Can We Get Much Higher? — A Round Table on Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Douglas Martin)

Douglas Martin liked Kanye better when he hung out with these guys.  Late Registration remains my favorite Kanye record (and of course this record and that one are the two Kanye records most alike),...
By    November 22, 2010

Douglas Martin liked Kanye better when he hung out with these guys. 

Late Registration remains my favorite Kanye record (and of course this record and that one are the two Kanye records most alike), but I’m not as taken by this one. The ambition on both spirals out of control, but Jon Brion’s work on the record is still outstanding to me and ironically enough, Kanye’s pop instincts hit harder in thoe days before he was the biggest rapper in the world. As bloated as Late Registration was, thirteen tracks at 68 minutes is a lot harder to swallow than the 21 tracks that make up that album (another peculiar irony). It’s almost like on this album, Kanye actually has enough money to cater to every impulse, and it’s not always pretty.

A lot of these tracks I can take or leave (“Gorgeous,” “Dark Fantasy,” and even “Monster”) and a few of them I don’t really like at all (As I said when “Power” came out, Kanye has done petulant better on “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’,” and “All of the Lights,” “Runaway,” and “Lost in the World” do nothing for me). But a few of these tracks have quickly made their way onto my list of favorite Kanye joints. The first-half of “So Appalled” (i.e. the Kanye and Jay verses) provides an interesting dichotomy with ‘Ye’s College Dropout smartassedness offsetting Hov’s pitch-black take on his own celebrity ala Drake’s “Light Up”. Pusha and Cyhi totally kill the momentum, though. “Blame Game” is as poignant a relationship song as some of you are saying it is, complete with the second scary portrait of Kanye strangling a woman. And that beat is nuts.

“Devil in a Blue Dress” is my favorite of everything on here, almost a Kanye blast-from-the-past. The beat from Bink is better than anything he contributed to The Blueprint, and Kanye’s self-awareness is more playful and carefree than a lot of his lyrics on this record (“I thought I was the asshole?/I guess it’s rubbing off”). I love how simply the song is structured, how the beat is only an eight-bar stretch and how the hook is not really concrete and doesn’t really feel like a “capital-H” Hook. The guitars in the instrumental passage are not as pretentious as some of the others on the album, and Rick Ross delivers one of my favorite verses of the year. He sounds incredible over soul-beats– his booming voice so authoritative and full of conviction that it almost feels like he actually believes what he rhymes about. That was a little joke. Voila.

Though it ranks in the lower-half of Kanye’s catalog, one thing I can say about this record is that it’s the complete opposite of formulaic, which is downright heroic for a pop star. Although I agree that ambitious failures should not be placed higher in value than modest successes, I think both are commendable.

One final irony that really stands out to me is Swizz’s intro for “So Appalled”: “One hand in the air, if you don’t really care.” Of course it speaks to the age-old practice of shrugging off the haters, but I think we can all agree that apathy is the antithesis of what Kanye West stands for. Regardless of how anybody feels about his work, Kanye West is an artist who breathes passion, a producer who clocks hundreds of hours of studio time on whatever project he’s involved with, a relentless servant to micromanagement in every facet of his career, be it music or fashion or commandeering half of an issue of XXL for the sake of whatever he was trying to prove. His lyrics are riddled with reactions to his various public “controversies” (put in quotation marks because everybody should have more important things to worry about in 2010).

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, even in its flaws, shows that Kanye really cares. Every note– all two-billion of them– seem carefully considered, and you can almost hear Kanye in the background of one of those choir breakdowns saying, “This would sound DOPE if I put a didgeridoo right here!” Pop music is supposed to be formulaic, disposable. Pop stars aren’t supposed to put this music thought, this much effort, into a pop album. Or maybe it’s not and they are, and it takes a record as ambitious as this one to show everyone what pop music could be like if everybody just tried harder.

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