers. He makes it impossible to separate the art from the auteur and easy to confuse the two. (And if we're going to dismiss Kanye on account of his bad behavior, it's time to take another look at Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson and Elvis.) People have strong feelings about this guy, but those feelings, ultimately aren't about him. They're about what he represents. Kanye West is an icon of entitlement, luxury, victimhood, adolescent bitterness, self-importance, guilt and disappointment.
Thankfully, all this entitlement, luxury, victimhood, adolescent bitterness, self-importance, guilt and disappointment is wrapped up in pop music that makes you nod your head and grin.
In the coming weeks, you'll be hearing a lot of opinions about this album, all of them as biased and subjective as mine. If you thought people hated Kanye's concept album about millionaire's guilt, just wait until the backlash brought on by the perfect scores Fantasy has been given by every publication under the sun. That stuff hardly matters, though. You've probably already decided to buy this album or decided to avoid it completely. You might already know about the impressive stable of beatmakers who joined Kanye on the production side, or the roster of guest vocalists. If you don't know, you will.
This is an aggressive, ambitious work and Kanye accomplishes a lot with his collaborators (like getting John Legend to sing the MF-word over your kid sister's favorite Aphex Twin track and allowing Nicki Minaj to absolutely steal the show from Jay-Z and Rick Ross during a posse cut). Hooks abound, and I promise you will be listening to "All of the Lights" very loudly as you drive this winter, wishing it was warm enough to roll down your windows.
There are a few missteps: the poor mastering job, the out-of-place vocal effect that diminishes some of Kanye's best rapping so far ("Gorgeous"), the hopelessly misogynist skit with Chris Rock, a lame Black Sabbath parody ("Hell of a Life"), the awkwardly employed King Crimson sample ("Power") and some less-than proficient singing on Kanye's part ("Runaway"). It's also a bit of a let down to see the extent to which Kanye's charming self-deprecation has been replaced with an overload of vulgar hatred.
Those caveats aside, this is still some of the most emotionally-stirring commercial art I've encountered in a while, a widescreen memoir brimming with rage and desperation, encapsulated at one point by this thesis statement, a heartbreaking admission of Kanye's own contagious hubris: "You've been putting up with my shit for way too long... Baby I've got a plan, run away fast as you can." We can't though, and he knows it.