UPDATE 2: Our friend over at Sim Traks has been blogging about this! http://bit.ly/hMg5ft
I decided to write a review of Kanye’s album after being thoroughly disappointed with all the reviews I have read across the inter-webs (with an exception to a lengthy quote by Q-Tip).
Kanye West is a hip hop game changer, his recent album is avant-garde done right; he is the only rapper that has the capability of doing something like this. He challenges normative assumptions of what it means to be a rapper, while testing the boundaries of hip-hop. This album is full of personal emotion, vulnerability, and self-reflection; something that is often absent from rap. While listening to this album you feel like you are witnessing something paradoxically new, yet oddly familiar; musical history in the making. It seems reasonable to conclude that he (along with Kid Cudi) inadvertently created his own sub-genre of hip-hop, teetering on alternative, indie, and pop. Welcome to the era of transcendental hip-hop.
Kanye West’s recent album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, took me a while to review. I had to listen to this album closely and repeatedly in order to come up with a coherent review of his work. Instead of offering a holistic opinion of the entire album, I think it would be best to provide my comments for each track individually while placing it into the larger context of the album and the artist. The genius behind this album is that each and every song can be marketed as a single. Unlike Kid Cudi’s albums where you have to listen to it in its entirety to appreciate it, Kanye masterfully makes each song an epic masterpiece in and of itself.
There are so many elements to this album (e.g., allusion), that it would be impossible to write a review any shorter without selling the album short. His lyrics are filled with references to slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and racism (e.g., “Gorgeous”). You find yourself stumbling upon his recent obsession with fashion as he rattles off designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Phoebe Philo, and Dior Homme. He references other artists like Nas, Leona Lewis, and Kelly Rowland. From taking a stab at South Park (“Gorgeous”) and Saturday Night Live (“Power”), to making fun of his actions at the MTV Video Music Awards (“See Me Now”) and referencing Obama’s off camera comments (“Power”), his whole album is a historical recreation of his life.
Without any further ado:
Dark Fantasy: This track is complex in its musical composition. If you listen to it close enough you can pick up the small subtle elements, (e.g., like a small piano loop, more pronounced on the left) which gives this song tremendous character. A perfect confluence of soul and hood. This song, like many of the others on this album, does not follow the traditional format of verses and chorus lines. There is not much else to say about this track; you have to experience it. This song is a perfect introduction and perfect in composition.
Hey, teacher, teacher
Tell me how do you respond to students?
And refresh the page and restart the memory?
Re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?
Gorgeous: Kanye attempts to bring out the best in each artist featured on his album, and this song serves as a perfect example of just that. Kid Cudi, as noted in my last review, is a great chorus artist. That is, Kid Cudi is at his best when singing chorus lines, which is particularly noted on this track. Raekwon, on the other hand is remembered as part of the Wu Tang Clan and his relevance is revived with Kanye’s touch. This song is made that much better with the guitar riff looped in the background as well as Kanye’s stab at his unflattering portrayal on South Park, rapping “Choke a South Park writer with a fish stick.”
Is hip hop, just a euphemism for a new religion?
The soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing
This is more than just my road to redemption
Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention
Power: This is not the best song off the album, yet Kanye chose it as the single. It was so good that it made it into the Grammys this year. This song is like a fine painting and the reason I make this suggestion is because Kanye makes the same connection in the music video for the song. From the samples, the verses, chorus lines, to the rhythm and blues number at the end interwoven with commentary, and the maniacal laughter; there is a lot going on in this track, yet it is so masterfully contained.
Lost in translation with a whole f-ckin’ nation
They say I was the ‘Obama-nation’ of Obama’s nation
Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation
All of the Lights: The interlude to this song was a nice touch; very melodic, simple, devoid of any obnoxious elements. It sets the mood for the greatness that is about to come. Something to note here, the length of Kanye’s songs is a lot longer than traditionally seen with rap tracks (which are usually three and half minutes). “All of the Lights” is an intricate song with a fast drum line over orchestral elements that are perfectly blended and interwoven into different beat patterns. Kanye’s rapping is passionate, full of intonations (A great example of this is when he mentions Michael Jackson’s death). This song is another example of Kanye’s musical ability and talent of bringing out the best in his artists; this is talent to its fullest potential. It is very difficult to weave in all the various vocal contributions and musical shifts into a masterpiece, but Kanye pulls it off well. This song alone is so sophisticated, so smart.
Something wrong, I hold my head
MJ gone...our n-gga dead!
Monster: This track is so hard and so cold; the beat sets the tone for the entire song. It is evident that the largely untalented Rick Ross had to be given some direction with his lyrics because he is typically known for nonsensical material. However, he provides a good introduction to the song, saying: “Kanye West samples, here’s one for example…” Since College Dropout, Kanye’s rap style and content have become more comedic and less conscious. His signature delivery is best exemplified in two parts. One, he elongates words leading into the next bar: “Have you ever had sex with a phaaarrrraaaooohhhhh? Put the p--sy in a sarcophagus.” Two, he abruptly ends saying the last bar slightly off beat in a more commanding tone: “my presence is a present. Kiss my ass!” One will also note that Jay Z’s lyrics are coherent and thematic. Nicki Minaj, a generally lousy artist (representative of Cash Money all together) redeems herself on this track, tapping into her Caribbean roots: “Find it, Tony Matterhorn ‘Dutty Wine it’.” The song finishes nicely with a verse from Bon Iver; I think this is Kanye’s way of bridging genres and challenging musical norms. What other rapper is capable of this?
