Give Life Back To Music 09.01.13: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus Posted by Sean Comer on 09.02.2013
411's Sean Comer concludes his personal journey through the music of Kanye West with a look at the rapper's 2010 critically-acclaimed LP My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and this year's divisive Yeezus!
Kanye West -- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus
Yeah, I reserve the right to cop out and do this when needed.
It's time to close out this tour through Kanye West's artistic evolution by looking at two albums in one column, because there's just not that much that I have to say about either release. I'll go into greater depth below in a moment, but for an artist with as much imagination and personal originality as Kanye displays at his best, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy feels pretty unremarkable. Meanwhile, although Yeezus once more oppositely ignores every boundary that's supposed to define contemporary hip-hop and features a much more impassioned-sounding Kanye, I just don't have as much investment in it as I have in his previous four albums.
That doesn't mean I think that either is a "bad" album, though.
Before I elaborate, a quick explanation as to why I'm not covering G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer or Watch the Throne. Neither really falls into my limiting parameter of solo efforts that defined Kanye's creativity as an all-around artist. Cruel Summer is more like Jay Z's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, a showcase of a label's perhaps less-known talents, so it's a task to really zero a look at that in on Kanye's work. Meanwhile, Watch the Throne is obviously a collaboration between Kanye and Jay Z, so it's hard once again to pinpoint what it really says about him specifically.
To be brief, though, I love and recommend both. Cruel Summer is a fun collaboration of artists still establishing their legacies, while Watch the Throne features prodigy and mentor pairing their skills to bring out the best in each other.
Anyway…so there are still two Kanye West albums to cover, and I'm losing the plot faster than a 411 commenter loses the actual definitions of "tawdry" or "call an audible".
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Released: November 22, 2010
Released: June 18, 2013
I'm genuinely stuck scratching my head as I ponder why so many critics consider My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to be his best album. If anything, it comes across to me as his laziest and least-inspired work, but one that still manages to deliver a quality experience.
Is it a mature melding of what he brought to the table with his previous four albums – the soulful melodies of The College Dropout, the refinement of Late Registration's strings, and the inventive electronic textures of Graduation and 808s & Heartbreak in one set of songs – or was he just at a loss a single-minded direction?
From where I sit, it's more of the latter, leading to an album that feels too busy for its own good. Sure, one thematic bond or another of the previous four might've resonated within you more than others, whether it was Dropout's maturation journey of struggle, the growth of Registration, or the meditations on loss in 808s. At least the first four albums had that defined core. This? This is Kanye's The Pickwick Papers, the album when he grandly exhibits all of the things he can do….all at once.
Just as unfortunately, it feels weighed down with collaborations, to the point that this feels more like a Santana album: Kanye providing the stage and providing a bit role as often less-talented peers come along and borrow a mic or two for a few bars. That's to say nothing ill of Jay Z, Kid Cudi, John Legend, or Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and RZA. It's just that up to this point, what Kanye had to say was the focal point of each album.
Here, it starts to feel like hip-hop's The View.
It's not really helped that even the lyrics themselves sound that distinctly motivated. If anything, it's a continuation of Graduation's theme of meditation on excess, consumer culture, and the price of celebrity. Tracks such as "All of the Lights" and "Monster" definitely elaborate his takes on these subjects from years' more advanced experience with these dangerous costs of fame, but especially the intrusion of Jay Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver and Nicki Minaj to "All of the Lights" bog down any compelling points Kanye himself might make while really adding nothing to the actual point he'd drive toward.
If I have to pick a favorite of the whole thing, it's "Runaway". It's built on a dark beat that supports Kanye's overt "To hell with it" admission that he knows he's an unbearable mass of pure ego most of the time, but that he doesn't feel an obligation to give the world anything less than his unfiltered self, for better and for worse.
All in all, though, it's Kanye trying to do everything and ending up achieving far less. Miraculously, even when less focused, it's still a very good album - just far from the most enjoyable. If this is Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker to most people, it's The Undertaker vs. Randy Orton to me. His next go-round on the other hand….
Yeezus embodies so much that I love about Kanye's music: it's original, intense, and polarizing. Best of all, it's narrowly directed. Grim, industrial and loud, this is an experience delivered with so much drive and a genuine rush of Kanye's seeming rage, that it's easy to miss that it's not especially lyrically focused in places. Sure, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was revisiting Kanye's beaten path of musings on the nature of excess, but this one often sets down its roots in how peer perception misses out on some artist's grander, more complex visions.
If that was the direction in which he next wanted to explore, he especially picked the right guest producers in Daft Punk and Rick Rubin. Working previously with artists as varied in scope and nature as Korn, System of a Down, the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and even Jay Z himself (to name just a scant, elite few), Rubin was possibly the one and only man to bring Kanye's primal minimalist vision of an industrial, punk and dancehall collage to startling life. I often wondered when hearing particularly 808s for the first time what a meeting of West's mind with those of Daft Punk would yield. The answer? Pure, inventive adrenaline.
This…this is why I began this column. I wanted to take the exploration of music back to rooting around in the albums I love and remember what really makes them hum, appreciating them in all their personality rather than thinking for a second about artistic celebrity. When you put everything else aside, Kanye is sometimes his own victim: an incredible intellect, boundless sonic imagination, and lyrics that pour out his heart pretty uncompromisingly too often end up overshadowed by his own ego.
In the end, now six albums into his solo career (eight, if you count the two aforementioned collaborations), he's taken hip-hop as an art form to new places stylistically where few – if anyone, let's be honest – can really follow. Ultimately, whatever else he does, he always comes back to music. You might love him or hate him as a man, but there's little denying that everything we'd loathe about him personally makes up a layer or two of bedrock beneath the driven artist.
Next week, we begin anew. I'm taking on another polarizing artist, but one who's loved and loathed by different sets for different reasons. He's a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, one who took a whole three albums to begin displaying the musical potential that obviously needed some time to percolate and rise more obviously to the surface.