Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Roc-A-Fella/Universal

Is it possible to enjoy and appreciate art without being influenced by the personality of the creator? If history tells us anything, the answer is usually no.

Many people grew averse to acknowledging the films of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, after the former (allegedly) raped a 14-year-old girl and the latter (definitely) married his adopted daughter. Once-strident fans quickly threw their Michael Jackson albums into the bonfire after news of his exploits with children made headlines. Even today, the careers and special place in peoples’ hearts of Chris Brown and, after his recent sentencing, Phil Spector have been irreversibly damaged for their brutal actions.

Thankfully, Kanye West isn’t a child molester, a spousal abuser, or a murderer. He’s simply an asshole. But despite all that is said about him, despite everyone’s desire to throw him down at the mercy of the guillotine, what makes Kanye fascinating is that he knows he’s an asshole.

What West also knows that his critics don’t is, like Eminem before him, he needs to be an asshole in order to survive. Hip-hop, more than any other field of music, depends on who can talk the loudest, who can boast the most game, and who can piss more people off. The fact that words have replaced guns as the mainstream hip-hop artist’s weapon of choice – just look at Drake, B.o.B. and more for proof – only shows the influence Kanye has had in turning the tide back to the conscious thinking and sensitivity of Golden Age East Coast hip-hop after over two decades of West Coast gangsta rule.

More importantly and singularly, West’s personal and public travails have always informed his art. His first single as a solo artist was his account of a car crash that almost killed him. Ever since then, the more West has let his ego get him into trouble and cause the media and the public to lash out against him, the more his lyrics have addressed those slip-ups and embarrassments: first he attacks his haters, then he realizes they may be right, follows it up with an apology, and then turns around to make another ego-fueled boast.

The year leading up to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy saw Kanye become more demonized than ever before, which remarkably seems to have only given him more juice in his artistic endeavours. There are no direct mentions of Taylorgate on the disc, but he’s noticeably bruised, hurt and defensive. At the same time, West also seems to turn a corner here, almost choosing to accept his fate as the most hated genius you love to hate by cracking more jokes and rhyming more furiously than he has since 2005’s Late Registration.

This isn’t by any means, however, a return to his roots. Beneath the more conventional rapping and singing and the plethora of guest spots, West has crafted a musical backdrop and production of unparalleled depth, scope and vision. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a cinematic trip through a variety of moods and textures, as West and some key outside collaborators (S1, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, RZA and others) create some of the most surreal, unexpected, shouldn’t-work-but-my-god-does-it-ever beats that can still be called hip-hop.

The wide-ranging virtuosity of the music and the (occasional) newfound maturity of West’s lyrics add up to a journey worthy of its title: the songs live up to every word, yet also their polar opposites and contradictions.

The album is often very beautiful, yet can become messy and disfigured, as personified in the twinkling pianos and graceful strings turning into distorted-beyond-recognition vocoder effects in the nine-minute magnum opus “Runaway”.

There are many dark moments, like the haunting intro to the Bon Iver-sampling “Lost in the Woods” and the album-closing rip of Gil Scott-Heron sermonizing on “Who Will Survive in America,” but there are also instances of startling light, as the African choral refrain backing “Power” boosts West’s boasts into the stratosphere (only to be occasionally taken back into darkness with the sudden interjections of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”).

The multitude of twisted arrangements on the record (the clanging marching band rhythms of “All of the Lights”, the Brian Eno/Robert Fripp fuzz guitars on “Gorgeous”) also feature some of West’s most straightforward rapping, while some of the more gnarled verses – the most shocking and hilarious of which is Nicki Minaj’s brutal scene-stealing turn on “Monster” – are often set over more relatively modest productions.

And finally, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is indeed one large, operatic fantasy, as West pretends he’s over all the drama (“Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it/I guess every superhero need his theme music”) and is still the flashiest baller on the block. But it all comes crashing down much too often, as Kanye deals with the real world (“The plan was to drink until the pain over/But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?”) and has to realize that he may be trouble after all (“Baby I’ve got a plan, run away as fast as you can”).

But the question remains: is an artist, even Kanye West, able to create art that won’t be immediately judged in light of the persona behind it? Yes, many people still refuse to watch Polanski or Allen, or listen to Jackson or Spector or West. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, or necessary, to forget the persona and simply appreciate the wonderful, amazing art that these damaged people create. Forget that these people are scumbags and assholes, and what you will find is they are valuable artists and contributors to the cultural landscape. Even Chris Brown is a talented dude when you forget about what he’s done. So – to a much, much larger and worthy degree – is Kanye West.

Originally published December 2010