I'm catching up, after a busy holiday, and trying to get back to some of 2010's highly-regarded now that I've had the time to snag them and listen to them at length. Kanye's newest, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hereafter known as Fantasy, is something of an incredible music moment and not just because Pitchfork, the A.V. Club and others gave it album of the year honors (and Pitchfork also gave it the elusive 10). Instead, Fantasy actually is an epic, sprawling, incredible, nearly impossibly great album. And it only took me two trips through to realize it. For fans of Kanye West, this album will combine everything we've learned so far. Topics include love, race, socioeconomics, politics, lust, frustration and hope, all of which are Kanye staples. You also get the samples, beautiful rock/classical piano touches, and vast, catchy, wondrous instrumentation. There's even a hefty helping of humor instilled in both the lyrics and in some guest asides. And you get Kanye, but not as much as you may expect.
Following, the more Kanye-centric work of his previous albums, Fantasy features a litany of guest performers, many of whom take center stage for the bulk of the album. Some 32+/- other artists (Bon Iver!) appear on the album, so often Kanye, himself, is buried inside a track, tearing up a bridge or lifting a chorus. Initially, I found this aspect to be distracting, but ultimately, this is an album that ultimately brings an industry together, tells Kanye's story, and shows his maturity as a producer and a performer. Instead of attempting the vocal acrobatics he hands off, West is capable of getting the most of each song without relying heavily on studio magic to get the sound he needs. It's a big album. Maybe not even an album at all, and instead a sort of social experience. Like I said in the opening paragraph, it is epic. And it's not a traditional hip-hop or rap album. Fantasy becomes more of a cross-genre traveling show. Each song ties to the ones around it, but each has a special distinction, where one might be personal doubt and responsibility, the other may be a fiery barrage of dick and pussy jokes and references, but the bottom line seems to be cracking the puzzle of life.
There is no waste, no extraneous material. And the song selections perfectly bookend the album by opening with hope and closing with cautious optimism (peppered with doubt). Fantasy is an emotional journey. But, as I noted before, it's a bit of a carnival too. "All of the Lights" brings out dozens of additional players to build a vocal pyramid that is dynamic and undeniable. "Monster" is a rousing, growling, energetic tongue-in-cheek masterpiece, featuring the immortal lines, "Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/ I put the pussy in a a sarcophagus." And then there's John Legend's work on "Blame Game" followed by an extended Chris-Rock-honors-Kanye dialogue that involves the aforementioned pussy and its reupholstering. And yes, these examples may turn some listeners away, but the bottom line is that with maturity comes these bursts of absurdity. There's a Cirque du Soleil quality here, because it's beautiful, well performed, elaborate, and from time to time willing to degrade itself for a laugh. And for an album with a title like this one has, that makes perfect sense.
The bottom line, so to speak, is that Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is at very least in the top 5 best albums of 2010. It largely depends on what you want out of an album. This won't satisfy a craving for Mumford and Sons, or even traditional hip hop, but Kanye really pulled out all the stops, tricked a standard album out with all the trappings of success and sadness, and hands this over to us as a gift that really, truly, keeps on giving. This is a must own album, and an album that feels great to listen to.
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