Aaron Matthews is in that Tonka, the color of Willy Wonka.
Kanye is not an innovator. He’s a synthesizer. A lot of the ideas on this new album appeared to some degree in his earlier work: the layered synths on Graduation, his beats for Jay, Drake, and Rawse, the auto-tuned harmonies on “Jesus Walks,” and “Spaceship’s” pre-808s foreshadowing.
Orchestration entered on Late Registration. Just listen to the way “Runaway” rips the chord progression from “Torn” and pairs it with a Pete Rock beat. The album is simultaneously layered and shallow. It’s a bit like Dr. Dre’s 2001, hip-hop as a widescreen THX blockbuster. People Kanye considered mentors co-produced this record: rap architects from the East (RZA, Bink!) Midwest (No I.D.) and the South (Mike Dean). They built them for Ye, but he bended them to his imagination. RZA’s filthy, running piano line straight out of Return to the 36 Chambers plays off a heavenly, autotuned Greek chorus. No I.D.’s revving synths on “Gorgeous” give way to elegiac keys and searing guitar, setting the stage for a distorted Raekwon verse about name-brands and crime.
It’s an album that’s impossible to listen to as background music. It has a lot to do with Kanye’s big leap as an emcee. “Devil In A New Dress” and “Blame Game” are potent reminders of how how funny and insightful he can be at his best. That trademark combination of corny jokes, humour and occasional gems of wisdom. “So much head I woke up in Sleepy Hollow,” “You getting black mail for that white girl” etc. The album is indulgent as hell but consistently interesting, even when the focus dips. And it’s always more about sonics than lyrics – though I do find myself quoting Nicki Minaj on “Monster” whenever possible. “Hell of A Life” is bizarre garage rock skronk that complements Ye’s fantasy of a porn star marriage–with “Grindin’” mouth pops on the chorus and rolling Bonham drums. It’s the song that best realizes the album’s vision of prog-hop. “Lost In The World” is a house party in the woods, richly built vocoder and AutoTune choruses interwines over rumbling DJ Rob Base percussion and bass that parts the heavens.
No, “All of the Lights” doesn’t need Elton John on keys or Fergie’s overblown melisma. Or the three minute vocoder solo on “Runaway.” But Kanye excels at excess. He makes the sprawling personal and compulsively listenable. He’s pulled the strange trick of becoming more relatable as he’s gotten more infamous. “Blame Game” is intensely personal, down to each wrenching detail (angry bathroom sex, his girl buying coke with his money), but anyone who’s had their heart broken will understand. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is fucking ridicuwous. Yeezy reupholstered my brain.