Friday, November 12, 2010
Album Review: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (4.5/5)
Since his debut in 2004, American rapper Kanye West has since positioned himself among the best of the best in hip-hop, toppling the likes of fellow frontrunner’s Eminem and Jay-Z, delivering acclaimed albums after the next—earning numerous award nominations and wins, including the prestigious Grammy nomination for Album of the Year for his first two albums College Dropout and Late Registration, as well as voluminous record sales to boot. However, unlike many of his hip-hop contempories, West doesn’t only greet critical acclaim and commercial success with his records but also manages to land hits from them too (such as “Gold Digger,” “Stronger” and “Heartless”).
West’s first three albums substantially explored disarming lyrical affirmations over appealing well-crafted sample-heavy beat driven hip-hop arrangements, highlighting his sarcastic, slight dark humour and social awareness, showcasing mass crossover appeal without dumbing down its message—a remarkable feat that 50 Cent never quite managed to conquer (“Candy Shop” anyone?) This is why 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, which saw West dabbling in an increasingly ‘80s electronica outlook on pop and hip-hop, didn’t connect with me—exploring more self-indulgent, melancholic themes and an annoying overuse of autotune.
Thankfully and without a doubt, this fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a strong return to prominence. It’s not the identifiable beat-driven hip-hop of his earlier work or the rough electronic withering of 808’s, it’s both, but more ambitious in a more appealing onset—showcasing refined lyrical delivery over more exciting, complex hip-hop arrangements which do in fact throw back the sonic standpoint and heavy beats of albums before.
American female rapper Nicki Minaj—who features again on here (but isn’t credited on this track)—gives a very animated opening narration on first track “Dark Fantasy” in a funny English accent. A soulful male vocal belts (“Can we get much higher”) as layers of soaring pitch-corrected harmonic choir voices soar behind, before the rigorous bass lines and piano keys kick in for Kanye West’s verses, where he lays down the sexual metaphors (“So much head, I woke up Sleepy Hollow”) and the clever but blunt references to pop culture (“Look like a fat booty Celine Dion. Sex is on fire, I'm the King of Leon-a Lewis”).
“Gorgeous” featuring rappers Kid Cudi and Raekwon is one of the tracks Rolling Stone highlighted as one of the best on the album in their 5 star review. It’s slower, a more brewing mid-tempo, overhauled with a layer of static as the starchy electronic guitars bleat through the downbeat production. Musically, it sounds awesome—I’m not getting much from it lyrically though, although it’s funny that he addresses his South Park episode, in which he fails to understand a joke made up by Butters and Cartman about fish sticks (fish dicks) (“choke the South Park writer with a fish dick”).
The Afro-centric chanting and kinetic clapping open lead single “POWER” before the skittering bass lines kick in, effectively toppled by the scolding electronic guitars stuttering through the backdrop, I also like the keyboard section towards the middle—it’s an invigorating production that plays out with a dizzying clash of whirling electronic bleeping. It’s fantastic.
There’s a meticulous change in atmosphere on the short 1 minute interlude to “All of the Lights,” gradually building with mellow atmospheric classical-tinged articulated piano keys, softly measured with horns, orchestratic strings which swiftly moves into the more vigorous main course—that seems to feature Barbadian singer Rihanna, but isn’t credited—it’s an immediate switch up in sound. A more charged arrangement; rigorous skittering beats and bass, stuttering horns and pounding afro-centric drums with a fitting dark underlining and at times does feel like it wants absorb slight drum ‘n’ bass sound—which would have made it even more awesome.
“Monster” featuring a host of American rappers including Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj is definitely the albums biggest highlight. Heavy beat-driven arrangement, trembling bass lines cloaked with solid rap verses, however the rapper that shines most on their verse here is in fact Nicki Minaj—creative, aggressive, awesome animated delivery (“Hotter than an Middle Eastern Climate, fine it. Tony Matterhorn, dutty wine it”).
The next few tracks mirror that of the sounds of the earlier albums. “So Appalled” is a driving mid-tempo; dark atmospheric composition re-calling the same shadowing thematic as “Jesus Walks” from College Dropout. “Devil In a New Dress” follows with the urban, slight R&B edge—a reminiscent to “We Major” from Late Registration. I love its instrumental midsection, streaming with strings, piano and electronic guitars—giving it a vintage feel.
At 9 minutes long, “Runaway” is the albums longest track—with the deluxe edition you get its accompanying 30 minute video tagged onto the end, which also includes some other tracks on here too. I’ve always thought Kanye was a bit of a douche, so it’s nice to see him address that in this haunting bass-driven mid-tempo (“Let’s have a toast for the douche-bags, let’s have a toast for the assholes, let’s have a toast for the scumbags, every one of them that I know”). “I think I just fell in love with a porn star” Kanye opens on the edgy electronic-studded “Hell of a Life” which sports an auto-tuned vocal (re-calling some of the chorus’ on the last album) that sings (“pussy and religion is all I need”). Controversial lyrics aside, the production is fantastic; a spacey, warbling electronic backdrop with persistent bass lines and relentless electronic psychedelic scattering.
The uneven piano-laced “Blame Game” featuring American soul singer John Legend sounds more conventional hip-hop—It’s been cited as a highlight in many reviews I’ve read, although it’s not that interesting for and showcases the album’s first damp patch. Better is the weirder, auto-tune flooded styling of “Lost in the World” which conveys a sense of displacing through trembling synths, warbling electronic vocal enhancement.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is definitely a return to prominence for Kanye West. It successfully encloses the well-crafted beat driven hip-hop that set his career alight and the more weirder electronic soundscapes of his last album that moved West into more interesting territories (although, not for me) tied with his lyrical commanding and genius—some tracks don’t work that well—but in all a fantastic album; nothing’s changed: West reigns as one of world’s greatest lyricists and another thing that hasn’t changed is that I still think he’s a douche.
Best: Monster, POWER, Gorgeous, Dark Fantasy, Hell of a Life, All of the Lights, Devil in a New Dress, Runaway