In the realm of Kanye fandom, I’m something like a veteran. I’ve followed his turbulent career closely for a long time, since way back when he was still running around in Polo shirts and backpacks – the walking image of a hip-hop overachiever. And yet, I can honestly say that the first news of his new album threw me off my balance. I didn’t really get it. When the title was revealed, it made me cringe, as I suspect it did a lot of people. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – it’s so unwieldy and indulgent (something about those three adjectives); it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Later, when the weekly leak series G.O.O.D. Friday was inaugurated, I fretted over the messy spontaneity of the new songs like a worrisome mother: concerned that the unruly apples would spoil an otherwise meticulously pored-over and refined bunch.Color me surprised, then, that having now played the album on repeat for several days, in a variety of settings and through myriad moods, I find myself concluding that it meets, and ultimately surpasses, near anything he’s ever done – treasured and celebrated as that catalogue is. I think it achieves this unlikely feat via a simple truth that seems obvious in hindsight: compared with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s previous works seem largely soft, sugary and naive.
“All Falls Down,” “Heard ‘Em Say,” “Touch the Sky,” “Stronger,” “Good Life” – You wouldn’t think it to look at his public image, but time and time again Kanye has been known for these good-hearted, Annie-esque, motivational pop songs. It’s really been his M.O.: Up until the psychic catharsis of 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, his albums are largely filled with these anthemic neo-spirituals. Kanye is by nature a positive-thinking guy who has claimed, more-or-less accurately, never to have done anything in his public or professional life with the intention of denigrating another person. When viciously ridiculed by fellow rappers 50 Cent and Camron, he’s always responded solely with declarations of love for his persecutor as an artist – even going so far as to pay homage to 50 on wax during their infamous release date showdown. And when George W. Bush recently called his post-Katrina ad-lib the “low point” of his presidency, Kanye didn’t exploit the moment for his own aggrandizement, as nearly any other artist would, but instead responded with disarming empathy and remorse. Having been an underdog who once wanted simply for his music to be heard (his company is called Getting Out Our Dreams for a reason), he’s spent much of the first half of his career making songs overtly aimed at winning people over, usually by the sheer force of their exuberance and universal sentiment.But what has all that got him?The ugly truth is that large swaths of the public hate his guts. He’s been seen alternately as a laughing stock, a vapid egotist and a bigot. For weeks after incidentally unseating America’s Virginal Sweetheart Taylor Swift at the VMA’s, he was basically public enemy number 1. Where his contemporaries Jay-Z and Lil Wayne have received presidential shout-outs, not one, but two commanders-in-chief have cursed his name. And worse than the criticism must be the disillusioning reality: he never was the noble vessel for his art that he wanted to be. In fact, somewhere along the line, his whole lifestyle became, to quote an astute lyric, “fuckin’ ridiculous.”
Fantasy is ironically the realest album he’s yet to make. Gone are the hands-to-the-sky it’ll-get-better anthems. In there place is an unsettling procession of tales about tragically flawed men who fail the ones they love the most and celebrate what they can. My favorite part of Ryan Dombal’s instantly divisive perfect 10 review in Pitchfork is where he points out the jarring decision to take “All of the Lights”‘s explosively extravagant beat and overlay it not with boastful triumphalism, but with a story about an abusive husband fighting to get his wife and daughter back. It’s the song of both the moment and the year.
In Complex’s superlative cover story about the making of the album, there’s a terrific anecdote from heavyweight coke rapper Pusha T. On the single “Runaway,” Kanye kept pushing him to be more of an asshole with his verse, a request made complicated by the fact that Pusha was secretly having relationship problems. “More douchebag! I need more douchebag!”
With his focus on corrupted souls and numerous, incisive references to Heaven and Hell, Jesus and Satan, Kanye has seemingly evolved from the Baptist gospel of “Jesus Walks” into a more modernist humanism. He’s obsessed with the cruel impossibility of moral righteousness. This attitude is alluded to through a pop culture lens in the line from The Dark Knight that Jay-Z paraphrases on “So Appalled”: “You can die while you’re a hero, or live long enough to become a villain.” If Kanye would have died after The College Dropout; if he would have kept his mouth shut in the aftermath of Katrina; if he would have learned to stay put during awards shows, no one would ever have anything bad to say about him. But he didn’t.
Fantasy is an album that embraces its creator’s inner dark side, and yet the music manages to be more awe-inspiring than we could have imagined. Even Late Registration and Graduation‘s most lavish productions are dwarfed by a litany of blockbusters like “All of the Lights,” “Runaway,” “Hell of a Life,” “Lost in the World” and “Power.” On the flipside, “Blame Game” and “Devil in a New Dress” are haunting, ethereal specters. In ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, he’s managed to learn from his previous work even as he spirals toward less comfortable territory – incorporating humor, lush instrumentation, old school hip-hop and even soul samples.
But I return to that novel and enveloping darkness when it comes to why this should be considered his best work to date. It’s warped and gargantuan and tragic and beautiful. Honest in ways that it’s difficult to be honest. Whether or not you can embrace Fantasy’s devilish charms ultimately depends on who you root for: the hero or the villain.