In what has been a canon of bloated, overproduced, pretension – Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy achieves a kind of summer blockbuster sort of perfection. West plunders the depths of tricks rappers have been using for years. You want guest stars? Oh, I’ve got guest stars – I might even guess that West raps at best 50% of the lyrics on this record. To list the collaborators – Jay-Z, Rick Ross, John Legend, Rihanna, Beyonce to begin the census – would be an invitation to turn this into a 2000 word post. You want autotune – we know from his last album (the not-for-everybody 808 and Heartbreak) – he cheerfully plays around with it. The album is chock full of overlong, arena-rock scale tomes … and it is probably the best hip-hop album (and possibly a few other genres) I have heard in a long time, a long time that includes Kanye’s other albums – so this is saying something.
The album opens with the splendid “Dark Fantasy” – whose opening you might have heard during trailers for The Hangover sequel – which uses the gospel choir hook to build up to a pumping throbbing sort of beat, all following a talky beginning that was more evocative of talky rock concept albums like – well, like just about any second half Pink Floyd record. “Gorgeous”, the second track is a more straightforward rap song, but gets to the six minute mark – where as much time is spent in the developing of the beats and music as is developed in the rapping. The lyrics throughout are West’s usual mixing of playfulness with anger – he has some gangsta style, but like Snoop Dogg there is some humor underneath, it sure does not feel as menacing as some of the NWA stuff. “Power” with its chanting, thumping backbeat has an incantation quality that is typical of his music of yore (“Jesus Walks” for instance). The album peaks in the middle with “Monster” – which might be the best song I’ve heard in a long time, with the lyrics, the incredibly addictive beat, and the groove that takes up damn near the last three minutes of the operation.
The long finishes to tracks is typical in this album. As mentioned earlier, West is cramming each track here with all of the tools of the trade. There is autotune, the guest stars (especially one indispensable appearance by Chris Rock when you least expect it), the borrowing of other influences and styles – but none of it is for gratuitous effect. Or perhaps, ALL of it is for gratuitous effect – there is a definite conscious effort to create a large sound. In some ways, this work is more of a comparison with 70s rock albums like The Wall or classic Queen or And Justice for All than any real rap analogies. The songs feel meant to be filling a stadium – Kanye is putting out something to compete in the marketplace of Coldplay or Arcade Fire. Is it pretentious? Of course – when is Kanye not? But who would want it any other way?