A work of manic genius, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an inspired synergy of the organic and the synthetic (and recalls in that vein the work of Prince). On “Blame Game”, an eight-minute rumination on a relationship gone wrong, elegiac piano keys (by way of Aphex Twin) and a plaintive John Legend vocal blend with distorted hip-hop beats, synths, strings and samples before winding down and bleeding into a Chris Rock spiel about pussy. It has no right to work as well as it does but the effect is startling.
West has been busy since 2008’s ode to synths and Auto-Tune, 808s & Heartbreak, systematically diminishing the worth of his own public persona; interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the VMA’s; making a tit of himself on the “Today” show; taking to Twitter to propagate the self-subscribed myth that the whole world is out to get him, presumably due to the colour of his skin, 140 characters at a time. One can’t help but suspect this is ultimately West’s way of ensuring his name is still flickering on the tongues of supporter and cynic alike and is, in many respects, analogous to the music itself. Protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, victim, culprit, instigator; West paints himself as all these things throughout the 70 minute running time of the contradictory Twisted Fantasy.
At once dependent on and dismissive of the spotlight and the commentary it shines on his music, on “Gorgeous”, West raps, “They rewrite history, I don’t believe in yesterday/ And what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?” The track makes fine use of a bluesy guitar motif under which West’s word play is given added resonance by brooding strings, a tact used to even greater effect on “So Appalled”. On the latter, which at times plays like a wry joke, stringed arrangements rise and fall as if cherry-picked from an unheard Angelo Badalamenti score while laboured hip-hop beats stutter and start in the wake of serious-as-cancer synths and a procession of hip-hop luminaries (including Jay-Z, the RZA and Swizz Beatz) dispense a “Fuckin’ ridiculous” refrain in an increasingly prolonged and improbable drawl. It’s as self-aware and playful a song as you’re likely to hear this year.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy plays like a wide open document of West’s egotism, a wild flash of pop excess and grandiose ideas that could only be borne of a bottomless self-confidence and an ignorance of personal limitations. In line with its contradictory themes though, the album often feels like an open therapy session, a purging of one man’s many and varied neuroses, perversely designed to play to the masses. We’re all voyeurs in this. And while the exhibitionist in West seemingly wants the whole world looking in, his art remains uncompromised by any aspirations to universal appeal, triumphantly skirting around the periphery of the mainstream paradigm.
No one song better exemplifies the aesthetic of Twisted Fantasy than “Monster”. Jay-Z raps purposefully, “All I see is these fake fucks with no fangs/ Try’na draw blood from my ice-cold veins”. A paucity of authenticity is lamented. Enter West then, in a white hat or on a white horse, come to save America at the last moment, just like in a B-movie (look up the reference if you need to). The track also boasts that verse from Nicki Minaj, a bat-shit crazy, schizoid coming-out party she might never get to leave. On a more superficial, but ultimately telling note, the track acts as a digital pastiche of disparate musical elements, a coming together of worlds. And that’s the album in a nutshell; a synergy of hip-hop and pop conventions, old and new, coloured by samples that traverse the wide spectrum of West’s influences (from Bon Iver and Tony Joe White to Gil Scott-Heron and Smokey Robinson, Rick James and the Mojo Men to King Crimson and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) made palatable by West’s tight production skills and pushed over the top by an audacious congregation of West’s mentors, contemporaries and protégés (including, but not limited to, Jay-Z, the RZA, John Legend, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, Chris Rock, Alicia Keys, La Roux, Elton John, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Raekwon, Rick Ross and Swizz Beatz).
West recently told MTV, “I do have a goal in this lifetime to be the greatest artist of all time, [but] that’s very difficult being that I can’t dance or sing”. While it’s improbable West will ever, or could ever, do enough during his time on this planet to wrestle away the moniker of “greatest artist of all time” from his idol, it’s in pop music’s best interest that Michael Jackson’s influence continues to drive West’s aspirations. An inspired Kanye West is, on the evidence of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a shining light in the murky, shallow (and yes, dark) waters of today’s popular music. To lose that would be a crime.