Kanye West is a jerk. An egomaniacal, narcissistic, arrogant, self-congratulating, ill-tempered 33-year-old man-child. Taylor Swift knows it, Dubya knows it. Even the saintly President Obama has publicly admitted to being no fan of West’s. (He actually called him a “jackass.”)
But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, onto more important news: West’s newly released fifth LP, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), is poised to be the record of the year. And, very possibly, the record of his career. The album truly is a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy, with his production as first-rate as ever and his raps at their best yet.
In the decade or so since we were first introduced to him—as the producer responsible for Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and a string of other hits—West has switched gears. He’s shifted from behind-the-scenes, pink-polo-wearing, Louis-Vuitton-backpack-toting college dropout to Paris-Fashion-Week-front-row-sitting, baldhead-stripper-dating, awards-show-interrupting, Matt-Lauer-bashing pop star. The biggest pop star in America, I reckon.
Thanks in part to his musical success—14 Grammys, four (soon-to-be five) platinum albums—and a succession of very public antics, West is as much a pop culture icon as he is a popular rapper. It helps that he fancies himself a modern-day Andy Warhol: wary of fame and celebrity, dabbling in art, fashion and film, assembling a crew of fellow creatives.
West’s influence on pop culture has yet to reach Warholian levels, but his career has been responsible for a pretty big shift in hip hop music and culture. The son of an English professor, West’s upbringing was undeniably middle-class: no drug-dealing, no gangs, no projects. But middle-class kids have traditionally been relegated to the role of consumers of hip hop; West was among the first—and certainly the most important—in a now-long line of middle-class-kids-turned-rappers (think: Drake, Cudi). In a genre traditionally concerned with “street cred,” West has been more concerned with pop culture credibility. And with Twisted Fantasy, he’s sure to earn it.
It’s the work of a craftsman, a perfectionist whose attention to detail is evident in each drum pattern, each orchestral arrangement, each background vocal. Musically, the songs, especially gems like “Gorgeous” (featuring Kid Cudi and Raekwon) and “Lost In The World” (featuring Bon Iver), are layered in ways that we don’t expect from rap music. Even at the album’s low point, on “Hell Of A Life,” it’s still above average. West adheres to the basic formulas of modern pop, but introduces multiple levels of instrumentation, samples and vocals that reference later forms of European art music as much as they do contemporary popular music.
The record is big without being cacophonous, the sign of a masterfully edited project. “All of the Lights,” a pop anthem already receiving radio airplay, features fourteen guest vocalists, including Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, The-Dream, Alicia Keys, Drake, Ryan Leslie, La Roux and Fergie, the latter of whose grating white-girl-rap I could have done without. Still, the slew of guest vocals —which surely comes close to breaking some sort of a record—are impressively managed, adding to Twisted Fantasy’s grandness.
But the extent of outside help on Twisted Fantasy doesn’t end there. The album features a verse (on “So Appalled”) and co-production credit (on opener “Dark Fantasy”) from the RZA, whose production style of speeding up soul samples West admits to having appropriated. Plus, West coaxes an unforgettable verse out of rapstress Nicki Minaj, one that seriously upped her status as a legitimate hip hop contender. And, of course, there are contributions from G.O.O.D. Music signees Pusha T of Clipse, Prynce Cy Hi and Big Sean. Yet the wealth of featured artists does not detract from what is a record that is all about Kanye; in fact, the intrusions are welcome.