Let me tell you what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella) is not. It is not another pop album from Kanye West, in that it doesn’t cater to generic pop music standards. With that said, pop music at its best has never been generic, but the artist who chooses not to take risks with what they are given, be it a song, the music, or their own talents. Hip-hop and pop music: we like to think that they should never be bed mates, but hip-hop has been one of the more popular forms of mainstream music for decades. That means longer than a few years, shorter than a century. It’s as if there’s still a fear that hip-hop will be bigger than life, when the music itself is meant to make you feel that way, or as if life didn’t matter and all is good and great in the world. A lot of artists who choose to call themselves hip-hop create music with fear, with hesitation, and that’s why there’s that non-existent community of naysayers called haters. Despite everything you know, understand, and/or believe about Kanye West as a persona, it’s not his music. At his best, West is someone who takes risks, is willing to try new or previously-at-rest techniques and present them in a fashion that makes him look and sound bigger than thou, and that’s cool. It benefits him as an artist, producer, and entertainer. Put the jazz hands in your pockets, that’s not what I mean. What exactly is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s his fifth album with a five-word album title. It’s a metaphor for his music, his outlook in his career, the ultimate glory in what any artist wants from his fans. He’s living his fantasy, he’s bathing in the glory, and most of all, we’re all in it for the ride.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an accumulation of everything West has experienced in his life following the release of an album that has fans as it has enemies, 808’s & Heartbreak. It was an album that had him singing and creating pop songs, by someone who really doesn’t have a singing voice. Was he trying to say that hip-hop broke his heart, as so many have tried to do but failed? After the grief he went through following the passing of his mother, and some of the peaks and valleys of his music and life in the media, he shut everyone out and create a unique tale that became his mock fantasy, told in album form. It’s an album made to be listened to as an album, which may seem old and outdated by the general populace, but for West it is always about the show. He is a showman, and without the show, he is nothing. Albums are meant to be experienced as a sonic show, a sound play, something that jazz artists and classical composers understood for years. As music became profitable as popular music, the emphasis was on one song, as it was believed one song could change your life. The album was not a big deal in the pop realm until the late 1960’s, when rock’n’roll would take cues from jazz and classical and explore the idea of making unique worlds in 40 minutes or less. Other genres would follow. Hip-hop has always been about the power of that one banging song, but hip-hop at its best was when hip-hop became a generation’s CNN and “the new rock’n’roll”. As hip-hop became more mainstream and found its audience growing, it lost touch with the idea of long-distance and exploring and chose to have a stay-cation in the clubs. Meanwhile,those who chose to explore found themselves with small packs of associates who were willing to go on the trip.
In the last year, West has talked about this album being a return to a time when hip-hop meant the world to all of us. Some bloggers said it was the return of the boom bap in 2010, the idea that almost every new single, album, and artist coming out was celebrated for good and bad, not for how many jail terms they had or who was the mother of their child. The first cue of what this album could be like was the release of “Power”, a song co-produced with Symbolyc One. S1, as he is known, has a great style of production that dips back to the glory days of sample-based production, and I became a deeper fan when he produced a track for Portland rapper Braille called “It’s Nineteen”. I’ve been a fan of Braille for awhile, and while I am not religious by any means, I always got into the positivity he shared in his music. So here’s a track where he’s talking about understanding the limits of life, but why not go one higher? S1 pulled a much-used beat and placed it in the track, and along with vocalist Ragen Fykes, they both said “in my meditation I saw a manifestation of elevation.” I was sold: Braille’s positive lyrics mixed in with an incredibly funky track from S1, mixed in with beautiful vocal accents from Fykes, and I wanted to hear more. He did other tracks, but then it became known that he was collaborating with Kanye West. WHAT? How did that happen? Then the song leaked, and that King Crimson sample did it for me. As someone who has sampled King Crimson in my own works but failed to be heard, it was great to hear someone pull this off, use a progressive rock classic and make it work within the context of what West was doing, what West has become for some people. Was he describing himself as the schizoid man, or are we as crazy as he wants us to be, and he’s laughing at us? The lyrics have West getting into a very dark place, and then wishes for a beautiful death. Was this him talking about a suicide, or is he thinking in metaphors of pleasure? The term “instant death” is an old school phrase for “orgasm”, something Eddie Harris and Beastie Boys knew all too well when they used it. If it’s meant to say that life could begin and end in an instant like the feeling of orgasm, then West was going to see his death, his career, as something that comes and goes like a shooting star. Was he describing himself as the shooting star, or was he shooting something else across the universe? One version of the song surfaced, and then other versions would have added lines, so it seemed even as fans became aware he was about to release new music, he was changing and evolving his song in real time. Then the title of the album became known, which was also changed slightly in the last minute. The album cover was revealed, said to have been banned but may have been nothing more than attention grabber to get people to talk. I felt the cover may have been one of a number of images meant to represent the music. Very few in hip-hop have ever explored the idea of alternate/multiple covers, the exception being The Roots for their 1999 album Things Fall Apart. It is something that has been done in rock’n’roll by everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Police, and now it seems with a King Crimson sample and Cold Grits break as the key, and an album title as the red carpet, it was now time to walk into the castle and kingdom that is Kanye, Willy Wonka style.
