Can we get much higher?” Before this year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the instinctive response to Kanye West’s album-opening question would had to have been “no.”
Kanye West, ever a polarizing celebrity, didn’t need to make this album. He didn’t have to. He was already about as high as a career in pop music takes you these days. Errrbody seems to hate him. And still, here he is.
MBDTF, which plays like a loose concept album centered more around an emotional pitch than a lyrical theme — much like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or Sign O’ the Times — is an ambitious, lamentable, joyous mess. An incredible one.
One thing to get past, if you hate Kanye and are going to take up his music only to validate all the reasons you already so despise him, is that he’s a thoughtful musician — at least, a thoughtful appreciator of music and the unspeakable split-persona divinity in the heart of man it conjures. That’s been clear since 2008’s spartan, melodic 808s and Heartbreak. There is nothing in MBDTF’s 13-odd songs that is accidentally messy. Instinctively so, maybe, but not accidental. Yeezy knows what he’s doing.
Look at the sequencing. There’s a reason these songs are ordered, one-two-three, as they are. The album is a descent — an endearing, discordant, so-appalling, enthralling descent — into male ego writ successful against stereotyped odds. And the songs follow that sonically — with a couple of well-placed exceptions — by descending chromatically, one by one. The tone keeps getting lower and lower, until Chris Rock guests in with an inarguably NC-17 relief spot that somehow wrests sick comedy from watch bezels, the craft of upholstery, Jimmy Choos, The Source magazine and illegal downloading.
Sure, Kanye’s public ego knows no bounds, and that’s reflected here. So? What, rather, would you have — a mewling string of qualifications and apologies for heinous PR disasters (which, of course, have only benefited him); ‘I’m sorrys’ for thoughtless boasts of masculinity and foul-crying that courts the sympathies of affirmative-action types, even in the Obama era?
Come on. Kanye understands the weird, infallible connection between arrogance and success. Until he dies, his persona on this album is untouchable. And he, among so many shrinking-violet listeners and supposed peers, says so. And anyway, is he wrong? Is Mick Jagger? Was Mae West? You know the answer.
Lyrically, you get double-and-triple-entendre genius, when it (often) happens. “How you say ‘broke’ in Spanish? — Me no hablo,” he says in the opening verse of “Dark Fantasy.” Well, now. That works on three levels for a swizz like Kanye, doesn’t it? Think about it.
Then there’s the ambivalence of his message in “Power.” Who’s really being scrutinized when West says “As I look down at my diamond-encrusted piece / thinking no one man should have all that power...” Is it Kanye himself drunk on ostentation? The Man? An abstraction of those in America who pull all the strings? If you think it’s just Kanye riffing on his own influence, then regard the fantasy he unfolds later in the song: “This would be a beautiful death — jumping out the window / letting everything go...” Self-absorbed, maybe, but not the words of a smug or wholly self-satisfied man.
And like the White Stripes (R.I.P.), Kanye toils in the service of misogyny’s upside....At least, he understands his own misogyny better than your easy-target average woman-hater is supposed to. In one of the quintessential pop-music apologies ever — the kind that says “I’m sorry” but seeks no forgiveness (he entrusts that task to the one who’s been wronged) — he confesses what a jerk he was, is and will always be on “Runaway,” a bitter, pre-emptive, cautionary un-apology to the woman who buys into him for reasons muddled by modern civility. Maybe he truly hates himself; who knows? — but it ends up, rightly, sounding like a loathing celebration of his incorrigible self.
Sound-wise? The album is an obsessively-produced, maniacal disaster of hip-hop synth and live rock instrumentation. Even those songs that may seem to miss the mark on sonics — and they ALL strive for at least one; usually more, musical hook — are undeniably the work of a consummate song crafter. Each is a chunky, cumbersome, sludgy, sloppy, willfully dissonant, contorted piece of emotionally-driven songwriting. Are those terms that usually describe hip-hop? Right. No base frivolity here. Kanye’s going for a landmark with each song, and whether you agree he nails it, song by song, the standalone gravity of each piece is undeniable. He’s shooting for the stars.
This album — nor any genre album — is going to change your mind about rap, hip-hop, the current TMZ state of planned-backfire-gaffe pop culture, or Kanye in particular. So what? Somebody’s been buying into Kanye West’s persona. The album opened at #1 on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling half of the requisite one million copies on its way to certified platinum status in its first week of release. Like Bob Dylan once said in the wake of fan backlash over his decision to go electric, “Isn’t it something, how they still buy up all the tickets?” Truth. Someone is buying. Maybe you are. Whether Yeezy or Dylan, you should be.
P.S. - Krazy extra knowledge: Chicago-based Kanye has a second-degree Alabama connection; his deceased mother earned her Ph.D. in English from Auburn University in 1980. Many Kanye tagalongs on the internet have speculated his career-spanning preoccupation with academia as a foil for his self-attained indifference to all things sanctioned and established — à la The College Dropout; Late Registration; Graduation — stem from his bearing witness to his mother’s negotiations of academic stultification at close range. Eat that, Sabanites — Aubie does it again.