There are few artists in the popular spectrum as divisive as Kanye West. Known for his often outrageous behaviour as much as his compelling music, it is easy to let Kanye’s larger-than-life public persona overshadow his formidable talent as a producer, arranger, musician, performer, and rapper. His most recent record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is unlikely to make new fans out of those put off by his famously inflated ego, but it is undeniably the fullest expression of his artistic vision to date.
We last heard from the Chicago native on 808’s and Heartbreak, Kanye’s emotionally wrought but spotty 2008 experiment with auto-tune. 808’s came at a turbulent time for Kanye, who was struggling to come to terms with his newfound place in the spotlight while dealing with his separation from ex-fiancée Alexis Phifer and the death of his mother Donda West, with whom Kanye was exceptionally close. While the album was met with mixed critical reception at the time of its release, it revealed a deeply personal side of the man barely hinted at on his acclaimed college trilogy.
The powerful synthesis of West’s trademark style and his newfound vulnerability on Fantasy redefines 808’s as a flawed but necessary sidestep in his creative development. It is impossible to imagine as honest and moving a record as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy without it.
The album pursues a distinctive narrative arc as Kanye, increasingly self-aware, sorts through his inner demons and the contradictions that characterize his alternately arrogant and insecure persona. It opens with “Dark Fantasy,” a triumphant call-back to West’s early career that asks for a fresh start but recognizes this impossibility, setting the stage for the struggle to follow.
For many long-time fans, Kanye’s most recent album will be seen as a return to form and, to be sure, all of his signature elements; sampling, wordplay, genre-jumping compositions, and intricate arrangements are there in spades. Yet Fantasy is much more than a retread of West’s prior work.
This surprisingly varied offering of urgent, thrilling, and sometimes devastating music that pushes the boundaries of what could be considered hip hop is also incredibly consistent. Each track is produced with a skilful, almost cinematic flair that is best exemplified by the epic 9-minute track “Runaway,” which hinges on a hauntingly beautiful single-note piano melody accompanied by a rumbling fuzz bass riff and an alternately melancholic and percussive string section.
“I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most,” sings West in his most bracingly sincere moment to date. And later: “Baby I’ve got a plan, run away as fast as you can.”
While few other tracks are as profoundly affecting as “Runaway,” this is an album full of stand-outs to rival more than a few greatest hits collections, even those belonging to many among the laundry list of superstars that make appearances on this record.
In addition to memorable performances from Rihanna, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and John Legend, Fantasy also includes unlikely appearances from Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Elton John, who chimes in for the concluding lines of “All of the Lights,” an upbeat, highly collaborative affair powered by a bold, downright effusive horn section.
The album reaches its rattling crescendo with the one-two punch of “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America.” The former opens with a sample of Bon Iver’s “Woods” before launching into a propulsive alternate take on the song’s original lyrics. As the track continues to build in momentum, West jumps in with a commanding verse about a conflicted relationship directed at an unnamed other, perhaps music, the public, a lover, a friend, America, or all of these things.
“You’re my lies, you’re my truth,” says Kanye. “You’re my war, you’re my truce.”
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy closes with “Who Will Survive in America,” which includes a spoken word verse taken from Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1,” in which he says, “All I want is a good home and a wife / And children, and some food to feed them every night,” before asking the song’s title question.
It is a powerful moment and indicative of the heavy issues Kanye has on his mind: solitude, identity, the cost of fame, and failed relationships among others.
Unapologetic, fiercely creative, and as full of bravado as it is vulnerable, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye West at his jarringly brilliant best.