Kanye West’s first attempt to channel personal turmoil — including the loss of his mother and a difficult breakup — into a work of music left us with the somewhat underwhelming, auto-tune-laden aberration in West’s style that was “808s and Heartbreak.” This time around, with the release of his fourth album, he’s just as dark and gloomy in his subject matter, but he’s managed to musically get it right.
However, get it right is something of an understatement. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” really can best be described as “epic.” It’s everything West does best — weird but apt samples, straight-up good rapping, sick beats and awesome collaborations — but somehow so much more.
There is an intensity to each song and the album as a whole goes beyond his previous albums — conspicuously absent are the feel-good, clubby, hip-hop joints a la “Good Life” and throwaway duds like “Drunk and Hot Girls.” What remains are 13 exhaustingly good tracks (plus a bonus track).
The album kicks off with “Dark Fantasy,” a song that makes it clear that the Kanye West that fans have been missing out on since his apparent descent into madness (starting with the release of “808s” and peaking with the strange, on-stage incident with Taylor Swift) is back, albeit as a much darker version. The track samples “In High Places” by British musician Mike Oldfield, which, yes, took me some googling to figure out. If anyone is capable of pulling off such an obscure addition to a song, it’s West.
Things move swiftly from there, slowing down briefly for a classical interlude before the best track on the album, “All of the Lights.” The classical introduction only makes the song more high-impact — for lack of a better word, “All of the Lights” is awesome.
Rihanna’s voice contributes perfectly to its intensity, and the hook, in which West maniacally lists various types of light (“stop light, street light, strobe light”), makes it nearly impossible not to vigorously nod your head. The song is already at an embarrassingly high play count on my iTunes.
The momentum from “All of the Lights” does not fall flat once the song is over, continuing with another one of the album’s best, “Monster,” in which Nicki Minaj finally manages to be not annoying. The subject matter — basically, zombies — is weird, but it works in a “Thriller”-like way (which, given West’s adulation of M.J., is probably exactly what he was going for).
The intensity drops off a little toward the middle, as is the case on many of Kanye’s albums. However, multiple listens reveal certain songs that originally do not stand out but could actually be some of the best.
“Devil in a New Dress” is the perfect example of this. It is the only track that samples a straight-up soul song (Smokey Robinson’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”) and is one of the strongest on the disc. The full effect is really only felt at full volume.
The album is close to a perfect 5/5, but as is often the case on West albums, certain gimmicky experiments detract from the work as a whole. The first track of the album features 15 seconds of Nicki Minaj creepily speaking in a phony British accent — a completely unnecessary addition that only serves to weird listeners out. Additionally, the song “Runaway” is nine minutes long, and much of that time is taken up by such superfluous time-wasters as a single piano note repeated over and over by itself. Cleaned up, it could have been a lot better.
However, West’s penchant for oddball skits and monologues actually works on other songs, such as “Blame Game.” The cool John Legend vocals pause for a breathless, excited and confused Chris Rock asking his girlfriend where she learned her new moves (“You never use to talk dirty, but now you god damn disgusting. My, my God, where’d you learn that?”), to which she replies over and over: “Yeezy taught me.”
The last track is also an example of effective monologue use: West samples poet Gil Scott-Heron passionately ranting, “Who will survive in America?” It seems an apt question to conclude an album that channels the feelings of a recession-embittered fan base and an artist dealing with a long psychological downward spiral.
America — and its fickle fans that turn after one wrong Grammy outburst — has been tough to Kanye West lately (at least in his own narcissistic mind). And while he has so far managed to cash out on the country financially, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to “survive” emotionally in such a cruel place.
But wait — there’s a little more. The bonus track, “See Me Now” is actually one of the best on the whole album, providing a dance-able, yet relaxing listen. One could think of it as West’s reward to fans for making it through such an emotionally demanding group of songs.
This isn’t the first time West has experimented, collaborated and sampled his way to an epically good album. But this might just be the most cohesive and well put-together of them all. After auto-tune disasters and general displays of douchiness had me doubting my allegiance to West, this album has me back on his team. It is the perfect soundtrack to what will undoubtedly be a dark, beautiful, twisted winter.
Healy is a member of the class of 2011.