Dark. Twisted. Fantastic.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
For a man who demands every nanosecond of our collective attention, Kanye West probably had a pretty crummy day last Tuesday.
That's when Apple announced that the Beatles catalogue was finally coming to iTunes, sending musty echoes of Beatlemania rippling across the planet.
West's noisy Twitter feed fell silent. The most anticipated album of his career was due out in seven days, and the only pop deities - dead and/or alive - capable of changing the discussion had changed the discussion.
West's music is strong enough to resuscitate a 40-year-old riddle: Will anyone ever eclipse the Beatles? It's also brave enough to suggest a new one: Why compete with the past when you can own the future?
Fittingly, his new album comes pre-loaded with an answer to both: "I don't believe in yesterday/What's a black Beatle anyway?/A [expletive] roach?/I guess that's why they got me sitting here in [expletive] coach."
And that's just a freckle of the petulant genius that coats every inch of "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," easily the most thrilling album of 2010 and the best of West's career. The weird, wordy title is the only thing about this opus that he'll live to regret - the rest is pure pop bravura, with hip-hop's biggest ego torquing self-obsession into unapologetic new shapes.
West's moment of post-Beatles anxiety comes during "Gorgeous," a song that moans and groans with a dark urgency that permeates this album. From the hyperventilating death rattle of "Monster" to the mutant gospel crescendos of "Dark Fantasy," this is some truly epic stuff.
And with most of these songs stretching out well beyond the five-minute mark, "Fantasy" should speak directly to an affirmation-needy Facebook generation while challenging its shrinking attention span. Crowded with maniac choirs, alien drum machinery and instrumental interludes that toggle between decorative and devastating, the grandeur never feels excessive. It feels necessary.
Of course, West's need to superimpose his brilliance on every passing moment is exactly what got him excommunicated from popland at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. (For anyone who forgot: He interrupted an acceptance speech by Taylor Swift because he thought she didn't deserve to win.) Criticism came swarming from all directions, including the White House, where President Obama off-handedly called him "a jackass."
Before that, West was basking in the afterglow of 2008's brilliant "808s & Heartbreak," an album on which he abandoned rapping for singing in a cold, mechanical R&B style. If "808s" still stands as an imaginative left turn into our technology-addicted future, "Fantasy" is this guy's masterpiece, exceeding the triumphalism of Jay-Z's "The Black Album," matching the curatorial sweep of Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" and approaching the imaginative stratospheres occupied by OutKast's twin treasures "Aquemini" and "Stankonia."
But West isn't trying to redefine hip-hop so much as define our times - a task maybe only he has the ambition (and talent) to attempt.
It wasn't always like that. Over the course of a decade, the 33-year-old has made a steady climb from shadowy producer to rap curiosity to hip-hop superstar to outspoken omnipresence. He wasn't born with Michael Jackson's precocious magic, nor with the Beatles' superhuman gifts. He had to work for success. Hindered by a near-fatal car crash, the sudden death of his mother and countless outbursts, meltdowns and hissyfits of his own volition, his rise has been long, painful and very, very public.