Hip-hop fans are a tough bunch to please. New artists are maligned for not sounding like the old ones, but there is no crime greater than “biting” those who’ve come before. In short, to be considered great an artist needs to sound like they were around in ’88, but not sound like anyone who was around in ’88. Rappers are applauded for being “real”, but what this reality encompasses is never explicitly stated. In a genre and a culture that expects its great artists to submit to a vague set of ideological rules, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Kanye West fits into the pantheon of hip-hop royalty.
Kanye breaks plenty of rules on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album is composed of nine-minute rap epics that don’t adhere to traditional verse-chorus-verse guidelines. False endings give way to noodling instrumental outros. But perhaps the rule Kanye violates the most flagrantly is also the biggest recipe for disaster: Don’t sound like you are setting out to make the greatest album of all time. This is the most certain way to start ringing the “realness” alarm bells. Yet he somehow pulls it off, and he does it by backing up all the swagger and hype with an album that may actually be that good.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is hands-down the most ambitious mainstream rap album ever made. It also may be the best produced. Everything here sparkles and nothing is out of place. It probably wasn’t by design, but the very title of the album spits in the face of the goofy “real” concept. Album opener “Dark Fantasy” kicks off with a spoken word intro from Nicki Minaj, whose talking voice is almost as interesting as her rapping voice. As soon as her voice dies down it gives way to a maelstrom of strings, horns, synths and percussion that does not give way until the final moments of Gil Scott-Heron’s outraged rant on “Who Will Survive in America”.
“Runaway”, the album’s emotional center, debuted at this year’s VMA’s, where it served as a subtle retort to Taylor Swift’s condescending and much hyped “I-Forgive-Kanye” moment. Kanye is one of the great innovators of the sung-rap-song movement that has dominated urban radio the last few years, but here he takes it to new extremes. Built on a heartbreakingly lonely piano loop, the song finds Kanye bemoaning his personality flaws and features a tight verse from Clipse MC Pusha T. But what sets it apart is the false ending. Well past the five minute mark the music gives way, only to return with that same piano loop and Kanye West going bananas with his vocoder for about four minutes.
Just as ambitious is “All of the Lights”. Kanye turns the posse track formula on its head by bringing together (deep breath) Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Elton John, John Legend, The-Dream, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Ryan Leslie, Charlie Wilson, Tony Williams, and Elly Jackson over an epic horn-driven track, creating a “Where’s Waldo” for music nerds. But instead of devolving into a bloated mess or a cheesy celebrity sing-along, Kanye’s production turns it into an epic sing-along, more arena-rock than hip-hop.
But “All of the Lights” is just the tip of the guest artist iceberg. The album could be fairly credited to Kanye and Friends, with the star of the show finding the most flattering use for all of them. You’ve already heard it a thousand times, but it bears repeating that Nicki Minaj delivers the best verse of the year on “Monster”. A fuzzed-out Raekwon verse is one of the highlights of “Gorgeous” and nobody can bellow the words “fucking ridiculous” in quite the same way as his Wu-Tang brother RZA on “So Appalled”. John Legend’s soulful vocals and piano set a nice backdrop to Chris Rock’s jokes on “Blame Game”. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver lends his voice to both “Monster” and the frantic album closer “Lost in the World”.
West’s emotion is yet another factor that has set him apart from so many of his peers. In a genre obsessed with being hard and keeping your feelings inside, he has shown that it is ok to let them out once in a while and his example has been followed throughout the genre, most notably by Drake. Tracks such as “Blame Game” and “So Appalled” find an introspective Kanye reflecting on the same subject matter that defined 808’s and Hearbreak: the trappings of fame and fortune and how they relate to his humanity.
It is almost incomprehensible how Kanye West is able to pull off such an ambitious project to such near-perfect results. Every point that seems set up for failure is another opportunity for Kanye to prove his mastery. The track order is flawless. The biggest hurdle West faces here is following up the emotionally draining “Runaway”, and once again he is up to the task with “Hell of a Life”, an upbeat head banger with an “Iron Man” inspired hook and a good helping of that Kanye wit.
With the staggering production it’s easy to forget that Kanye is also a pretty decent rapper. Perhaps the only thing that keeps him out of those redundant “greatest rapper” discussions is the fact that, well, he’s never been a great rapper. He has always possessed sharp wit and complex lyrical themes, but even his biggest fans are not going to argue that he has a flow that deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph with guys like Jay-Z and Rakim. While Kanye seems to have honed his skills a bit since the release of Graduation – his last rap album – it’s unlikely that anything here is going to change anyone’s mind on that matter. Still, a thorough listen reveals that Kanye’s wordplay is often deceptively complex, such as on a creative double name-drop of Leona Lewis and Kings of Leon on “Dark Fantasy”.
There is no question that this album is a game changer. It’s Kanye West’s greatest work and not only does it prove that his name deserves to be in any greatest-of-all-time discussions, but it changes the way we have these conversations. Do the greatest rappers need to possess the flow of Rakim or the fury of Chuck D? In just over 30 years hip-hop has progressed from street corners to stadiums and while it has lost much of the rawness and joy of its earliest incarnations, it has become a worldwide cultural force, creating jobs, changing lives, and projecting urban realities to millions of people. Kanye West’s music and persona may not always ring true of the original concept of hip-hop, but he is the exemplary model of what it has become and where it is headed.