[I put this up in very rough form mostly to be able to look at it in a format that wouldn't make my eyes bleed. You could pretend this isn't here until I take this bracketed disclaimer down; this is definitely a "work in progress."]
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy begins with the rhetorical question "Could we get much higher," spends nearly 70 minutes proving yes we can, then ends with a nice round of applause. The applause is Kanye's acknowledgment of his excellence, but it's also the tail end of the Gil Scott-Heron sample closing out the album: the response comes from a small but appreciative turnout, suggesting Kanye inexplicably still thinks he's undervalued. And in a sense he is. A partial list of the stuff he hasn't done is stab someone in full view at the Vibe Awards (like 50 Cent compatriot Young Buck), rape or assault anyone (like uncountable NFL players), or indeed do anything worse than talk some shit about George W. Bush on national TV (in a sentiment that would've been vigorously and unthinkingly applauded "Real Time with Bill Maher") and interrupt Taylor Swift, who's sold 13+ records million worldwide, made $45 million this year and presumably isn't crying into her beer about this. Michael Vick? Awesome football player without much sympathy for dogs. Kanye West? World's leading asshole. Go figure.
So Kanye certainly has a point in wondering why "South Park" spent a whole episode mocking him when his sins are venial rather than mortal; he finds himself seemingly more valued as a cultural punching bag than as a musician. That goes some of the way to explaining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's musical aggressiveness and lyrical defensiveness. Unfortunately, Kanye's version of "defensiveness" is talking about his dick relentlessly. He's never been shy about sharing his views on higher education (overrated, financially disadvantageous), AIDS (quite possibly a government conspiracy), his mom (awesome) and materialism (fun). None of the positions he's taken could be considered intellectually responsible, but they've all been presented in lively, upbeat fashion. With their loose academic theme, the upbeat trilogy of The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation presented a Kanye engaged with the world around him. With the title change and emphasis on broadcasts from Planet Kanye, 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are determinedly solipsistic and way less ebullient; the music pushes further, but lyrically Kanye's retreating from empathy even as his technique keeps picking up.
That makes the dour sexuality foregrounded here kind of a drag. When Prince was filthy it was funny because of how far he went; when Kanye talks dirty, that mostly means he wants to say "pussy" a lot. The lowlight is a three-minute Chris Rock "skit" consisting of a grateful post-coital man asking his girlfriend how she "reupholstered" her pussy, how she learned how to talk dirty, etc. "Yeezy taught me" is the unvarying response; Rock's grateful response "Yeezy taught you well" is about as creepy and sad as it gets. These are easily the worst three minutes of Kanye's official discography (yes, even worse than "Drunk And Hot Girls"). For all his bravado, Kanye isn't terribly specific on what, exactly, makes his dick the one to end all dicks: he appears to be interested in having sex with the lights on (as evidenced in "All Of The Lights" and the "fuck with the lights on" breakdown on "Hell Of A Life"), which is setting the bar fairly low bragaddacio-wise. The freakiest thing here for real is Nicki Minaj's intro, and that's mostly because she's capable of being really terrifying.
I'm being a little deliberately obtuse: "All Of The Lights" is about having sex with the lights on, but it's also a defiant statement of pressing on, of wanting the spotlight on you to assert you're here more than ever despite public shaming. "It's nice Rihanna is still OK," a friendly sarcastically noted, but certainly Kanye knows when using her chorus against his narrative of a spouse abuser. (On both this and "Blame Game," he — for the first time — sings from another male's first-person perspective, allowing him some distance; it's telling that whatever's bothering him, he can't talk about it specifcally and has to resort to narration.) The idea, presumably, is a heady mix of artistic ambition, sexual restlessness and the generic imperative to "push hip-hop's boundaries." But song length, in and of itself, is not inherently ambitious: a lot of songs here go 5+ minutes without developing musically, which is disappointing from the creator of "Gone" (arguably the five-and-a-half best minutes of aughts songwriting). Given all the dick talk, it's hard not to think that song length=dick length=ambition, at least in Kanye's mind, which isn't the case.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a very good album: in pure recording terms, it has the special sheen of someone with very expensive mixing boards who knows precisely what to do with all of them. Musically, Kanye's always endorsed stealing from whatever genre: he's as likely to sample Curtis Mayfield as he is King Crimson (!) or (as he does on "Blame Game") Aphex Twin. The "first rapper with a benz and a backpack" understands that he's playing both to mainstream hip-hop listeners and fussy, more underground-inclined fans, and that his audience is more racially balanced than most. I'm just guessing here, but in terms of pop stardom Kanye is beloved both by white collegiate types, NPR listeners and the passing booming cars of Bushwick, where I live. That's not a bad trifecta, and it lets him sample whatever he wants while consciously rewriting what "the black musical tradition" might mean.
