Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
In which our antihero returns from exile with a brutally dark, all-consuming masterpiece
In the book of First Timothy, Chapter 1, verse 15, the Apostle Paul wrote: "Here is a trustworthy saying: Christ came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst." Approximately 2,000 years later, Kanye West updates that sentiment, writing "Let's have a toast for the douchebags, let's have a toast for the assholes." This couplet arrives in the back half of his practically perfect, brutally dark fifth record by which point, in lieu of outright salvation, a good stiff drink will do just fine.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could be subtitled Kanye in Blunderland; in the grand, fascinating, multi-installment, decade-long piece of theater that is Kanye West, this is the one where he tumbles down the other side of the mountain and discovers that the world is run on an acrid brew of hypocrisy, malice and double-standards and that the ogre living in the castle at the top of the hill looks an awful lot like the guy you see glumly staring back at you in the mirror every morning.
The album opens with a spoken-word prologue by Nicki Minaj (in an accent that suggests Mary Poppins by way of American Life-era Madonna) which serves to establish its conceit: "You may think you've peeped the scene. You haven't — the real one's far too mean." Fantasy is a fairy tale, but it's one full of broken marriages and battered egos and unruly blowhards. Its opening inquiry, "Can we get much higher?" almost feels like a cruel taunt — the musical backdrop it's set against is stark and menacing, and it keeps interrupting West's high-flying verses like a Greek chorus jabbing him in the side until he finally relents. The song's closing image is as chilling as a horror film: "At the mall there was a séance/ Just kids, no parents/ Then the sky filled with herons."
That's the godless, parentless, lifeless world in which Fantasy takes place, one that exists — terrifyingly — without rules or boundaries or justice. In the grim acid-rock "Gorgeous," West seethes, "Face it: Jerome get more time than Brandon/ and at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random," and in "All of the Lights" a single father pleads for custody of a daughter he's only allowed to see during public visitations at a Borders bookstore. "Hell of a Life" stomps and lurches like doom metal, its grizzled guitar line grinding away as Kanye follows a common setup — falling in love with a porn star — to a harrowing conclusion, rattling off scenario after scenario in which his lover is the victim of societal snubs. The chorus, sung to the tune of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," goes, "Have you lost your mind?" That the song is followed by "Blame Game" — one of the most excruciating dissections of a failing relationship ever committed to tape — only twists the knife. The music throughout Fantasy is brutal and driving: hail-of-bullets drums on "All of the Lights," cut-up King Crimson sample and thunderous guitar on the fierce, hard-charging "POWER," sizzling Nine Inch Nails-style synth on "So Appalled." Fantasy transcends genre, an all-consuming pop record that absorbs, synthesizes and redistributes thousands of albums at once.
Above all else, though, Fantasy is about Kanye, and rarely has an artist so expertly used his public image to create a whole new piece of art. The degree to which he was excoriated for the unbelievably insignificant sin of interrupting Taylor Swift turned him into an outcast, a scarred comic book villain who vows revenge on a society that spurned him. He re-emerges to deliver gifts they don't deserve — ego intact, but any trace of bonhomie replaced by an exacting spite. His persona is as crucial an element to the record as the drums or vocals. It provides a doppleganger foil for him to rail against, a justifiably oversized, swell-chested body for him to inhabit, and a hero for him — and all of us — to root for. And in case there remains any uncertainty, he's even good enough to provide us a summary statement — not just of the album, but of his entire life: "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most." Other rappers exult in the thrill that comes from being powerful enough to do whatever you want, but Kanye is one of few who admits to the accompanying horror. Anyone who thinks he's simply egomaniacal and self-involved is only half-right. Kanye revels in the dizziness that comes from whipping repeatedly from self-aggrandizement to self-laceration, and Fantasy is the portrait of a man struggling in vain to suppress his own nature. He's the guy drunkenly making a fool of himself and the guy at the other end of the bar shaking his head in disgust. Even the triumphant-sounding "POWER" ends with Kanye committing suicide. It's OK if you hate Kanye West — most of the time, he does, too.
So it's no surprise that, at the end of the album, he evaporates entirely, ceding the reins to Gil Scott-Heron, who pointedly asks the album's defining question: "Who will survive in America? Who will survive in America?" There's no answer, of course, just scattered, confused applause, then silence. Kanye knows we're all fucked because we're all fucked-up, that for every stellar accomplishment there comes an equal and opposite loss, and that with great power comes greater culpability. And while he spends the bulk of Fantasy dutifully fulfilling his role as chief among sinners, it's worth noting that, the year it was released, Kanye was 33. Which makes him old enough to be his own savior.