Lyrically, West is at the top of his game, but he has always had the gift of gab with a swagger that he enjoys playing out publicly, but always works best (IMHO) in his music. Despite how bold he gets with completely smart ass lyrics and fearless messages and slogans, there’s a vulnerability that is nice to hear in a genre that often thinks too much about the size of its own dick. “Dark Fantasy” exploits this to its fullest potential, hints of the old and the new West both musically and vocally. In the opening track, he says even when things were down and out for him, he just zoned out to some video games and planned out the next mission:
“me drown sorrows in that Diablo
me found bravery in my bravado
DJ’s need to listen to the models
You ain’t got no fuckin’ Yeezy in your Serato?”
It sounds like he’s building, but simplifies in a way that is so humble, it might be overlooked when he says all he is is “just a Chitown nigga with a nice flow” (not “a Nas flow” as other websites have translated it as.). For a brief moment, he pops his own bubble and plants his feet back to Earth, and that’s when that vulnerability comes in. Critics and fans were too quick to say that his last album was nothing but weak-hearted “emo rap”, as if showing your emotion was a sign of being a fake, fraud, or a weak, not worthy of creating rap music. Yet saying he is nothing more than a man from Chicago who loves to rap, I dare you to find someone with his popularity drop his guard and say “yes, this is me.” Now that you know who he is (a re-affirmation of the popular hip-hop idiom “you know what I’m sayin’?”, he’s hoping you have your seatbelt on, because it’s a ride unlike any other you have experienced in a hip-hop setting.
One can argue that West is at his best when he’s talking about himself., that used to be what shaped a rapper and what made fans honor him with calling him an MC. West has no problem in turning the spotlight and mirror on himself, as if he was Morris Day and Jerome Benton in the same person. Has West always been masturbatory? At times it’s very much like mixophilia, and if West is his own mixologist, then he is the seller and supplier of his own dope. With a song like “Gorgeous”, non-fans will go “oh no, this guy is saying he’s gorgeous now, like a boxer?” and maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. In the song, he says everyone deserves to live well and feel good, but he has seen enough people who have not had that good. Then he busts out a lyrical star and throws it hard with the line “I treat the cash the way government treats AIDS/I won’t be satisfied till all my niggas get it… get it?” Ouch, and yes, it’s meant to hurt. Like an earworm, that one will be hard to remove.
“Power” could be a flashback to what KRS-One said when in “My Philosophy”, he rapped “teachers teach and do the world good/kings just rule and most are never understood”. In this case, who is the king? West played with the guy with the artwork for the single, West’s head separated from his body, sword in his head, left there to bleed. If the sky is said to be the limit, the sky will always be there but “the powers that be” seem to prefer to see a black man with his head off than for him to see his dreams come true, or to even hope for dreams. The KRS-One references continue when, in the 4th line, West says “I guess every superhero need his theme music”. Now he’s the Jack of Spades, not the king, because “no one man should have all that power”, not even West himself, even though he trips off of what people thinks he has. One of the more effective moments in the song is when he says
“I got the power, making life so excited”, and when the words “so excited” is echoed, it sounds like the word “suicide” repeating itself, leading to him saying “Now it’sll be a beautiful death”, complimented with Dwele singing “I’m jumpin’ out the window, I’m letting everything go”. West then says, in closing, “you got the power to let the power go?” Interpret that as you will.
