Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy doesn’t come out until next week, but the reviews are already in. (Summary: it’s a masterpiece.) In these pages, Sean Fennessey wrote at some length about the way West’s embattled public persona crashes, again and again, into the music on his new record–“When he flies off the rails,” Sean wrote, “it is often its own sort of symphony.” This is something a lot of critics are struggling to square right now. How to integrate life and work? How to relate the noisy year West’s had in public to the sprawling, noisy record he spent the year creating? In this Sunday’s New York Times, another critic we respect (and talk about Kanye a lot with, out in the real world), Jon Caramanica, took his own shot at relating the two, writing:
On Monday Mr. West, who is 33, will release his fifth album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), and it’s terrific — of course it’s terrific — a startlingly maximalist take on East Coast rap traditionalism. And yet that doesn’t matter nearly as much as it should, at least partly because of Mr. West’s insistence on his own greatness. By not allowing for responses to his work other than awe, the value of the work itself is diminished; it becomes an object of admiration, not of study. Instead the focus is on the whole of Mr. West’s persona and character, which is more fractured, and subject to a far wider range of responses. The result is that Mr. West becomes a polarizing public figure who happens to be the most artful pop musician of the day, not the other way around.
We happen to know that last sentence was a painful one for Jon to write, and not the entire upshot of the review, so let’s not make him the avatar of a substantial group of people who have made a similar argument this year: that West’s antics, for lack of a better word, have hurt him. That his persona has distracted from his music; that his character has subtracted from his music’s character; that his campaign across Twitter, Ustream, YouTube, The Today Show, the nightmares of George W. Bush, and New York’s semi-public burlesque spots has essentially made it impossible to deal with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on its own rich terms.
To which we now want to say: exactly. Our favorite thing about Kanye West’s year, bar none, is not Dark Twisted Fantasy, not RZA’s drums on the song of (nearly) the same name, not the weird reedy heartbroken singing at the end of “Blame Game,” not the teeth-grittingly great Mojo Men sample on “Hell Of A Life.” Our favorite thing about Kanye West’s year is Kanye West’s year, period. Forgive the tautology and let us explain.
Celebrity is a weird, deflating thing. Famous people are in the position to do many things that the rest of us are not. The perplexing–depressing, really–thing is that most of the time, they don’t take advantage of their position and wealth to actually do any of them. They don’t livestream themselves on a hotel balcony in Korea talking about racism. They don’t use whatever substantial material resources and public interest they’ve garnered to make a 35-minute art film about a naked hot lady Phoenix that fell to earth and was there crucified for being different. They don’t go on Twitter and tell the truth about the lousy industry they’re in and the lousy people they’re forced to deal with. (Or, for that matter, go on Twitter and talk about the Swedish girls they’re about to do unspeakable things with.) They don’t bring random cult rappers onstage with them for their biggest moments, craft absurdly huge chains depicting dead Egyptian royalty and then wear those chains next to said royalty’s real life mummified cousins at the Discovery Times Square Exposition, don’t go onstage days after Hurricane Katrina and insult a sitting president with the entire country looking on. They just don’t. But Kanye does. Especially in 2010.
As Jay-Z says, rappers talk about themselves a lot. But few approach the weird heights of self-mythology that West does on MBDTF. From the origin story “Dark Fantasy” to the public freakout of “Runaway” to the Amber Rose porn star diptych of “Blame Game” and “Hell Of A Life,” Kanye West is basically writing the musical of Kanye West’s 2010. This is a record completely inseparable from the year and the person it describes. Kanye hasn’t made art out of his life; he’s made his life into one continuous public work of art–a seemingly minor but in fact crucial distinction. He is Marina Abramovic in the chair at the MOMA, except he’s been there since January, and he’s not getting up.
Some find this fact grating, others merely perplexing, and despite the particularly coercive headline we now notice we’ve put above this piece, that’s understandable–to many people, ego on this scale is just irredeemably repellant. But our point is this: think about how much Kanye West has to be egotistical about. His Twitter is better than yours. His beats are better than yours. His work ethic is better than yours. After a long and frequently fraught journey, even his rapping is now better than yours. He’s handsome, evidently well built (as Funkmaster Flex might put it), having insane fucking dreams at night, and then waking up and realizing them. And he’s doing it out in full view of the world, so that we can follow along and experience it–at a level of remove at times almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Both Kanye West obsessives and the general public–who, at least since Swiftgate, if not before, have been following along, against their will or not (see: President Obama, “jackass”)–might listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and think, with some small justification, I made that.
Because, as Jon writes, West “isn’t content without feedback; his effort is valueless without response.” He got that from you this year, like it or not. And in doing so, he didn’t just collapse barriers between his work and his life; he collapsed them between his work and your life, too. MBDTF is a total album–one that encompasses American celebrity and politics and history and most of all, the present, where we’ve all been dwelling along with him for the better part of the year. And if the last sentence sounds overblown, well, I had a good model for writing it. He’s just made my favorite album of the year.