Kanye West – My Dark Twisted Fantasy

I am as white as they come.

I don’t say this with any agenda – I want to state the facts.

I went to a high school where there were few people of color. College didn’t tip the diversity scale much, either.

I have had minimal “urban experience” in my life – living a mostly comfortable white middle-class existence. Does this make me a racist? I certainly hope not. People are people, and they are either funny, engaging, and pleasant to be around or not.

Concerning music, my whiteness might be slightly less apparent. While I don’t love Motown, I respect it – timeless songs delivered by one of the finest coteries of talent. Motown bassist player James Jamerson is THE Fender bass player of all time. I love James Brown and have worn out the 4-disc Star Time collection. I always have a little Sly on the iPod. I love EWF and have been following Prince since Dirty Mind. I love the Meters. Who doesn’t love MJ? I think Chic should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

Most pop music today is largely color-blind. Music is either good or not. It’s hard to view music along color lines as bands like Black Eyed Peas and even Justin Bieber, whose Baby single is a collaboration between Tricky, The Dream, and Ludacris – question any meaningful color distinction.

This integration is less apparent in hip-hop.

While I was aware of pioneers Africa Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Eric B., and Rakim and the subsequent evolution to the East Coast/West Coast of Biggie/Tupac and beyond – I came late to this party. I was likelier to hear Rapper’s Delight by Sugar Hill Gang than 911 is a Joke by Pubic Enemy. Like many, I found rap and hip hop through Run DMC and Hammer – lighter-weight hip hop. While I tried to embrace the music, it wasn’t until The Eminem Show that I more broadly “got” hip hop and the rich lyrical content that was there if sought. That, too, is a fantastic record.

I went backward from Eminem and “discovered” commentary/poetry from Jay Z in Reasonable Doubt. This was something many already knew. By revisiting the classics with the pioneers, I found the articulation of a life experience I had not had. Just because the anger and outrage were not part of my white life experience didn’t make it untrue or irrelevant. I couldn’t knock the hustle. Plus, the cleverness of the rhymes was right there with Dylan, and samples and rhythms were as musical as anything else in music. 

I come to Kayne West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy through this lens. While this may not be my life, I can appreciate it.

This is the album of the year. While it makes me blush, and I am not sure I could sing along to Monster without risking my life in specific neighborhoods – it does not take away from the fact that this is a work of genius. If you can get past the n-words, MFs, anger, braggadocio, and sometimes comical sex references and take in what is there – you will find an artist at the absolute height of his powers. West knows this and tells us in Power, “we can all kiss his ass.” After all, he’s “killing this sh#$, and you’re all  feelin’ this sh%$.” Indeed!

While we have seen much of this before, particularly in Late Registration – there is something more here.

This is the rap equivalent of Sgt. Pepper or Blonde on Blonde. Each track is epic, featuring guests as diverse as Fergie, Elton John, John Legend, and rap-laureate Jay- Z (this is just a partial list). They all add and never distract from Mr. West’s vision of self-described “ghetto education.” Not sure how I will feel about this year from now, but for today count me in as one of the critics giving it five stars. For anyone who appreciates richly layered music and isn’t a prude, there is fantastic stuff to be heard here.

What is striking is how it holds together. The parts by themselves are all interesting – the almost classical tunefulness of the All of the Lights interlude, the clever sampling of King Crimson in Power, or the grandad-of-rap Gil Scot-Heron providing a reflection point in Who Will Survive in America that is intertwined with luscious production and a dose of some auto-tune for good measure. Word! What is that, a vocoder on Runaway? Sounds great. And then there is the genre-defying Blame Game featuring a pornographically hilarious break from Chris Rock against the backdrop of a delicate piano accompaniment by John Legend. There are the expected wickedly original drum loops. No matter how you look at it, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an incredibly original and derivative record, like all the best music.

Whatever you think of Kanye – his rants about Katrina, behavior at award shows, and his apparent inability to “sing, dance or play an instrument” – this is the Album of the Year!

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