Kanye West does not do well with loss of control. Never has. He is a maestro in the truest sense—of his music, of his feelings, of the way he is interpreted by the masses. If the conversation about him is moving in a direction he dislikes, he gestures with his hands and changes it. This was the year he became better than anyone at changing the conversation—with a new free song, with an extravagant short film, with a Twitter rant. Or several of all three.
But it’s his frequent loss of control that makes West the most compelling popular musician of his generation. When he flies off the rails, it is often its own sort of symphony. Whether elbowing Taylor Swift to the left, commandeering a telethon, or melting down on a morning show, it’s the disaster that makes the greatness palpable, the mistake that is the solution. These are honest moments, untrained and emotional and, sure, egotistical. But you never get less than everything from Kanye West. He’s just not the withholding type. So for the first real unraveling on his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to arrive 11 songs in is surprising, but also appropriate. It’s on “Blame Game,” not the flashiest or most forward-thinking song on the album, but certainly the most earthbound. And therefore the most important.
But before all that, Kanye begins this album—a staggering, often breathtaking work—with a kind of Home Alone freak-out. Mom is gone, love is dead, and the world has called him every racial epithet that exists. What to do? Like Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister, he orchestrates his own reverie, finally free to order the cheese pizza of his dreams, and eat it all by himself. “I fantasized about this back in Chicago,” are the first words we hear from him on “Dark Fantasy.” Home, alone. That unchained posture—anything is possible, and I can make it all so—is what drives this audacious album. “Can we get much higher?” a chorus of angels wails on the chorus; Kanye intends to find out. Nearly every song here is longer than five minutes. There are not one, not two, but three posse cuts, a maximalist’s delight. “All of the Lights” features 11 guest vocalists, including Fergie and Elton John, mostly just because it can. The gorgeous Bink! production “Devil in a New Dress” was initially released during his free-mp3-a-week G.O.O.D. Fridays project, as a solo effort. It was affecting, funny (“I ordered the jerk, she said ‘You are what you eat.’”) and soulful—a touch of the old Ye. And just three minutes long. But the album version is something bigger, with a magisterial guest verse from Rick Ross (appearing twice here) that comes after an odd but sumptuous acid-jazz breakdown. These gestures to size are what we do in our dreams, where everything is distorted and gigantic. The organizing principle seems to be, “When in doubt, go bigger.” More voices. More layers. More grandeur. More, more, more.
Kanye did afford himself a safety net. The G.O.O.D. Fridays project is an act of generosity and a risk—giving away music months before your album’s release requires its own kind of mania. But it was also a testing ground. When the douchebag-toasting single “Runaway” was released, fans voiced disappointment that the official version did not feature the sampled flourishes they’d heard during his live version at the MTV Video Music Awards. Fantasy restores those flourishes. When “Monster,” the epochal posse cut that announced Nicki Minaj’s manic brilliance to so many, quietly crept up the Hot 100, the song became more than track six—it became an essential part of this album’s story, delivered months early. Technically, only two G.O.O.D. Fridays tracks made the ultimate cut—“Monster” and “I’m So Appalled.” Leaks accounted for the other songs we’d heard first, including four different iterations of “All of the Lights.” But the crowdsourcing sensation of the project made fans feel like a part of the process.
There are other conspirators here, besides you and me. Kanye is rapping and singing better and with more tenacity than he ever has on Fantasy, but also less often, wisely allowing others to speak for him—every single guest artist on this album senses the moment and rises to the occasion. Yes, even Fergie. For the past five years, Kanye has been absorbing the gifts of his handpicked collaborators, and occasionally elevating them. From Jon Brion circa Late Registration, he learned about arranging orchestral majesty. During Graduation, he adapted DJ Toomp’s oozing menace. On 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, Kid Cudi’s moaning melodies became elemental. They’re all here. Fantasy was initially pitched as a New York boom-bap revival, with contributions from august collagists Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and the RZA. That’s not quite the case—this album engulfs everything around it, where the proposed concept would have kept its distance, regarding this kind of emotion with a sneer. But the influence is clear. Rather than sample from tried-and-true sources, Kanye goes to deeper and darker bins: King Crimson’s apocalyptic prog on “Power”; Mojo Men’s feverish psych rock on “Hell of a Life”; a haunting, elegiac interlude from Aphex Twin on “Blame Game.” All are unlikely inspirations, seamlessly woven into this fantasia, each one a monument to self, to desire, to smashing limitations. Can we get much higher?
Like any empire, things do come crashing down, and like a Greek tragedy, it’s felled by a woman. Fantasy is masterfully engineered and sequenced, each song bleeding over like some long night out into the hazy morning after. (Tellingly, it features more overt references to drinking and drug use than any other West album.) By the time “Runaway” arrives, West seems to be swirling completely out of control. Self-laceration overtakes chest-beating, as he sings, “I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most.” He finds her on “Hell of a Life,” a blurry, dissonant ode to rough sex that grinds, burbles, and ticks away, dissipating into the crucial gossamer, “Blame Game.” Finally, he collapses under the weight of what everyone collapses under: love. “Fuck arguing and harvesting the feelings/Yo, I’d rather be by my fucking self/Till about 2 a.m. and I call back and I hang up and I start to blame myself . . . Somebody help,” West raps, torn asunder and bleary-eyed. Verse two, vocally manipulated to reflect a woozy internal war, is even darker and more panic-stricken. It is a terrifying and real picture of a blue valentine. John Legend, long West’s emotional sledgehammer, delivers a chorus that takes us back to an important word: “I love you, more.” “I hate you, more.” More, more, more. No one ever wins at love.
Of course, the fantasy is a lie. The good life is a mirage. People will reach to call this a perfect album—it can’t be that. Not because art can’t be perfect, but because the point of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is imperfection. A lack of answers. By the time we arrive at the album’s final suite, Kanye West is “Lost in the World.” Not found in his Murciélago. Or rolling with monsters. Or reveling in all that power. He’s alone and confused. “I’m down my whole life/I’m new to the city/Down for the night,” Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sings. The album closes with a snatch of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1”: Scott-Heron’s beckoning call “Who will survive in America?” are the last words we hear. It’s a too-serious denouement for an album that is more about the self’s little nightmares than some aching societal rejection. By keeping us so close to the flesh, we lose sight of how famous Kanye West is, how bratty he can be, how far he can fall. But not how great he can be. He can’t get much higher.