We needed a round table because this album is all angles. Admittedly, the world needs one more of these like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy needs extra adjectives in its title. So let’s take it from there. Kanye West’s fifth album, a shoe-in for every year-end accolade and every Grammy, bears the same name as a German translation of an arcane 19th erotic pamphlet written by the Brothers Grimm.
This is obviously not true. But this is Kanye West, the same man who interrupted a banal awards show to inform the world that people would be better off wanting to marry Beyonce instead of Taylor Swift. Or something. He’s the guy who screamed “more douchebag” at Pusha T during marathon album sessions recorded inside a Hawaiian volcano with an audience of strippers, classically trained violinists, and Velociraptors. Such is the absurdity of this man that the aforementioned assertion will now be accepted as fact by at least one obscure Indian news outlet.
It’s funny that in the wake of an era in which roughly half of all major label rap albums were paeans to the dividends of street pharmaceutical sales, Kanye has released the most coked-out, grandiose rap record OF ALL-TIME. Whether or not he’s actually doing drugs doesn’t matter. In my head, this is the rap equivalent of the botched coke deal scene in Boogie Nights, when Dirk Diggler attempts to rob a jittery mustache-rocking devotee of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” while his Chinese confederate throws fire crackers to keep the mood festive. The main difference is that Kanye and his gang of cocaine cowboys (no Romo), miraculously pull off this hair-brained scheme.
There are a lot of “[insert adjective]-rap” tags you can ascribe to this record, but my favorite is “Sun King rap.” In his fertile chimerical imagination, Kanye is Louis XIV, we are his subjects and Cyphi the Prince is a real prince– the mildly in-bred heir to the throne. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Sister, is his Versailles, a Baroque, opulent, excessive monument to his own greatness. Kanye does not have the soul and sensibilities of a rapper. He has the esprit of a Bourbon, a dandy Warlord with a powdered wig and a powdered nose (with snuff, with snuff). This analogy is also the only possible explanation for this photo.
Everyone focuses on the King Crimson sample, but if we’re talking prog-pop comparisons, Queen is far more fitting. After all, from its track list, to its florid instrumentation, to its guest appearances, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Pharoah screams “MORE GALILEOS!!” At this point in his career, he could have his pick of any Jan Wenner wet dream. He isn’t collaborating with Steely Dan or Bruce Springsteen, he’s working with Elton John, enlisting him to the play the piano on “All of the Lights,” a song so grandiose it makes “Rocket Man” look like “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.” Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.
But in its own perverse way, this does what RZA aspired to do on 8 Diagrams, This is symphony rap for concert halls. Nor is it Jon Brion’s cinematic sentimental version. This is Wagner at the opera—bring a monocle. Disco Vietnam called it Michael Bay rap, but for me, that’s someone like Jeezy — a lead-footed, lead-fisted monster who wrecks shop. This is more James Cameron rap: bombastic, obtusely populist, heavily collaborative, and not quite as profound as it wants to be. But say what the fuck you want about it (and there are arguments to be made against it), you can’t deny that this is an aesthetic stunner.
I was fully sold the moment Rza started babbling at the coda of “So Appalled.” I haven’t heard Bobby Digital go that berserk since “Glock-O-Pop,” and that’s testament to what Kanye brings out of his collaborators. Kid Cudi’s hooks are at their slickest. Rae and Jay rap like they haven’t eaten lobster and shrimp scampi for the last two decades, and Fergie doesn’t ruin the record based off the sheer toxicity of being Fergie. This record represents Kanye’s most complete effort yet to synthesize all of his influences. He samples Aphex Twin, Bon Iver, Black Sabbath, and Smokey Robinson. He pillaged ideas from a production murderer’s row: Mike Dean, No ID, RZA, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Bink, and Madlib (release those songs!). Presumably, Dre and Timbo’s invitations got lost in the mail.
For my wooden nickel, the best rap music is usually menacing and minimal. This has neither, but it succeeds because Kanye is the only person with enough vision to pull it off. As much as I enjoy this record, I’m loathe to consider the impact it will have on the next generation. Drake’s Fancy Opaque Curly Dream would make me want to slam my head into a wall (Onyx). More specifics and a response to everyone else tomorrow. For now, let’s just say that Kanye made a record equally flawed and fantastic. I hope that people will only try to mimic the height of its ambition.