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Kanye West is a man outside his time. With his globe-spanning interruptions, pronouncements, and Twitter dispatches, he can seem like a walking publicity statement, but he actually isn’t well-suited for a world of iPhone apps, hybrid engines, metrosexuality, and cyberlove. In fact, he’s spent much of his career bemoaning modern failures, the ultimately unsatisfying nature of luxury cars and diamond chains, the media cloud always raining on him, and the inherent soullessness of the information age.
His sound is slightly misplaced as well. His genius as a producer is making radio-friendly songs at will, updating the sounds of Chaka Khan and Bobby “Blue” Bland for modern audiences, doing T-Pain better than T-Pain. But in an ADD pop environment built to facilitate dance-floor hookups, Kanye deploys pauses, empty space, and other forms of musical foreplay. You could practically hear the groan from music bloggers across the country when he released his “Runaway” video; its half-hour-plus running time felt like more than most were willing to devote to digesting it and writing it up.
The triumph of his new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is that it peels off most of West’s false layers. It explores his reality’s truth not by assessing, explaining, or spinning the events of his day-to-day life like he felt compelled to do on his first four albums—you’ll find no talk of Taylor Swift or W. here. Instead, it surveys his subconscious, distilling his waking chaos into an otherworldly narrative, one inhabited by characters representing the hideous, the insane, and the magnificent. Like Mulholland Drive, the album is a dreamlike story that speaks in symbols, with no clear beginning or end. It’s also epically satisfying, the culmination of a hard-earned artistic evolution. It is, undoubtedly, a “Where were you when you first heard it?” record.
Many folks first heard it unknowingly, by way of the “Runaway” short film, which contains almost all of the album’s songs. In this way, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the soundtrack to the video, which was written by Hype Williams and directed by West, and filmed in Prague. The film is probably a bit too obvious, with its winged, barely-clad phoenix (the model Selita Ebanks) rising from the ashes. But its cinematography is crisp and visceral, and everything about it—from the explosion of a comet to a dinner party interrupted by two dozen ballerinas—feels like a reverie. West’s “fantasy” here is that a beautiful creature has been sent to him from the cosmos, and her innocence allows him to see the world anew through her eyes, making him feel alive and creative again. As far as fantasies go, it’s not particularly twisted, but it does get dark: After watching her avian brethren served for dinner, the phoenix burns herself alive and flees Kanye’s world.
This is not a tragedy, however. In fact, for Kanye, this is a story of true love—a burning passion that is never extinguished because it is never tested beyond the infatuation stage. He’ll love her forever because he never has to see her again. When, in the song “Runaway,” he instructs a lover to “run away as fast as you can,” it’s not just for her benefit, but for his as well.
The album continues in this vein. “Blame Game” tells the story of a woman Kanye loves so well that when he’s gone and she returns to an ex-lover, the ex-lover can’t believe what a sexual dynamo she’s become. (The ex is played hilariously by Chris Rock, who notes that she has taken her “pussy game up a whole ‘nother level. This is some Cirque du Soleil pussy now!”)
The rest of the album’s lyrics trade in surreality, as well. With “Dark Fantasy,” West creates a vivid, disconcerting picture: “At the mall there was a séance/Just kids, no parents/Then the sky filled with herons/I saw the devil in a Chrysler LeBaron.” The sound throughout is colossal, extravagant, and rich. As if they had philharmonics, marching bands, and choirs on stand-by, Kanye and his dream team of producers use strings and trumpets, pianos and choruses to create momentum-building intros and glass-shattering climaxes. It’s a world that, frankly, is difficult to leave, the aural equivalent of the addictive titular film in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Everyone performs at the top of their games, from Nicki Minaj and Raekwon’s annihilations of “Monster” and “Gorgeous,” respectively, to Rihanna’s impassioned hook on “All of the Lights.” Perhaps the most stunning track is “Lost in The World,” in which West turns the Auto-tuned indie-folk desolation of Bon Iver’s “Woods” into an end-of-the-universe disco triumph. West invited musicians of all stripes to his Hawaii studios to collaborate, and those who were left off of the album—including rapper/producer 88-Keys and electro anarchist CX Kidtronik—could no doubt fill an excellent bonus disc.
The work is not perfect. It’s often coarse, with too little payoff, like West’s assertion that “the same people that tried to blackball me forgot about two things: my black balls.” Kanye’s never been as funny as he thinks he is, and his self-righteousness often doesn’t hold up, considering that much of the chaos in his life is self-created. (See the recent, completely pointless Today show flap.)
But for all this headline-generating nonsense—and despite his nonstop tweeting and luxury-good shopping—he’s somehow created something that is bigger than his persona. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the realization of a vision, a unified work that must be heard in sequence, one that is pop and art without being Pop Art. A coming-to-terms with himself, it’s the story of what happens when an anxious artist turns his mind off.