Though they center thematically on the college years, Kanye West’s undeniably classic albums, The College Dropout and Late Registration, make their marks appealing to our inner children. Ignoring the obvious giveaways (one opener is Kanye’s response to a demand to do a song for the kids, the other is an innocent hip hop lullaby), what constantly makes them is Kanye’s childlike conviction. Whether Kanye is telling his mama how much he loves her, fantasizing about buying a spaceship, or (how cute) touching the sky, he does everything with a smile. As a result, The College Dropout topped Rolling Stone’s list of best albums of the year and, more importantly, Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics’ poll. In 2005, Late Registration did both of those things. With all of that under his belt, why does it sound so strange to call Kanye West a genius today?
Well, first of all, Kanye West’s label as an egomaniac has been prominent since “Gold Digger” was number one on Billboard. Such accusations are ridiculous, though not because of any sort of falsehood, but because expecting a hip-hop musician, an occupation that uses the boast as one of its main tools, to not be self-interested is maniacal. West actually addressed those problems before they arose. On the second song of his first album, he lets on “we all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” What was probably worse was when he was labeled a douchebag. Making his fourth album an experiment with pitch correction, a mechanism that would soon be mainstream pop’s biggest punch line and crashing two awards show acceptance speeches (boy, who cares?) did little to help him escape the phrase. In South Park, Kanye West is depicted as a delusional gangster who fails to understand what everyone is laughing at.
Despite Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s usual understanding of pop culture, their ignorance of the situation is given away the second they depict West as an ultraviolent super thug. What is more relevant, though, is the West is one of the most self-aware musicians, let alone chart-topping rappers, still working today. The man is much less of a douchebag than an eccentric weirdo. I mean damn, the man finished Late Registration with an Otis Redding sample and then laced Graduation’s lead single with a Daft Punk sample. Even with his less appreciated albums, he helped to shape the industry. Graduation focused hip hop on pretty, goofy electronica, and 808’s And Heartbreak seems to have shied the entire world away from auto-tune. With his career in its adolescence, Kanye West lost the childlike spark and then the gleeful presence that made his first two albums so enjoyable. Even considering slight missteps, Kanye West made four albums that might as well have been called The Shape Of Hip Hop To Come.
On Kanye West’s best song, “Gone,” he boasts “I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out.” That has always been true, but it has never been as immediately apparent as it is on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With the bizarre “that one doesn’t count” 808’s splitting the two, Fantasy seems to exist on a different plane entirely than 2007’s Graduation, which was an electronically obsessed celebration of success. Like Graduation, Fantasy numbers fewer tracks than most rap albums and is (oh thank heavens) skitless. Format-wise, Fantasy plays a lot like Graduation, but thematically, West weirdly decides to revisit 808’s. Fantasy is introspective, bizarre, and spirited.
Maybe 808’s seems so relevant is because “Runaway” is practically a response to it. On 808’s, West hid his poor singing ability behind the technology at his disposal, but on “Runaway,” he pulls a move similar to Eminem’s “Hailie’s Song” and tries to sing for a moment. Who cares if his vocal abilities are nothing to be admired? His performance backed by single notes on the piano sounds sincere and frank, and that matters when the song’s purpose is to deliver an apology to the woman he called “heartless” on his last album. On the chorus, West even self-deprecates, calling himself a “douchebag,” an “asshole,” and a “jerk-off” in a celebration of how the bad people in your life wind up positively developing who you are. He pokes further fun at his past near the end of the song, when he murmurs into a vocoder for a few minutes. He denounces the past and celebrates his flaws on “Runaway.” Traces of it remained on Graduation, but on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West’s childlike excitement is entirely gone. In its places is a refreshing, relieving maturity. That is a rare process for musicians to successfully undergo.
One has to wonder what West is trying to do with this one. Each song is strange in its own special way, but nothing demonstrates the album’s constant shifts like the jump from “All Of The Lights” to “Monster.” “All Of The Lights,” which features The-Dream, Elton John, John Legend, Fergie, and way too many more, begins with Rihanna in her element. Unlike her weak emotional bit in Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie,” Rihanna works brilliantly cheerleading general badassery here (“Fast cars/Shooting stars/All of the lights”) much like she did on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” (“Life’s a game, but it’s not fair/I broke the rules, so I don’t care”). Along with that and piano from Elton John, an unrelentingly staccato horn arrangement make the song West’s grandest-sounding ever. It sounds like West is shouting at a storm from the front tip of a warship. Hell, even when Fergie shows up and does an M.I.A. impression for whatever reason, she manages to be pretty tolerable. Then after “All Of The Lights,” Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon begins “Monster” by practically announcing that the song was made to contrast the previous one: “I shoot the lights out.” What follows are some weird-ass verses about being a monster. “Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/I put the pussy in a sarcophagus/Now she claiming I bruise her esophagus.” “Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Loch Ness/Goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience.” “Okay, first things first, I’ll eat your brains/Then Imma start rocking gold teeth and fangs.” The song is an absolute oddity, and after an uncharacteristically nerdy verse by Jay-Z, newbie Nicki Minaj steals the entire song with her sheer presence. She seems to always be just holding back a scream, and she rhymes “Sri Lanka” with “Willy Wonka.” With this kind of variety, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is always messy, but never a mess.
Surprisingly, the best song on Kanye West’s new album is “Lost In The World,” a shocking re-imagination of Bon Iver’s “Woods.” After Justin Vernon sings the four lines that make up the backbone of the song three times, “Lost In The World” begins to explode and never stops. With its jungle beats, audio blasts, and general frantic state of being, “Lost In The World” is the sound of running across a minefield, and it is his best song bar only Late Registration’s “Gone.” Though I prefer Late Registration and The College Dropout, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is effectively as wonderful, and one should expect to see it commonly received as the best album of the year. In a moment of infectious confidence, ‘Ye raps “At the end of the day, god damn it, I’m killing this shit/I know damn well y’all feeling this shit.” The man knows greatness when he creates it.