Dear, dear Kanye. What a strange few years it’s been. From his George Bush outburst (pretty heroic at the time) to making Taylor Swift cry (less so) and all sorts of Internet shenanigans, Kanye West the musician has been well and truly eclipsed by Kanye West the bonkers celebrity. The biggest irony was that along the way he had made 808s & Heartbreaks, easily the most innovative and forward thinking record of hip-hop’s current generation and released virtually two years ago to the day.
Until now, that is. If 808s… was remarkable for its low key approach, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (and what a mainstream punter-enticing title that is) is a fucking epic. It’s hip-hop’s Chinese Democracy, the sound of a huge ego let loose to do whatever they want (it has Elton John on it, for heaven’s sake). It is also absolutely, undeniably, utterly brilliant. From the strange and powerful opening Nicki Minaj monologue onwards this is one bizarre trip, with as much in common with the Eminems and Lil Waynes of this world as Napalm Death have with James Blunt.
The opening six tracks are breathtaking. Having largely avoided rapping on the last album, West the MC is back in full effect. The lyrics are angry, paranoid and slightly crazy – referencing Obama, Celine Dion, Austin Powers, Michael Jackson and the Kings Of Leon. Musically it’s masterful, stretching each track out as he sees fit, using (or not using) beats, samples and instruments likewise. ‘Gorgeous’ has a relaxed, effortless feel in contrast to the urgent nature of Kanye’s vocal delivery, complete with the accusation that the US government want to infect the entire black population with AIDS. ‘Power’ is astonishing, delving into the very dark recesses of the singer’s mind with a looping suicide reference. ‘All Of The Lights’, meanwhile, is a call to arms anthem that features a mind boggling cast list of Rihanna, La Roux, Fergie, John Legend and, yes, Sir Elton. The grand opening sweep concludes with the much talked about ‘Monster’, featuring Bon Iver and a sinister, bizarre tune to boot.
After that, some sort of respite is welcome, and while ‘So Appalled’ and ‘Devil In A New Dress’ are good enough, they are still standard – for West anyway. This normality is short lived however, as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy descends into some sort of inspired madness, all super extra bonus powered by the performer’s own personal demons. ‘Runaway’, ‘Hell Of A Life’ and ‘The Blame Game’ all seem to stem from his own life experience, offering us West the apologetic partner, the hedonistic playboy and introspective loner. The suite of songs finishes with a sexually explicit Chris Rock spoken word piece that is off the chart in terms of strangeness, leaving the 808s… style autotune choir and high energy dance number of ‘Lost In The World’ to merge into the raging ‘Who Will Survive In America’ proves that his apology to George Bush wasn’t all it seemed.
And then, finally, the record comes to an end. At an hour and ten minutes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a long old listen but crucially never feels like it. Instead you find yourself wanting more from tracks that already stretch to 7, 8 and 9 minutes. There is simply not a single record out there this year to match this for scope, audacity, vision and quality. Kanye West has been a lot of things over the past couple of years. Forget all of them, they don’t matter now. This is all you need to know.