Do the rap and the track, triple-double no assist.
So Appalled: I was disappointed slightly when this song appeared on the album because I expected Kanye to use only new music for his albums. This stunt reminded me of the time when Kanye recycled his mixtape song “Homecoming” ft. John Legend by using it on the album Graduation, but this time featuring Chris Martin. The GOOD Friday promotional tracks were supposed to be something separate from the album, or so it was assumed incorrectly. Nonetheless, this is another exceptional track that revisits music from the Old School era with a hood beat. It was hard to evaluate this song because on one hand you have greats like Jay Z, Kanye, and the RZA adding their flavor to the track, and on the other hand you have weaker elements such as verses by Pusha T and Cyhi da Prynce. These latter two artists could not survive without Kanye backing them and featuring them on his masterpiece of an album. Cyhi da Prynce's verse seems like an amalgamation of every clever bar that he has ever thought of, while Pusha T is just trying too hard. Their hackneyed performances could be seen as a weakness of the track, unless Kanye is featuring these artists as a way of authenticating the hood-ness of the song. Debatable. RZA's contribution is perfect, it is icing on the cake. Swiss Beats generally spoils songs with his commentary over tracks, but in this song it is more controlled and his contribution is appropriate.
That know the day that you play me
Will be the same day MTV play videos
That was a little joke, Voila!
Praises due to the most high, Allah
Praises due to the most fly, Prada
Baby I'm magic, ta-da
Devil in a New Dress: This was another track which Kanye had released as a promotional song and later decided to use on his album. Unlike “So Appalled,” this song was so exceptional that it definitely was album worthy. However, sticking to the original statement, Kanye should have left this track as a promotion and put out something new for the album. Recycling music is something one doesn’t expect from mainstream artists as good as Kanye. Kanye is very much like the comedian and good friend, Aziz Ansari. Both rarely come up with new material, they are very comfortable with the set number of verses/jokes they have written. Nonetheless, “Devil in a New Dress” reminds me of The College Dropout and Late Registration, with a grown up touch. The mellowed smoothness is on par with his Late Registration song, "Drive slow," and his message is reminiscent of The College Dropout favorite, "Jesus Walks." His wittiness is heightened and highlighted throughout the track with clever lines like, “We love Jesus, but we learn a lot from Satan,” “Dior Homme, not Dior Homie!,” and “I ordered the jerk, she said ‘you are what you eat’.” In this track, Kanye lets the music do the talking, letting the beat ride as we enjoy the magic of the music. Unfortunately, Rick Ross chimes in towards the end of the song, which I personally believe is a weak spot. Rick Ross's excessive grunting and barking makes me think he was having an asthma attack or an ulcer during the recording; either that or he lost his breath while spitting his verse. He is more or less yelling in rhyme, spoiling the vibe of the track as he goes on. The only noteworthy bar from Rick Ross was, "making Tupac money, twice over." Other than that, it was a poor performance by Rick Ross, as expected. I am still trying to figure out why Kanye would include him on the song.
Don’t leave while you’re hot that’s how Mase screwed up
Throwing sh-t around, the whole place screwed up
Maybe I should call Mase so that he could pray for us
Runaway: Very candid, very honest. Wonderful sample, old school 808/MPC sounding beat, with a melodic piano number. This is another avant-garde piece. His lyrical content is vulgar, yes, but it is self-reflective and honest. If any other rapper were to say the same things, it would be taken distastefully, as noted by Pusha T’s awful verse. (Pusha T is a generic rapper, and one problem with this album is that it’s missing some of the fantastic rappers that Kanye has collaborated with, i.e., Mos Def, Lupe, Talib, Common, Nas, and Q-Tip.) In my opinion, Pusha T’s verse and Kanye's extensive robotic Auto-Tune splurge towards the end of the song spoils this almost perfect track. Although, despite the Auto-Tune sounding slightly cacophonous at times, it somehow fits the vibe of the proceeding track, leading right into “Hell of a Life” perfectly.
And I just blame everything on you
At least you know that's what I'm good at
Hell of a Life: This song should appear in a “The Best of Kanye” album. From the wild piano riff in the chorus line to the hard beat, this song sounds like what his Graduation tune "Drunk and Hot Girls" should have been. The way the beat stratifies, splits, and shifts presents the listener with different highs and lows. This song is odd lyrically (I am not going to lie, it’s not his finest), but he does drop a bar that is definitely noteworthy when he wonders why other more demeaning sex acts are equated to sexual relations with a "black guy." This song, holistically, is done well sans the awkward panting/breathing towards the end. This is a great example of how well Kanye is able to reveal his different moods while conjuring up feelings within the listener.
