Kanye West’s Imperfect Masterpiece

11/24/2010 4:00 AM |

During the third verse of “Power,” an undeniable standout track from the much, much, much-anticpated My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasty, Kanye West raps defiantly, boastfully, “At the end of the day goddammit I’m killing this shit/I know damn well y’all feeling this shit/I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick.” It’s funny and it’s shocking, and it’s as close to the quintessential Kanye line as we’ve ever come. It’s also the album’s most blatant lie: The pussy he mentions is a stand-in for our approval, of course—for a pat on the back, for a retweet, for positive reviews so positive and so on-message that you wonder if he had to sign off on them. More so than any other artist we’ve ever seen, or at least more obviously than any other artist we’ve ever seen, Kanye does need it: We’ve all witnessed firsthand (through Twitter, on The Today Show) the kind of foot-stomping tantrums he’ll resort to if he feels he isn’t being treated exactly how he thinks he should be treated, and it’s not pretty. It’s interesting, sure, but it’s not pretty. For now, though, and straight through everyone’s year-end list-making efforts, he’s pretty much in the clear. He’s going to have more pussy than he knows what to do 
with, basically.


The question, of course, is whether he deserves it. And in large part, the answer is yes. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though not quite as beautiful, dark or twisted as Kanye likely thinks it is, is a triumph—of studio wizardry, of musical curiosity, of crowd-sourcing and of careful, constant curation. The 35-minute short film accompanying the douchebag- and jerkoff-toasting “Runaway” is often cited as the most obvious proof that Kanye would now officially like to be viewed as a quote-unquote Serious Artist, but it’s all right there on the record, too, in the canned but still impossibly expressive strings, the complicated, scene-stealing vocal arrangements, the not infrequent tribal rhythms. With 808s & Heartbreak a couple years back, he set out to make a hip-hop album that left out all of hip-hop’s defining characteristics, and he stumbled. Here, he realizes he’s better suited to addition rather than subtraction, simply piling new elements on top of all the old, comforting things we’ve heard for years. With every added layer of sound and every daring step away from the status quo, from sampling the generally indie-associated Bon Iver to including a track at nine-plus minutes with an extended instrumental outro, you can quite literally hear the future of the genre changing.


But let’s also be realistic for a second: there’s a very real temptation to allow West’s admirable ambition, which in itself is extremely important, by virtue of the fact that it’s unprecedented in rap, to become the whole story, to function as built-in justification for certain failures. And make no mistake: there are failures here. With its eye-roll-inducing refrain of, “Put your hands to the constellations/The way you look should be a sin/You my sensation,” “Devil in a New Dress” is uninspired and forgettable, made worse by the dreadful, overrated flavor of the month Rick Ross. “So Appalled” is bloated by about two minutes and one terrible Jay-Z verse. Despite a perfectly serviceable and suitably aggressive beat, “Hell of a Life,” which touches on society’s hypocritical attitude toward porn stars, is out of left field and simply a bit silly—the deep robotic voice repeating “fucked with the lights on” after Kanye poses the question, “How can you say they live they life wrong, when you never fucked with the lights on?” is unintentionally the funniest thing you will hear all day. The John Legend-assisted “The Blame Game” is a self-serious, not particularly insightful look at the push and pull of a relationship—by the time it gets to Chris Rock’s comedy thing nearly six minutes in, it’s completely insufferable, trying its best to use up all the good will the album built up previously.


A strange thing has happened with Kanye lately, where his public persona has come dangerously close to overshadowing what he does as an artist, and, more importantly, where his flaws have come to be viewed as an integral part of his genius. It’s as if his insatiable drive to create, coupled with his occasional struggles with self-editing, or his steadfast belief that he’s the smartest guy in the room sometimes causing him to say lots of dumb shit very loudly, somehow make him more charming or more important as opposed to less. He’s undoubtedly made one of the best albums of the year, and its effects will most likely be felt all over the pop landscape for a very long time, but we’re doing him, and in the long run ourselves, a disservice with this notion of “life as art” or the argument that “the beauty is in the contradictions.” It’s perfectly reasonable to expect more from Kanye—we deserve it, and he’s certainly capable of delivering it. For now, though, we’re giving him exactly what he says he doesn’t need, when we’d be much better off playing hard to get.

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