SOUNDTRACK: KANYE WEST-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010).
Before buying this album I really only knew of Kanye West as a loudmouthed guy who tweeted a lot and told off George Bush. But then everyone was raving about this album (Pitchfork gave it a 10 out of 10!). So I decided to check it out. And I can’t get over how great an album it is.
Now I’m going to start this review by mentioning a few things I dislike about rap as a genre. 1) I dislike all of the “guests” that appear on a record–I bought the album because for you, not your friends. 2) I dislike excessive use of “unh” and “yeah” at the beginning of a track; when you have nothing to say–let the backing music flow, save your voice for actual words. 3) Rap is still terribly misogynist and vulgar–I’ve nothing against vulgarity per se (I do have something against misogyny) but excessive use is lazy, and it stands out much more in a rap song since you’re saying the words not singing them.
The Kanye West album is guilty of all three of these things, and yet I still think it’s fantastic. The first reason is because it goes beyond a lot of rap by introducing real musical content into the songs. This is not an “all rap is just a beatbox” dismissal of rap, it’s an observation that rap tends to be more about the lyrics and the musical accompaniment can get kind of lazy. West’s songs have (beautiful) choruses, strings, and samples that augment the rest of the song, as opposed to samples that ARE the song. And Kanye West’s voice is great. His delivery is weird and twisted, a little cocky but more funny, with a twisted attitude that is really cool–and to my rather limited palate of rappers, it’s original.
The opening of the disc “Dark Fantasy” has a chorus singing “Can we get much higher” which is catchy and cool (and is used in the promo for The Hangover 2). The switch from this opening to the rapping works well (aside from the FOUR “yea”s). Although I don’t love the yeahs, I love his delivery, and that he occasionally ends lines with these weird “hunh” sounds, that are wonderfully emphatic.
The guests start showing up on track 2, but even the guests can’t detract from the excellent guitars of the song (and the cool solo). And I’ll say about the guests that I like some of them, but for the most part I’d rather hear Kanye.
“Power” samples King Crimson’s, “21st Century Schizoid Man”; anyone who samples King Crimson is alright with me. But to use it so perfectly, to make it part of your song is real genius. It works musically as well as within the overall concept of the album.
“All of the Lights” (with the pretty piano intro) features scads of guests including John Legend, The-Dream, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John (!), and Rihanna. I can hear some of these people but not Elton John (why would he agree to be on a track where you can’t even hear him?). It is a beautiful pop track nevertheless.
“Monster” is a monster of tracks with yet more guests (I like that some of these guests break with the typical guest, like Bon Iver (!)). And I really like Nicki Minaj’s verse. [I'm not familiar with her work at all (in fact I keep wanting to say Minja instead of Minaj) but her verse with the wonderfully crazy vocal styling she displays is weird and cool and very powerful--I would like to check out her solo album, but the samples I heard weren't that interesting]. It also has a great repeated chorus of being a “motherfucking monster.”
It’s followed by the even more catchy “So Appalled” (with FIVE guest rappers–some of whom I’ve never heard of but who do a good job. I love Cyhi da Prince’s lyrics: “I am so outrageous, I wear my pride on my sleeve like a bracelet, if God had an iPod, I’d be on his playlist” or “So call my lady Rosa Parks/I am nothing like them niggas baby those are marks/I met this girl on Valentine’s Day/fucked her in May/she found out about April so she chose to March” or this line, “y’all just some major haters and some math minors.”
“Devil in a New Dress” opens with a bunch of “unhs” (which I dislike) but this is nice ballad in the midst of all of the noise (and it has some clever lyrics). It morphs right into “Runaway” one of the more audacious singles I can think of. The piano melody is so simple (a single note to start) and the lyrics show Kanye as a loser in relationships. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful song for a song with a chorus that goes: “Lets have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the asshole; a toast for the scumbags every one of them that I know. You been putting up with my shit for way too long…runaway fast as you can.” It gets even more audacious when you realize the last 4 minutes of the song are a solo with distorted voice. And the video…the video is 35 minutes long!
The sentiment of that song is erased by the next one, “Hell of a Life”. It opens with a great distorted guitar riff and lyrics about sex with a porn star. “Blame Game” is a surprisingly honest song about being nasty to your girlfriend (“I’d rather argue with you than be with someone else”). It features a sample of Aphex Twin’s (!) “Avril 14th”. And it’s quite a sad but lovely track. It ends with a very long skit by Chris Rock. I like Chris Rock, but this dialogue is kind of creepy because the woman who Rock is talking to (about the great sex she gave him) seems to be a robotic sample–why not have an actual woman talk to him?
The final track, “Lost in the World” has a lengthy intro by an auto-tuned Bon Iver. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the disc, especially the end, where the processed vocals get even weirder but accent the beat wonderfully. This track morphs into what is the actual final track, “Who Will Survive in America” which is basically a long recitation from Gil-Scot Heron. It works great as an album closer.
So, despite several things I don’t like about the disc, overall, it’s really an amazing release. And I can overlook the few things I dislike because the rest is so solid. I can’t decide if it’s worth looking for his earlier releases. How can they live up to this one?
[READ: May 6, 2011] McSweeney’s #37
This is the first McSweeney’s book where I’ve had to complain about the binding. The glue peeled off pretty quickly from the center cover. Fortunately, the back cover held up well. I’m guessing it’s because there’s an extra book tucked into the front cover which prevents the book from closing nicely when it’s removed.
But aside from that, the design of the cover is very cool. It is meant to look like a book (duh), but actually like a 3-D book, so the bottom right and top left corners are cut on diagonals (this makes for a very disconcerting-looking book inside–with triangles cut across the top). The artwork inside is also cool. In keeping with this appearance, each two page spread looks like a book with a spine drawing in the gutter of the pages). And the bottom of each page has lines making it look like the bottom of a book. (The illustrated margins are by SOPHIA CARA FRYDMAN and HENRY JAMES and there are interior paintings by JONATHAN RUNCIO).
The front matter is wonderful. Although it gives the usual publishing information, the bulk of this small print section is devoted to counteracting all the claims that the book is dead. It offers plenty of statistics to show that not only are the public reading, they are reading more than ever. The introduction also goes a long way towards arguing against the idea that people are reading less now than in the past. When was this “golden age” of readers? There’s also the wonderfully encouraging news that 98% of American are considered literate.
This issue opens with letters. (more…)
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