The guests on “Monster” are impressive: Rick Ro$$, Jay-Z, and Bon Iver, and together they help describe a beast that is the unseen force tearing the world apart. The word “monster” is said to be a way to place a name for a beast that is actually man, but it is impossible for we as humans to see someone being so evil. That goes back to West asking about if one man can have so much power, because often times the most powerful people in the world are the ugliest beasts out there. However, it is the verse from Nicki Minaj that steals this song and makes it her own, with different accents and speed manipulations:
“Pull up in a monster automobile gangsta
The entire album is like that, playing with listener emotions and perceptions, going back to a time when fans loved to rewind their tapes because a verse or line was so damn good, you had to go back and do it again. It is as impressive as anything he’s ever done times ten, because while he is very much confident of his success and how he got to this point in his life, he likes to play with the idea of what the public thinks of him. It’s “having your cake and eat it too” set to music, but he also explores himself from an outside perspective, opening the wounds and revealing his flaws. He’s human, and yet if there’s a steady stream of consciousness on the album, it’s exploring the exploitation of superstars and those with power, the evil that heroes do, and why some get praised for all the wrong reasons. Throughout the album you’ll also hear casual references to other musical heroes who are no longer with us, including Marvin Gaye, Rick James (the added sample used in his Saturday Night Live performance of “Runaway” are now in the final album mix), and Michael Jackson (a few that are obvious, one not so much). In some way, West is saying “if no one is going to take the role of today’s musical hero, I’ll be willing to take that role”, which is very hip-hop of him, thank you. He says that on an album that features the man who helped start his career, Jay-Z, and yet even though it’s being said as a means of wordplay, you have to give him credit for being true to himself, more than anything.
What I also found interesting about his album is how he executed his ideas, with songs that go over the four and five minute lengths. If the use of progressive rock and obscure samples is a throw back to people like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Prince Paul, then the expansion of these songs also have to be considered a factor. Prog rock samples are nothing new in hip-hop, go back to 3rd Bass, Gold Money, Organized Konfusion, Powerrule, Mobb Deep… hell, go to “Oochie Wally”. While prog rock samples have always been hot for untapped beats and baselines, only a select few have taken the prog rock aesthetic into their hip-hop. DJ Shadow is an example of someone who has done it very well with his anthemic 4-part track “What Does Your Soul Look Like”, but that was 16 years ago and probably overlooked by those who don’t view Shadow as hip-hop (and if not, study your lessons and come back to me next week). West adds elements to these songs that might feel drawn-out and overdone to some, but the same fans who may feel this are probably the ones who will follow his very move and promotional tactic. West, at least for this album, wants people to hear what can be done if you go beyond hip-hop’s self-made and conservative boundaries and create music that may one day be compared to the works of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis.
That doesn’t mean My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the perfect album, but it comes damn close. There are moments throughout where the expectations are better than the reality, and perhaps should have been edited out of a song or the album would’ve been better without the track. Throughout the year, various mixes and versions of songs have circulated online, a few of which (for me at least) work better than the mixes that are on here. Some songs that aren’t on the album may have worked better in place of a few. Fortunately, if you are a completist, you can hunt down different variations of the album and listen the way you feel fit. Perhaps in a few years (or maybe next May), West may feel a need to release a box set featuring all of the songs recorded for this album, all demos, all multi-tracks, all isolated vocals, everything so that fans can create their own Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (okay, maybe that’s “my” fantasy). For now, West shows that his fantasies aren’t much different from anyone else’s, dark or otherwise (interpret that as you wish). But these are his fantasies, some of which have come true. Sometimes the fantasy is better than the reality, but West doesn’t mind catering to the fetishes he wants to explore in order to find out.
with a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka
Yeah I’m in a Tonka, color of Willy Wonka
You can be the king, but watch the queen conquer
Okay, first things first, I’ll eat your brains
Then I’mma start rockin’ gold teeth and fangs
Cause that’s what a motherfuckin monster do
Hair dressed up from Milan as the monster ‘do
Monster Guiseppe heel as the monster shoe
Young Money is the roster and the monster crew
And I’m all up in the bank with a funny face
And if I am fake, I ain’t notice ’cause my money ain’t”
Then she validates the kill she just committed by placing the lyrical knife deeper into the body. If you have yet to become a believer of the words and wisdom of Nicki Minaj, her verse here will change your mind.