Kanye West was in a rough spot when he flew to Hawaii to make his last album, 808s & Heartbreak. His engagement with long-term partner Alexis Phifer had ended and his mother had passed away. Women are a significant part of West’s life and his art (see tracks like Roses and Hey Mama, especially), and 808s was an achingly fractured album from a tortured artist who had lost two of the most important women in his life.
The album was also a failed attempt to move his raps further into R&B and pop. West had successfully pushed a bit in that direction on Graduation, with hits like Stronger that heavily sampled Daft Punk. But 808s found the producer-turned-rapper mostly out of his element. Kanye just needs to rap.
Enter: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
After a goofy intro on Dark Fantasy, ‘Ye takes it all back to his fantasies in Chicago, when he was producing beats and managing artists with a dream of making it big. He also takes it back to the classroom: “Hey teacher, teacher, tell me how do you respond to students? And refresh the page? And restart the memory?” Ever since his first album, The College Dropout, West has been taking on America’s educational system, pushing for better standards, talking practicality to the kids.
And then there’s race. On Gorgeous, West is back to one of his older claims: “I treat the cash the way the government treats AIDS – I won’t be satisfied ’til all my niggas get it. Get it?” It’s an outrageous accusation, but everything Kanye does is over the top. At the MTV Video Music Awards last year, he stormed the stage to say that Beyoncé’s video was one of the best of all time when he simply meant that it was better than Taylor Swift’s.
One of West’s basic themes throughout his raps is that government can never be fully trusted when it treats people differently based solely on race. He’s saying that despite the civil rights movement, despite having an African American president, America is not post-race. And rappers like West and Jay-Z who came into money from meager beginnings have made it clear that money doesn’t change much: racial discrimination comes at all levels of society.
Alongside these deeper lyrical themes, however, Kanye still spits out whimsical cultural references with the best of them. He’s like a filter for pop culture. TV, music, movies – everything passes through him. On Dark Fantasy alone: “Sex is on fire, I’m the King of Leona Lewis” (see: popular rock, pop music); “Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why you’re Winslow” (see: ’90s sitcom Family Matters); “So much head, I woke up in Sleepy Hollow” (see: sexual slang, Washington Irving’s short story, Tim Burton’s 1999 film, the actual village in New York). And if that wasn’t enough, on Monster, Kanye deftly slips in a line from the Holy Grail of nerdy, awkward comedies, Napoleon Dynamite: “What you gonna do now? Whatever I wanna do, gosh.”
Musically, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a nice blend of Kanye’s older and newer styles. Power compares to Stronger with a catchy hook and overblown production. All Of The Lights and Lost In The World lean on electronica, with enough autotune to make T-Pain jealous. But you can hear some of the older ‘Ye through the sped-up vocal samples on Devil In A New Dress and through the explosive, polyrhythmic beat on Monster.
The only downside here is that tracks stick around longer than they really should. West has long since abandoned comedy skits on his albums, but he’s filled the void with repeated choruses and lacklustre instrumental sections. For the most part, a little editing could have gone a long way. But there are still diamonds in the rough, like the closing track, Who Will Survive In America, which samples the spoken poetry of Gil Scott-Heron’s Comment #1.
Kanye West has always been passionate. Some people only see his egotism, his angry outbursts, his need for the spotlight and don’t realize it’s part of a bigger picture. His huge ego stems from his do-or-die mentality; his (sometimes misdirected) anger is against social injustice more than it’s against individuals; his quest for the spotlight is the same quest everyone has to make their mark on the world. It’s just that most people stamp down this yearning for greatness and accept their lot in life. And most people aren’t talented rappers with something significant to say.