Part of what's interesting about Fantasy is how explicitly Kanye seems to be modeling himself on peak '70s Stevie Wonder: as a one-man auteur drawing upon black and white musical traditions in equal measure for a crossover audience. He is, in fact, all that, but this isn't Songs In The Key Of Life; it''s a frequently brilliant album with lots of musical dead patches and too many guest verses. The album originated with the idea of paying tribute to mid-90s East Coast hip-hop; you can here that on the many repeating, basically static verses given from person to person. You can sense the album's rumored origins as a Pete Rock-produced, '90s East Coast tribute in the emphasis on verse after verse: more than ever, this is Kanye's most rap-oriented album, even as the song lengths and music call that categorization into question. Most of the guests are good (though Jay-Z's verse on "Monster" is kind of sad and dispiriting), but they're not all necessary, and they bend to Kanye's themes more often than not. One of his great hosted guests was Paul Wall on "Drive Slow." Wall's good at pretty much one thing only — proselytizing for grills to fuck up the inside of your mouth as bad as his — but Kanye let him do it uninterrupted, a generosity towards someone with completely different interests. It's hard to find a similar instance here,
Slave imagery runs rampant, from Kanye's modest self-description on "Gorgeous" ("the soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing") to the comparison of gang bangs to plantation workers ("and if we run trains we all in the same gang/Runaway slaves on a chain gang"). A crossover musician with a message, Kanye's sense of history is firmly one of racial wrongs and omissions, which is interesting and justifiable, but kind of queasiness-inducing when tied to his own sense of overinflated wrongs. (Not even going to touch his obsession with "white girls" and attendant apparent guilt. Apparently something's even worse when the lady's non-black.) He worries about what hip-hop is, mourns Michael Jackson reads some terrible poetry by Chloe Mitchell. The more he says how much he doesn't give a fuck, the more clear it becomes how desperately pissed off, paranoid and implosion-ready he is. Kanye's ego used to be his rocket: it was fun to brag along him. Now it's an albatross.
The most compactly successful song is "Power" and the best "Lost In The World" (more on that in a second). The undeniable centerpiece is "Runaway," the nine-minute behemoth of gorgeous self-loathing. The stark piano is gorgeous, the repeated "Reactions!" zipping from speaker-to-speaker unnerving like a mixtape DJ with sinister intentions, disrupting the prettiness like a sudden paint slash across a perfect white canvas. For some reason Pusha-T sounds exactly like Kanye (you want to see true egotism in action, start there). The three-minute outro, however, is pretty much a repeat of "Robocop" but much more flowery; the idea seems to be to say "See, I've confessed to being an asshole, but look at the pretty music I can make," which is kind of distasteful.
"Lost In The World," the final and best song (barring an extended sample outro) mashes up Bon Iver, pounding drums that can only be called "tribal," chanting voices and a repeated, urgent question: "Who will survive in America?" This is not a bad question to ask at this moment, and it's the only one Kanye asks that might strike workaday listeners as relevant. The song's so exciting it doesn't really matter that half of this is middle-school gibberish ("You're my angel, you're my demon" — brought to you by Dan Brown, presumably); it's all motion to the end, open to the outside world for once. This is a frequently near-great album, but ambition isn't execution until the end.