I have been thinking about Kanye West quite a bit lately. Perhaps because of my favorite November game – attempting to predict the Grammy nominations – and now that they have been announced, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has become the most talked about album, not only because of the nominations it has received, but also those it has evaded (namely, Album of the Year).
What do I like about Kanye’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Well, to begin with, it’s a great title. The album not only embodies each descriptor, but holds them in tension with one another. The fantasy often leaves us (and Kanye himself) wondering if he’s bat-poop crazy, yet always in awe of the demented beauty in his stories and sounds. And sights too, if we’ve watched “Runaway”, the accompanying short film that makes use of all but 4 of MBDFT’s songs.
But for now, this is a post about the listening experience, and the album begins with Nicki Minaj quoting(ish) from Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Rhymes”, setting MBDTF up as one of those classic, twisted nursery rhymes that we routinely censor and disney-fy. Not that I think we try to child-proof Kanye, but perhaps it’s on this album where he most deeply attempts to come to terms with the person that he feels he truly is, with the person of his celebrity. “Dark Fantasy” kicks off the album with an almost Moby-esque repeated line over piano chords, long before he funnels to the center of his psyche, peaking at “Monster” and then spirals back along a slightly different path, getting “Lost in the Woods” along the way, and finally wondering who can survive America – perhaps the source of his insanity.
Kanye can’t help but offend most people at some point. He certainly would like to. But I appreciate that the shock is rarely for shock value alone; He actually has some really great motivations. The song that is getting the most Grammy attention, “All of the Lights”, is epically full of everything: guest appearances, horns, catchy hooks, and an anthemic sense of greatness. At face value, the song is about Kanye walking in on his girlfriend cheating with someone else, and him wanting to reveal the truth with the brightest lights possible. It may seem hypocritical if he weren’t starkly honest with his own imperfections on tracks like “Runaway” and “The Blame Game”. The whole album is really a call for turning on the lights – to quit hiding what we’re not proud of.
I am finding it difficult to write about Kanye’s Fantasy in a linear fashion, and I wonder if the songs simply aren’t meant to interact with one another that way. We are meant to think of “All of the Lights” during “Hell of Life”, and we are meant to hear “Gorgeous” echoing in our mind when listening to “The Blame Game”. Kanye has provided transitions with intentionality and artistry that is hard to beat – it seems he is following a true and free flow of his own thoughts. The songs and themes feed into one another. Together the songs work at getting to the bottom of what makes Kanye West tick: they explore a mourning of his two greatest role models (his mother and MJ), his experience of celebrity, and his incredibly dysfunctional relationships with all female creatures; They bring some of the best and most eclectic artists in the business together, from Bon Iver to John Legend, to create something even better than Kanye could do by himself (GASP!?); They creatively combine all the things Kanye has done best on his previous 4 albums: the raw, catchy hooks of College Dropout and Late Registration, the dark and epic sense from Graduation, and the experimentation of 808’s and Heartbreak. And I know I could say that he has done all of these things more successfully together on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Let’s rewind to some of the stand-out moments on the album. Because it was leaked early, many of us heard “Power” before anything else, and while it sounds like a political question, there is something personal about it as well. What is the power we have handed over to Kanye himself, or any one person for that matter, why do we do it, and does anyone deserve it? Meanwhile, KWest is not about to let go of any he finds. Even when he offers a confession of sorts in “Runaway”, we know it is a backhanded apology, as it proves that none of us are actually ready to run away from him. He knows he deserves to be dropped, but lets us know on an addictive beat and catchy hook.
Recently for my birthday I was given Blood Bank, The Bon Iver EP from which “Lost in the World” gets its foundation (the song “Woods”). I keep listening to this song, trying to imagine Kanye hearing it and thinking, “I can make that even better”. In its own right, it is hauntingly beautiful. And although I know several haters (or Indie purists?) who will vehemently disagree with me on this, but there is something that Kanye really does add to this track. He seems to have made it his own, and although very different from Bon Iver stylistically, both artists seem to deeply wrestle with and understand the concept of lost in a deep way. For me, “Lost in the World” holds its own more than any other track on the album, and yet every song is given context within this bizarrely personal and introspective Kanye collection. Whatever you think of this egotistically, self-proclaimed workaholic jerk-off, MBDTF is an honest look at a complicated man that at its best calls us to question our own motives and behaviour, and at its worst sounds good. Sounds like a grammy-contender to me.