Tuesday, November 23, 2010

my beautiful dark twisted fantasy.

Let's talk for a minute about Kanye West.

He dropped a new disc yesterday, and you might have heard of it. It's kind of been all over the place.

I'm not going to do a track by track like I have sometimes in the past, but I just want to share some general thoughts. I've had the album for at least two weeks, and I've listened to it at least 20 times in those two weeks. I've also taken in a lot of words and opinions on the album, including the (in?)famous swooning Rolling Stone review. Less famously, and less deservedly so, I dug this conversation thread, which I'm kind of thinking that I partially disagree with at the end of the day, and I was delighted to see the Rosenthal brothers get their Kayne-Stan on full-fledged in this Hypemen podcast. These words have influenced me, but I like to think that I have something original to offer.

If you want the TL;DR version, as usual, my go-to hip-hop critic Joey, sums it up best in one tweet. If you want more than that, I'm about to dig in.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

First of all, yes, it's a dumb name. Second of all, no, Good Ass Job is not better in any way, shape or form. Yeah, I've been a fan of the continuity of College Dropout and the themes continued in Late Registration and Graduation but that doesn't mean a silly title isn't a silly title.

Beyond that, the artwork was indulgent. No, it wasn't banned, and yes, the move to call it banned is totally Kanye, but I'm not a Kanye-hater. I love his music and I think I'd like him as a person. So I didn't get too bugged by that.

So past the superficial aspects, let's get to the music!

The Nicki Minaj voice that opens the album is ridiculous. I think anyone who says they love it is full of shit, but I don't think it's a deal breaker, and I don't see why anyone who's followed Nicki's career would be surprised. She's pretty consistently working in three or four different voices, and these are the same critics who love the hell out of her "Monster" verse (and deservedly so).

"Gorgeous" is better than the minimal amount it's getting talked about, and shows how good 808s could have been, if there had been some kind of musical aspirations to it, as opposed to 'Ye just drowning his sorrows in Auto-Tune.

There's no doubt that "Power" is the oddball out here, and that the album probably could have benefited from more along these lines and less of what I'll get into in a moment, but I don't think this is the killer/deal-breaker that some people are presenting it as - which is also kind of strange, as those people are then falling all over themselves to praise the whole album.

Here's where it all goes, for me: "All of the Lights" is probably my favorite track on the album, but for vastly different reasons than my other favorite. I agree with the Noz conversation that "Runaways" is probably the centerpiece of the album, if we amend that statement to include this sonic masterpiece. And there's the thing - if "All of the Lights" and "Runaway" are the centerpieces, they're vastly different than what we've gotten used to from Kanye, and they're not necessarily the Kanye that I fell in love with.

I classified College Dropout as my album of the last decade because I had never heard anything like it. The soul samples, yes, but also a rapper wearing his heart so obviously on his sleeve and loving it, and not giving a fuck if people thought he was gay or dumb for doing so. Kayne West told us how his life was, and, even if it was a bit exaggerated, it was real. It was realer than Jay talking about selling coke, even it was less auto-biographical, if that makes any sense. It was certainly realer to me, and maybe that makes Kanye the rapper for white people to like, but it is what it is. I can relate to hating school and feeling out of place. i can't relate to standing out on the corner for days at a time.

And with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy I feel like the aim of the project has changed a bit. I feel like Kayne has moved on from soul-baring honesty at all costs to arranging music at the highest level amongst his peers. There's no doubt that MBDTF stands out as art, especially compared to other music being produced nowadays, which comes across as cheap and toylike in contrast.

However, it's not the same. The Hypemen talked about how they didn't like the CD and LR skits, but to me, those were part of the point. There was an overall, cohesive message. Here, it feels like there's a message some times (especially with that narration I knocked on and from "Hell of a Game" forward) but the message is so often lost in the music that's being made.

This is not a bad thing, but it's not what I expected, and it's foolish to act as though the music of a producer can surpass some of the greatest lyricism we've ever heard. College Dropout works as an entire concept, with the lyrics and music working together to build a coherent picture. MBDTF seems at odds with itself.

Never is this more clear than the album standouts. Aforementioned "All of the Lights" and "Runaway" are destined to blow up to tremendous heights, if you don't think that "Runaway" already has. (And if you don't think it has, I don't know why you've read this far.) "All of the Lights" is like Kayne hearing Jay's "Empire State of Mind" and Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" and doing that to a bigger and better level with pure music. He decided that he could take the formula of Rihanna (or Alicia Keys) belting out the chorus (or hook, or both) and make it better by focusing more on the music and less on that female voice carrying the whole song. And you know what? He's right. It's an amazing piece of work and it should be huge.

However, it's not the best part of the album. The best part is when 'Ye finally gives us some of that unfiltered truth that we've loved from him so much for so long in "Blame Game" - it's far from the best track on the album, but it's what I've come to expect from him. (Not that artists have to remain static!) It's even got the ridiculous Chris Rock skit at the end! It's the perfect combination of Kanye West: deft lyricism, killer beat, a little indulgence (in Auto-Tune nowadays) and ridiculous over the top jokes.

MBDTF is a master's work, but what Kanye has given up to get to the point of total music mastery is the feeling of a Tribe Called Quest. We used to have this guy called West, but now we've got G.O.O.D. Music, and guest spots by Raekwon, Cyhi da Prince, Kid Cudi, Rick Ross, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj, Swizz Beatz and Bon Iver. There's nothing wrong with putting on for your set, but Kanye's newest CD suffers from too much of everyone else on the lyrics and too little Kanye there. The music benefits, no doubt. This is an album that is sonically stronger than Late Registration and Graduation, which is a mean feat. But the sum total adds up to something a little bit less.

Final Word: Four Stars out of Five.

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