First Impressions of Mr. West’s Latest Creation

Jesse Paller– the Musicologist

Beautiful? Occasionally. Dark? Pervasively. Twisted? Deliberately.

Fantastical? Completely.

First Impressions of Mr. West’s Latest Creation

We thought we had him pegged. But, then, we made the same mistake with every new Kanye West album. When 2004’s slick and slippery College Dropout spread its way onto the charts like a candle melting on a table, listeners grew excited for more of the nasal-voiced, sarcastic anti-hero whose character flaws made him all the more endearing. Its follow-up, the instant classic Late Registration, layered his spare beats with strings and expanded his lyrical scope, widening as well his fan base from easygoing appreciators of clever humor (as in the darkly appropriate Bar Mitzvah anthem “Gold Digger”) to admirers of his musical sensibilities in epics like “Gone”, and cementing Kanye as a part of 2000s music history. His victory lap Graduation, however, began showing signs of excess, as his beats hit the stratosphere while his flow struggled to move like it had years before.

So of course, I began to assume that Kanye was being sucked into the ostentatious muck that is much of modern hip-hop. The cathartic 808s & Heartbreak, with its lack of rapping and overabundance of Auto-tune and despair, seemed to only support this regret. At the same time Kanye’s ego began to break from its physical bounds. Kanye began spinning out, causing controversy after controversy, and retreating, it seemed, into his own ego. The ravenously vicious judgment on the part of America’s public only made it worse. He replaced his teeth with diamonds and only appeared sporting gigantic gold chains. But of music there was a void, and we waited for it to fill with some affirmation of either the postgraduate’s integrity or insanity.

When the first thing to fill this gap was a short film, I thought he’d gone off the deep end. But the music on the accompanying album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is too brilliantly conceived for a person completely out of his mind to have come up with. While Kanye veers further and further away from stability in the public eye, he seems to at least exert control in the music studio. The interesting thing about the album is that it automatically assumes that listeners understand the context. Kanye’s music and his public image have become inseparable, and are yet completely different. And it is here that what controlled consciousness he has left examines the waste that his actions have laid for him. What emerges from this characteristic self-critique is a musically adventurous examination of the nature of fantasies, and an unintentional window into the chaotic room of Kanye’s mind.

But how does it sound? Following a passive-aggressive spoken poem, straight hip-hop, graced with Kanye’s best flow arguably ever, opens the album. But after two songs in this vein the music soars into “All of the Lights,” a brass-filled extravaganza of blinding stage beams. We then come to the Spongebob-esque “I’m ugly and I’m proud!” mentality of “Monster”, a fast-paced trash-talking in which Kanye as well as mentor Jay-Z and a surprisingly excellent Nikki Minaj lay down their versatile venom. Other high points are the glittering soul production “Devil in a New Dress” and the Bon Iver-graced anthem, “Lost in the World”, bearing the vocal influence of the immortal “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap. All of these songs demonstrate Kanye at a new level of rapping prowess while interweaving the creativity of his production.

The true genius of Fantasy, however, can be found in its conscious musical reflection of Kanye’s zigzagging recent behavior. It constantly changes styles and sounds and hits listeners with eccentricity after eccentricity, effectively creating the disorienting sensation of a pop fantasy. While all West’s other albums have had a unifying sonic theme, this one does not. Critics respond by saying it simply combines all of his earlier styles. Music-loving peers claim that it is beyond simply hip-hop in its own unclassifiable genre of unnamed music. I believe the distinction between this album and the rest is its sincere lack of musical sincerity, a paradox reflected in the more tangible lyrical aspects of the album. The highest highs are portrayed as superficial (“Hell of a Life”) and overwhelming (“All of the Lights”) while the lowest lows maintain an underlying hint of humor (“Blame Game”). There is never the complete hedonistic celebration of life that pervaded Graduation, and there is never the uninhibited sorrow of 808s. It is as if Kanye has realized that not every emotion is permanent, and not every aspect of his life is as extreme as it seems. By making the music disorienting, he has provided a medium for listeners to empathize with his paradoxical justification of pop life.

But this hopeful interpretation is also darkened by the implications of the aforementioned Runaway, a 35-minute film that throws subtlety out the window. In it he begins an affair with a phoenix-girl from another world. But when he attempts to bring her to a family (we assume) banquet, she is misunderstood, ridiculed. Mortified, he leaves the table and begins playing his song “Runaway” on a lonely, tuneless piano in the corner. The metaphor comes through. Kanye has dared to bring something different to the table, and his dedication to things different from the norm has made him a pariah, an outcast. This theme is echoed later in the movie in the sparing dialogue between Kanye and his supernatural love interest, as well as in the music during the final song “Who Will Survive In America?” As that question is repeated four times to finish the album, we get the sense that Kanye may not fit into the answer of that question. Or at least, he doesn’t think so.

The tragic flaw of Kanye’s assumption is that he too cannot separate his music from his public actions. His art is indeed groundbreaking, exciting and extremely creative, in a time where bottle popping, private jets, and other similarly meaningless and shallow themes are creating clots in the lifeblood of good music. But as “Runaway” begins reading off what sounds like a laundry list of abuse for its chorus (“let’s have a toast for the (your insult here)”), we get the idea that Kanye sees the public condemnation of his erratic behavior as condemnation of his art as well. Many lyrics on Fantasy speak to his frustration and discontent with this problem. He will have to separate the two if he ever wants the torment to end. Where his confused path is headed remains to be seen, although he is taking it frantically; images of fleeing are not limited to “Runaway,” but rather crop up all over the album, particularly in “Lost in the World”. While he has created a strong work of art here, his worldview is still warped by his vision and the visions of all of us celebrity-hungry masses. All we can be sure of is that his beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy, for now, is just a small part of his integrally dark and twisted (though not altogether beautiful) reality.