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Kanye West: Livin’ in that 21st century, doin’ somethin’ mean to it. But what exactly?

December 14, 2010

If you’re at all inclined to pay attention to such things, you’ve probably noticed the deluge of critical praise that’s met Kanye West’s new album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy since its late November release. Everywhere you look, it’s getting 5 stars, A grades, and the first perfect 10.0 rating from Pitchfork for a new album in eight years (even the ridiculously beloved Animal Collective’s last album only scored a 9.6!). Unsurprisingly, it’s already popping up at or near the top of several “Best of the Year” lists as well.

Livin' in that 21st century, doin' something' mean to it, do it better than anybody you ever seen do it...

So, in some ways, West’s Fantasy has become something of an “event album,” and the boastful line from the Fantasy track “Power” that I’ve featured in this piece’s title is fitting—Kanye West is owning this moment in the 21st century. Related to that idea, I’ve seen more than one glowing review fix on the idea that Fantasy is the definitive statement from the quintessential pop star of our era. The thinking goes that Fantasy is a messy, abrasive, self-obsessed, wildly ambitious work by an artist who professionally thrives and personally falters because he embodies every one of those qualities. Both the album and its creator are sublime disasters, both perfectly emblematic of this odd, unsettling cultural moment in which we find ourselves. American life in 2010, so we’re told, is all technology-enabled over-sharing and directionless anger, a whole lot of emoting and very little empathizing. Amnesia, anxiety, and anhedonia punctuated by flashes of fleeting, largely ill-gotten euphoria. Abundant pleasures of the flesh and abiding poverty of the spirit. That’s the “American story” these days, so the prevailing wisdom goes, with Kanye West the anti-hero and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the soundtrack.

Ok, sure. I get all that, I really do, and I hear those things in Fantasy to some extent. But frankly, all that business ends up feeling like a woefully empty description, an easy narrative, a regurgitated party line, as I’m repeatedly listening to Fantasy and humming parts of it to myself pretty much all day every day. A few weeks and a couple dozen spins after I got it, I find myself believing fervently in Fantasy’s importance, perhaps not quite in spite of its purported “perfect for our cultural moment” qualities but certainly not exclusively because of them. So if not that, then what exactly?

I’ll use a little gimmick—4 H’s—to sum up a few points that I’ve seen less of in other critiques. I love Fantasy because of the following:

Hooks—As I mentioned above, I simply cannot get prominent snippets of Fantasy out of my head, and the more I listen to it, the more that list of unforgettable hooks grows. Listing the dozens of catchy bits is a pointless use of space, but I must at least point to West’s rare ability to turn a stark negative sentiment into something you can’t help singing over and over again. At any given moment in the last few weeks, “Power” has probably had thousands of people humming, “This would be a beautiful death, jumping out the window, letting everything go,” while “Runaway” has others crooning, “And I always find something wrong, you’ve been putting up with my shit just way too long” and “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a  toast for the assholes.” Importantly, it’s not just the soaring yet downcast pop choruses that suck you in—there are abundant hypnotic beats and sticky rhymes as well.

Humor—Specifically the gallows variety, the self-deprecating variety, and the mirror-held-to-absurdity variety. In fact, so strong is Fantasy’s wry tone, when touching on both extreme defeat and blinding braggadocio, that the album’s few moments of humorlessness really stand out as some of its weakest. Leaping to mind immediately is Jay-Z’s terrible, overwrought, self-martyring verse in the otherwise brilliant “Monster.” You might think that a billionaire mogul who sleeps with Beyonce could summon something other than an insufferable, unjustified sense of victimhood when Yeezy comes calling for a verse, but in Jay-Z’s case on “Monster,” you’d be wrong. Another low, humorless moment is the musical half of “Blame Game,” but Chris Rock’s closing rant as the new boyfriend who benefits from Kanye’s effective, um, “sexual tutelage” of a former lover adds some much-needed levity to an otherwise maudlin, aimless track.

Heartbreak and Humanity—Justifiably so, much has been and will continue to be written about “Runaway” as one of Fantasy’s most laudable achievements. Despite its epic nine-minute length, “Runaway” is a relatively simple, direct song about recognizing one’s lesser qualities and trying to use that self-awareness as a starting point for eventual improvement. Its expression of heartbreak (for the ones who cause pain in interpersonal relationships also feel pain, can they not?) and its underlying warm heartbeat of humanity are further strengthened by that undeniable, empathic chorus and the three-minute Vocoder-based outro filled with variations on the central melody.

But a couple of other Fantasy tracks stand out as well. “All of the Lights” is like “Runaway” in that it combines epic musical elements with narrowly focused, concrete lyrics about daily struggles. This is an effective juxtaposition, especially when you’d reasonably expect that Fantasy’s biggest-sounding track might feature its most bombastic lyrics. The Rihanna chorus, “Turn up the lights in here, baby, extra bright I want y’all to see this,” ends up describing what the track achieves—using the “extra bright” music to shine a light on the story of recognizable human regret that West’s lyrics tell well.     

And then there’s “Lost in the World,” a club-ready dance track that might be my favorite on the album because it most effectively combines all the elements of strength I’ve discussed up to now. Epic musical innovation, irresistible hooks and humor, abundant heartbreak and humanity. The following lines arguably sum up this core artistic and thematic mission better than any other passage:

Lost in this plastic life

Let’s break outta this fake-ass party

Turn this into a classic night

If we die in each other’s arms

Still get laid in the afterlife

I’m lost in the world

I’m down my whole life

I’m new in the city

But I’m down for tonight

“Lost in the World” is what initially sparked the idea with which I’ll conclude. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy capitalizes on the prevailing musical conventions of its time to deliver an arguably unprecedented and unsurpassable artistic statement. In that way, it might be regarded one day as a transcendent musical achievement, not just for Kanye West but for the entire era in which hip hop dominated the general public’s musical consciousness.

[To me, this is a different point than the common music reviewers’ stance I mentioned at the outset, to which I mildly object, primarily because I don’t wish to play amateur sociologist or psychologist when discussing Kanye West’s prowess as a pop composer and performer. In critically assessing West as an artist, I care more about his beats than his tweets.]

Because of the central themes it obsessively explores (regret, heartbreak, and oscillations between arrogance and self-doubt), and because it represents the compositional peak of its genre, I would draw a line that connects Fantasy to some unlikely predecessors. Chief among them, Radiohead’s The Bends, The Cure’s Disintegration, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which could be said to represent, respectively, the crowning moments of 90s alt-rock, 80s post-punk, and classic 60s pop. I don’t think there’s a giant leap from the most devastating lyrical moments on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Thom Yorke’s “Everything is broken,” Robert Smith’s “Let’s move to the beat like we know that it’s over,” and Brian Wilson’s “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” To me, the damaged, vitriolic, sex-obsessed, self-hating, toxic-to-others speaker in Disintegration’s title track (“I never said I would stay to the end, so I leave you with babies, hoping for frequency”) sounds like a close cousin to the self-identified “asshole/scumbag” in Kanye’s “Runaway.” In short, I see plausible connections between what these earlier classics successfully achieved and what West has done on Fantasy. And to his credit, West adds a full, frank exploration of the overactive, dysfunctional male libido, in all its repugnant glory, in ways that make the other guys sound like eunuchs.

To this listener and sort-of reviewer, that’s what Kanye West has done to the 21st century—made what could one day be regarded as the finest album of his time’s dominant musical genre, and added his name to the short list of pop music composers who managed to transcend their temporal and generic constraints to produce art with enduring meaning.

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