Tell me what I gotta do to be that guy
Said her price go down, she ever f-ck a black guy
Blame Game: John Legend’s contribution, along with the Aphex Twins’ “Avril 14th” sample is absolutely perfect. The voice effects on Kanye’s verse highlight the torment he feels, his struggle with himself. In "Can't Tell Me Nothing," (Graduation) Kanye says "I'm on TV taking like it’s just you and me," but in this track something different takes place. Kanye is rapping as if he is looking into a mirror, talking to himself. The recently popular Degrassi actor turned rapper, Drake, tries to serenade his listeners from time to time by switching from rap to singing. In "Blame Game," Kanye shows us how it is supposed to be done. Kanye is not a great singer, but him singing is less of a gimmick and more him being himself, not caring who likes it. It is authentic. Kanye has always enjoyed singing, but doesn’t have the talent to do it. In this song it is appreciated. He sings his emotions the best he can, and we feel it. It’s a soulful energy that adds to John Legend's presence. Kanye adds a little of his own spoken word piece, reflecting on his ideas of love. Finally, Kanye is known for interspersing comedic skits within his albums. Adding Chris Rock at the end of this somber tune is a hilarious touch, seen as Kanye’s attempt to redirect the mood of the listener. This is another one of those well done, multifaceted tracks that are so complex, yet very simple; a hip-hop musical paradox that only Kanye could design and implement.
On a bathroom wall I wrote:
"I'd rather argue with you than to be with someone else"
I took a piss and dismissed it like f-ck it and went and found somebody else
F-ck arguing or harvesting the feelings, I'd rather be by my f-cking self
Till about 2:00 AM and I call back and I hang up and start to blame myself
Lost in the World: Amazing. This is theme music. This is one of those rare fantastical musical masterpieces (like “My Girls” by Animal Collective.) Gil Scott-Heron's poem, collaboration with Bon Iver, and the applause at the end place the song in the hip-hop historical record. Bringing in the soulful elements first introduced in The College Dropout (e.g., "I’ll Fly Away"), the masterful production and thematic sounds of Late Registration, the lyrical style and content of Graduation, the African-inspired drum pattern and Auto-Tune experimentation of 808s and Heartbreak (e.g., “Love Lockdown”), and finally, the maturity, depth, harmony, and genius of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy makes this a benchmark of the musical brilliance only Kanye is capable of.
If we die in each other’s arms,
Still get laid in that afterlife,
See Me Now: This song is best kept as a bonus track. This is a song you have to earn. His lively delivery coupled with Beyonce and Charlie Wilson's harmonization and singing make this a hidden gem and a beautiful spot in his overall "dark, twisted" album. He is right when he notes, “This that Yeezy we all love...I'm back, baby." This track is what "The Glory" (from Graduation) should have been. His continue hating of Toyota is also much appreciated and hilarious: "the whips on the Sprewells, is so un-Camry," a reference on par with: "What you think I rap for? To push a f-ckin' Rav-4?" (from “Run This Town”). His commentary over the track is a nice, hilarious touch especially the stab he makes at Taylor Swift: "And I’mma let you finish but I got Beyonce on the track." Kanye is clearly proud of this song, and so are we; this is, as he calls it, “Black excellence.”
If you fall on the concrete, that’s your ass fault
Kanye is the pioneering leader in rap music. In many respects, his use of samples is a way of reviving music that has fallen out of the memories of many. It introduces the listener to a hodgepodge of genres and sounds that an avid rap music listener would never come across. Each track contains multitudes; it is Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in an alternative form.
Kanye lives his music. He does not play a character in his rap songs or a persona like other popular rappers (e.g., Drake, Rick Ross, Gucci Mane, etc), he keeps it real. It was difficult judging this album without factoring in the musician himself because unlike many artists whose music does not represent who they are, Kanye is his music, and his music is him. You may hate Kanye ten times over for whatever reason, but you have to award some merit to this man who is able to acknowledge his vices, and this album is just that.
A friend of mine over at Aphera Music (Larissa Woskob), recently reminded me of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. A tragic character is one who is good but his downfall is due to a flaw. You do not want to see tragedy happen to a villain because that is not tragic. And you do not want to see it happen to someone who is too perfect because it is unfair. This album is a contemporary musical avant-garde reengineering of a tragedy.
The only thing this album lacks is lyrical talent; the artists (including Kanye) are clever, raw, and honest at best, but not uniquely profound. At times the lyrics are vulgar and cliché, full of relationship troubles, self-praise, money euphemisms/references, and violence. Some superfluous elements detract from the quality of the music.
This album should not be hallmarked for its lyrical content; rather it should be lauded for its musical production and for challenging the traditional conventions of rap and hip-hop, and for being avant-garde done right. As Jay Z would say, "Kanyezzy, You did it again! You a Genius!" (“Lucifer” by Jay Z & prod. Kanye West)
Written by: Abbas Rattani