When I was in high school, my music-nerd friends and I would often gripe to one another that the pop music of today wasn’t anywhere near as innovative as it was three or four decades ago. It’s still a somewhat valid point—it’s not that there isn’t a ton of great music being made today, because that is a ridiculous claim. However, it’s perfectly reasonable for my generation to feel cheated by the thought that Carole King was the Dr. Luke of the 1960s. The problem with this sentiment, though, is that you occasionally have to account for things like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a frequently astonishing, no-holds-barred tour de force that not only eclipses his previous four albums in scope and creativity (no small feat), but also makes everything else on the radio sound positively amateurish by comparison.
It’s not enough that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a masterful synthesis of the best bits of Yeezy’s earlier albums, or that every song packs in twice its length in ideas—Kanye’s pushing creative boundaries like this while operating decidedly on the LeBron/Obama/Michael Jackson level of fame. And there’s no doubting that those are his cultural peers now: since 2007’s Graduation made him as big as it’s humanly possible to be in the rap world, Kanye has had the kind of three-year stretch that would kill the career of a lesser artist. He released an insular, autotune-soaked breakup album that nobody liked except me, upstaged the one person at the VMAs that was guaranteed to make him the most enemies, cancelled a planned tour with Lady Gaga just as she was on the cusp of becoming Madonna 2.0, created the most schizophrenic, self-absorbed Twitter feed in existence, and released a short film to accompany this album’s second single, “Runaway,” that made Axl Rose’s “November Rain” trilogy look restrained. The fact that he bounced back from all of that with any public goodwill intact, let alone remained the biggest pop star on the planet, tells us all we need to know.
About a decade ago, Bono famously said that U2 were applying for the job of greatest rock band in the world; Ye would never be so modest. As far as he’s concerned, he’s been the best in the game since the release of 2004’s The College Dropout. This cockiness is something you love or hate about the guy, but only a fool would deny that he takes this self-given title seriously on a creative level. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is mainstream hip-hop reimagined as prog rock, and not just because “Power” samples “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Any time Kanye has to make a choice between under- and overdoing something, he always opts for the latter. Adding a four-minute vocoder solo to the end of “Runaway”? Sure, why not? How about working the guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” into “Hell of a Life”? Is that even a question?
Yeezy’s maniacal perfectionism often brings out the best in his collaborators. Jay-Z hasn’t been as dialed-in as he is on “Monster” and “So Appalled” since at least The Black Album. Rihanna’s hook on “All of the Lights” is every bit as indelible as “Umbrella” or “Love the Way You Lie.” I’ve been decidedly on the fence about the whole Nicki Minaj thing, but she annihilates some pretty esteemed competition on “Monster.” Kid Cudi comes into his own as a hook man on “Gorgeous,” which also features a blistering verse from Raekwon. Kanye admirably refrains from including Drake on the album, but the way the rest of this thing goes, he would have probably even been able to coax a halfway-decent performance from Drizzy.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sheds new light on the mental breakdown Kanye experienced after the death of his mother in late 2007. If 808s & Heartbreak’s angle was “why does this always happen to me?,” Fantasy is more “why do I do this to everybody else?” He openly refers to himself as a “douchebag” on the album’s nine-minute centerpiece, “Runaway,” and the John Legend-assisted ballad “Blame Game” amounts to a laundry list of his troubles with girls. (And speaking of “Blame Game,” give it two weeks before answering questions with “Yeezy taught me” becomes the new “I’mma let you finish.”) But despite the unprecedented vulnerability on display here, Kanye’s desire to be all things to all people is unchanged. The album opens with a monologue by Nicki Minaj and closes with a Bon Iver interpolation. In a perfect world, “Power” would do for King Crimson’s cultural profile what “Stronger” did for Daft Punk’s. Even old-school Kanye purists will have to give it up for “Devil in a New Dress,” which wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on College Dropout or Late Registration.
Everything Kanye has ever done well, he does better here. Graduation’s streamlined stadium-rap attack is blown away by the opening three tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Runaway” boils 808s’ bedroom pop down to nine minutes. The sprawling posse cuts “Monster” and “So Appalled” are logical extensions of the Late Registration victory-lap jams “We Major” and “Celebration.” Listening to Fantasy is like watching Jordan in his prime. Comparing him to other rappers is pointless: there are other guys with much more technically-sound flows (although Ye is as wickedly funny as he’s ever been), but nobody else possesses the combination of hubris, imagination, neuroticism, and drive it takes to make a record like this. And you’re telling me this is probably going to end up one of the biggest-selling albums of the year? It makes Ke$ha and Taio Cruz a lot easier to forgive.