Kanye West: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
“Can we get much higher?”
That question comes early in Kanye West’s latest album, and though it isn’t actually uttered by the man himself, its placement on the record, and the sheer number of times it’s repeated, gives me the strong impression that it’s very much a question weighing on Yeezy’s own mind. It’s a philosophical question, a sort of reference point for everything that follows, and I also suspect that it’s not really meant to be rhetorical, even if Kanye never actually answers it. And while I’m conjecturing, let me say that I also think it has a couple of different meanings, one of them decidedly more inspirational, one darkly subversive.
To the former, I think it’s a question about how– if, really– we can rise above the confines and limitations of our own present situation; if you’re Kanye West, that means a life of luxurious, soul-crushing excess. Let us pause for a moment here to note the sad irony of West’s situation in 2010– and I say that with tongue firmly in cheek, because really, when you’ve just released what is inarguably one of the best-reviewed albums in hip-hop’s history, how sad can you be? Surely, though, there is an uneasy chuckle to be found in considering that West is in nearly the same place as Taylor Swift is, each of them with new records out and each of them the subject of serious scrutiny as to just how much of their music is autobiographical. Swift’s Speak Now has won raves, somewhat perversely, simply for its level of candor, its Rumors-styled play-by-play on a series of failed relationships. West, meanwhile, finds himself undergoing a baffling form of mass pop psychoanalysis, critics and fans pouring over his songs and wondering What it Means about the life and the interior monologues of the artist himself.
I confess to being interested in that only insofar as West is an innately fascinating guy, a bundle of contradictions that are reflected not only in his outlandish public persona but also in the music itself. To wit, Fantasy is a decadent, far-reaching album that tries to redefine what the scope of a rap album can be; it remains rooted in what is actually a fairly conventional form of sample-based hip-hop and weaves through its dizzying tapestry signifiers from all of Ye’s previous albums, but the final product here is an album of nearly unparalleled ambition. Songs routinely pass the five, six, even nine minute marks, and one critic, Neil McCormick, was moved to dub this the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop. It’s kind of an odd comment to make regarding an album so flamboyant, as Pepper is in many ways a fairly conservative entry in the rock canon, but I take his point: West has created an array of textures and sounds that seems to rewrite all the rules of the game, and it’s to his credit as a crafstman that the album hangs together so well even though it employs hooks from both Bon Iver and Rhianna, verses from Nicki Minaj and Fergie, a piano breakdown from Sir Elton John and a spoken-word segment from Chris Rock.
It’s excessive in other ways, too, the lyrics amounting to a pile-up of profanity and hedonism. But to say that West is going for something akin to shock value would be, I think, a gross mistake. You can tell as much about his vision for this project by what he left off the album than what he put on, and to that end, I’m both slightly saddened but also impressed that West’s free Web single “Christian Dior Flow”– for my money, still one of the best things he’s cut this year– wasn’t included on the album proper, one assumes because it simply didn’t fit with what he was trying to do here. The same could be said of really any of the G.O.O.D. Friday tracks, and in particular of the “POWER” remix; a flashier song than the version included on the album, to be sure, what with its giddy Jay-Z assist and all, but I think the simpler album version speaks more pointedly to the album’s central conceits.
You’ll notice a few other little tweaks to some of the songs we thought we knew– there’s a new verse on “Devil in a New Dress” and what sounds like a slight revision to the “Monster” beat, to say nothing of the three minutes added on to “Runaway”– and they all point to the fact that, for all of its excess, Fantasy is ultimately the result of careful consideration, of a particular vision, a man with Something to Say. In other words, it is not, I don’t believe, a case of West simply letting his subconscious run amok, no mere sonic bloodletting or thinly-veiled autobiography, though I suppose there are elements of that. No, what I think this is, ultimately, is West’s brutal takedown of the American Dream– his Don Draper album, a more over-the-top rejoinder to Elvis Costello’s National Ransom, a piece in which West assumes the very natural role of a man who’s worked hard and seemingly gotten it all and finds that the ensuing cavity in his soul is slowly killing him.
It’s a record borne of a particularly modern malaise, though, to Ye’s credit, it’s a great deal more exciting and visceral than that might sound. I give credit to that resounding opening question. Through all of this, West wants to know: Can we rise above? Can we ever transcend? Can we get much higher?
But I think that lyric is something of a double entendre. The chilling prospect here is that the question of getting “higher” isn’t a metaphoric one at all, but a purely physical one– that is, a deranged assertion from a man who has everything that now he wants some more. Is this, then, the outcry of the soul emerging from hibernation, or is it the dark, twisted call of America’s dream, mutated into a monster? I would suggest that neither interpretation is unfounded, and that perhaps there’s something to each one of them, though I do find it interesting that Ye’s posse-style, battle-rap boasting in “Monster” culminates in an existential meltdown (“I crossed a line/ and I’ll let God decide”). Then again, what does one do with an album that culminates in Gil Scott-Heron‘s equation of true happiness and success with a wife and kids and a home, all coming mere minutes after West declares his intent to finally fill that void in his soul by marrying a porn star?
There’s some complicated stuff going on here, and on that note I might make a closing comment or two about the album’s artful sprawl. Another critic I like, John Mulvey, has suggested that this album might be more fun to write about than to actually listen to, something I understand but don’t entirely agree with. For the most part West keeps things bumpin’– despite its myriad textures, its broad production flourishes and its bloated guest list, it’s hard to hear “All of the Lights” as anything other than a killer, addictive rap single with major pop crossover appeal– but I take Mulvey’s point: The songs I find myself coming back to the most are the ones that are rooted either in a more traditionally-minded take on posse rap (“Monster,” “So Appalled”) or in lean, soulful funk (“Dark Fantasy,” “Gorgeous”). Meanwhile, I think the three minutes of vocoder noodling at the end of “Runaway” are at once honest and rather affecting, though I don’t suppose I’ll sit through the whole thing very often at all. So with all of that said, I’ll end by noting that while I love this album dearly, and think it is not only Kanye’s culmination so far but also a hip-hop classic in the making, my preference, as far as 2010 rap goes, remains for Big Boi and his Sir Luscious Leftfoot, an album that’s equal to this one in its ambition but also more streamlined and effortless in its will to entertain; where West always sounds like he’s trying very hard to make a Masterpiece– and, to his credit, I think he’s very much succeeded– General Patton sounds like he’s mostly just interested in ensuring that the listener has a good time. To that end, Kanye’s album is like an arthouse movie and Big Boi’s is a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, only in this case the latter is every bit as innovative and substantive as the former, which makes it, in my mind, the greater achievement.
I suppose I could also contextualize Kanye’s work by saying that Big Boi rhymes circles around him– but then, Big Boi rhymes circles around basically everyone, and Kanye’s grown immensely as an MC; more to the point, we’re now evaluating Fantasy on the terms of more traditional hip-hop albums, when in fact its achievement is something that puts it in a different class. This is, to some degree, an entirely new breed of rap album, one that uses deep introspection as a vessel for a spiritually-minded sort of politics, art-rock tropes as a re-imagining of what hip-hop can mean and do.