Dark. Twisted. Fantastic: Kanye West
For a man who demands every nanosecond of our collective attention, Kanye West probably had a pretty crummy day last Tuesday. That's when Apple announced that the Beatles catalogue was finally coming to iTunes, sending musty echoes of Beatlemania rippling across the planet.
West's noisy Twitter feed fell silent. The most anticipated album of his career was due out in seven days, and the only pop deities — dead or alive — capable of changing the discussion had changed the discussion. West's music is strong enough to resuscitate a 40-year-old riddle: Will anyone ever eclipse the Beatles? It's also brave enough to suggest a new one: Why compete with the past when you can own the future? Fittingly, his new album comes pre-loaded with an answer to both: "I don't believe in yesterday/ What's a black Beatle anyway?/A [expletive] roach?/ I guess that's why they got me sitting here in [expletive] coach."
And that's just a freckle of the petulant genius that coats every inch of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, easily the most thrilling album of 2010 and the best of West's career. The weird, wordy title is the only thing about this opus that he'll live to regret — the rest is pure pop bravura, with hip-hop's biggest ego torquing self-obsession into unapologetic new shapes.
West's moment of post-Beatles anxiety comes during Gorgeous, a song that moans and groans with a dark urgency that permeates this album.
From the hyperventilating death rattle of Monster to the mutant gospel crescendos of Dark Fantasy, this is some truly epic stuff. And with most of these songs stretching out well beyond the five-minute mark, Fantasy should speak directly to an affirmation-needy Facebook generation while challenging its shrinking attention span. Crowded with maniac choirs, alien drum machinery and instrumental interludes that toggle between decorative and devastating, the grandeur never feels excessive.
It feels necessary. Of course, West's need to superimpose his brilliance on every passing moment is exactly what got him excommunicated from popland at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. (For anyone who forgot: He interrupted an acceptance speech by Taylor Swift because he thought she didn't deserve to win.) Criticism came swarming from all directions, including the White House, where President Barack Obama off-handedly called him "a jackass."
Before that, West was basking in the afterglow of 2008's brilliant 808s & Heartbreak, an album on which he abandoned rapping for singing in a cold, mechanical R&B style. If 808s still stands as an imaginative left turn into our technology-addicted future, Fantasy is this guy's masterpiece, exceeding the triumphalism of Jay-Z's The Black Album, matching the curatorial sweep of Dr. Dre's The Chronic and approaching the imaginative stratospheres occupied by OutKast's twin treasures Aquemini and Stankonia.
But West isn't trying to redefine hip-hop so much as define our times — a task maybe only he has the ambition (and talent) to attempt. It wasn't always like that.
Over the course of a decade, the 33-year-old has made a steady climb from shadowy producer to rap curiosity to hip-hop superstar to outspoken omnipresence. He wasn't born with Michael Jackson's precocious magic, nor with the Beatles' superhuman gifts. He had to work for success. Hindered by a near-fatal car crash, the sudden death of his mother and countless outbursts, meltdowns and hissyfits of his own volition, his rise has been long, painful and very, very public.
As his songs blanketed the airwaves, West appeared to be making his career out of jeopardising his career. He lashed out in interviews and threw tantrums at awards shows. He made fresh headlines this month when George W. Bush cited West's infamous 2005 jab — "George Bush doesn't care about black people" — as the lowlight of his presidency.
West has since offered Bush a quasi-apology, but he remains hopelessly candid, unable to censor his rebel heart amid a constellation of pop stars too meek to ever say anything halfway controversial. As our information-age appetite for "reality" grows more insatiable, so does West's desire to deliver it.
Power, West's new megalomaniacal theme song, maps out this turbulent headspace like never before. As a battalion of female voices wail along to a breathtaking military march, Stratocaster-toting phantoms noodle off into a purple haze while West describes ego, loneliness and creativity as three strands of a rope, intertwined: "Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic/He know he's so [expletive] gifted/ I just needed time alone, with my own thoughts/ Got treasures in my mind, but couldn't open up my own vault."
And then there's mortality. Rappers have long rhymed about dying young at the hands of another, but with Power, West's take on death is far control-freakier. "This'll be a beautiful death," he declares, contemplating suicide from the ledge of a building. Because if anyone takes West's life, it'll be him.
Elsewhere, he surrounds himself with a sprawling and disparate crew: Alicia Keys, Elton John, Rihanna, the RZA, the disembodied voice of Gil Scott Heron and others. Don't mistake them for a support group. West treats his guests like musical instruments. Gap Band founder Charlie Wilson lends his vocal elastic to Monster, John Legend takes a breathless turn on Blame Game, and Rick Ross and Pusha T play street-wise foils on Devil in a New Dress and Runaway, respectively.
Each of these tunes surf on exhilarating torrents of rubbery percussion that abandon hip-hop's classic boom-bap for a resonant bloom-blap.
The drums come avalanching on Lost in the World, the grand finale this album deserves. Joined by Justin Vernon, the helium-throated warbler better known as indie-folk act Bon Iver, West serves up high drama at a breakneck tempo, with pining melodies crying out for a redemptive moment.
But there's no final act of contrition. West is too "lost in this plastic life." And he doesn't want our forgiveness, anyway. He wants us to get lost with him — lost in every dizzying drum pattern, every delirious disclosure that defines this world he's so painstakingly created. All you need is love? According to West, all you need is him.
West's side story
1977: Kanye Omari West is born on June 8 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
1980: West's parents file for divorce. He moves with his mother to Chicago, Illinois.
1996: West produces his first album with rapper Grav.
1998: He begins to collaborate and produce with well-known musicians Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, Goodie Mob, and the group Harlem World.
1998: Encouraged by his success, West drops out of college to pursue a career in music full time.
2000: The big break beckons: West is employed by Jay-Z's studio Roc-A-Fella Records to produce the rapper's song This Can't Be Life.
2001: West moves to New York. He features heavily on Jay-Z's hugely successful album The Blueprint.
2002: West is involved in a near fatal car crash while driving home from the recording studio, leaving him with a broken face and fractured jaw.
2004: Kanye West's debut album The College Dropout is released to great commercial and critical success. Wins Grammy for Best Rap Album. The song Jesus Walks becomes an anthem.
2005: West releases second album Late Registration. He wins a Best Rap Album Grammy. Later that year, during a live telecast of a benefit concert, West deviates from a prepared script and says: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Bush later called that incident "one of the most disgusting moments" of his presidency.
2006: Pastelle Clothing, West's fashion line is launched. At the MTV Europe Music Awards in November, he walks onto the stage as the award was being presented to French band Justice and argues that he should have won instead.
2007: West third studio album Graduation is released. He wins four Grammy Awards. In November, his mother dies from complications related to cosmetic surgery.
2008: West announces he has ended his 18-month engagement with artist Alexis Phifer. He releases his fourth album 808's & Heartbreak.
2009: The notorious Taylor Swift incident takes places at the MTV Video Music Awards, prompting even US President Barack Obama to call him a "jackass". A few weeks later, West tweeted: "I'm sorry Taylor."
November, 2010: West releases his fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to great critical acclaim.