Saturday, December 11, 2010

Album Review: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (4.5/5)

Kanye West has proven he has a big ego, but on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he also continues to prove that he's an exceptional musician. This fifth album is his best yet, approaching a broad range of styles, making it big and messy, in contrast to his surprising last album, 808s and Heartbreak, which was confined and sleek. Whereas other pop artists are taking a "throw in everything and the kitchen sink" approach and see what works, West throws in everything and makes it work--all of it. Along the way, he's invited guest turns from enough of today's hottest pop stars to throw a decent-sized party.

A gradually menacing voice over introduces "Dark Fantasy," like it's setting up a twisted fairy tale, before the strings, choir and beats are layered in. It's a great start and typical of the "all or all" production style of many of the album's songs. The lyrics detail his troubled last year and starting fresh. Along the way, he cleverly name-checks or rather name-blends other pop stars ("Sex is on fire; I'm the King of Leona Lewis"). Pop culture references abound of course. In the relatively restrained gangsta-ish track "Gorgeous (feat. Kid Cudi & Raekwon)," for example, he turns a drug bust into a TV reference ("got caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin"; "What's a 'black' Beatle anyway, a f**kin' roach?"). "Power" throttles forth with a forceful production to match its unapologetic lyrics.

The tracks with the most guest stars follow. "All of the Lights" is rousing track with a Rocky-like horns sections, layers of beats and a prominent--albeit not technically featured--vocal from Rihanna. It also features Elton John on piano plus additional vocals by Kid Cudi, Tony Williams, The-Dream, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, La Roux's Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Elton John, Fergie, Ryan Leslie, and Drake (Kanye West is apparently so famous that stars and big as Alicia Keys and Fergie show up as background vocalists throughout the album without actual featured vocalist credit). Boisterous "Monster" features guest raps from Jay-Z, Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj, plus a brief vocal from Bon Iver. Minaj in particular is in fine form, displaying the kind of vocal acrobatics and personality she displayed with such acumen on her album, Pink Friday. Brooding "So Appalled" has Swizz Beatz, Jay-Z, Pusha T, Prince Cy Hi and The RZA as guests. Although generally not a highlight for me, it does have some of my favorite lines on the album: "the day that you play me will be the same day MTV plays videos." Touché! Also good: "I move a bird like I'm in bed with Mother Goose."

"Runaway" was a great single, but on the album, it's transformed into an amazing 9-minute epic of a song. It's about Kanye's failings with women--his tendency to always find fault and end up with women who aren't good for him and that he's not good for. There's no desire to improve though; instead he warns off any potential mates, throws himself in with other similar slops and toasts them all on the song's memorable chorus. The track ends with an extended outro that at first sounds like some distorted synth, but then, as it clears up at the end, turns out to actually be Kanye West's singing, distorted beyond recognition.

The only songs that don't really work for me are "Devil in a New Dress," a lounge-y, laid-back groove with a Smokey Robinson sample, and the pornographic fantasy "Hell of a Time," which is just a bit too dirty. However, I do enjoy Chris Rock's hilarious, potty-mouthed monologue at the end of "Blame Game," which I wouldn't date try to describe in this forum.

The last song on the album is my favorite. "Lost in the World" is built around a prominent sample of folk group Bon Iver's "Woods," a lovely, layered work of digitally distorted vocals, an affect similar to Imogen Heap's haunting "Hide and Seek" (which, just to make this more complicated was prominently sampled on last year's hit song by Jason Derulo, "Whatcha Say"). West adds a driving beat after the opening verse, pushing the quiet folk into dancefloor-appropriate power pop territory. La Roux's Jackson also does background vocal duty here. Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 poem "Comment No. 1" is tacked onto the end as the album's epilogue, "Who Will Survive in America," a provocative tirade against American hypocrisy.

Kanye West has been my favorite hip-hop artist for years now and, despite his personal failings (or perhaps because of them), continues to be an engaging and important presence in popular music. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an odd title for an album, but it fits this work perfectly. I've generally enjoyed each of his successive albums more than the previous one, which is an exciting prospect for what's yet to come.

Best: Lost in the World, Runaway, Power, All of the Lights, Dark Fantasy, Monster, Blame Game

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