Saturday, 29 August 2015

MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY Album Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ____
Check it out... if you wish to expose yourself to one of the greatest albums in recent history, Kanye West's fifth studio album a masterpiece of colossal size, influence and emotion

Skip it... if you are unwilling to allow even the most commanding of releases to capture your undivided attention, as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy requires complete immersion to wholly appreciate
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ____

PART 5 OF "GET HYPE - SWISH"

"Redemption is not perfection. The redeemed must realise their imperfections."
- John Piper

Through only the darkest depths does vindication materialize. Artists have been fascinated by the concept of absolution for eons, but few have achieved such a pure form of repute. It is a remarkable feat, to return from irrelevance, critical expulsion or a combination of the two, to deliver a product that evokes widespread appraisal and commendation. Pink Floyd attained redemption with their 1971 release, Meddle, after the widely dismissed Atom Heart Mother was released to dismal reactions a year earlier; but such an accomplishment remains an admittedly rare circumstance within music. Not all who obtain fame through artistic means drop to a standard so low that exoneration serves as the only way to earn the respect of their peers and audience back, and many that do fall to such an extent often fail to wholly redeem themselves in their subsequent endeavours. 

When Kanye West explored minimalism with his fourth studio venture, 808s and Heartbreak, he was rebuked by numerous members of the population. The sensuous string melodies and enthusiastic production that characterised his sophomore and tertiary efforts, Late Registration and Graduation respectively, was sacrificed for brooding synthetic pulsations and mellow piano passages. As he descended into darkness, his personal life full of turmoil and discontent, he converted his emotion into a harrowing fifty-two minute long record; one that has since influenced some of the biggest names in hip-hop, pop and R&B. But the torment did not stilt in potency, even after exercising every demon within him over the course of the LP. An extensive workload and the magnifying glass placed over his actions during the Taylor Swift 2009 VMAs episode further unsettled his psyche, and thus he embraced a self-imposed exile to Hawaii. There, he hoped to unwind, separate himself from controversy and escape the never-ending relentlessness of the media, if only for a brief installment. Through this exile, he conceived My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; an album which demonizes himself, the paparazzi and all those around him. An album which celebrates grandiose ideas and sprawling soundscapes. Here we find him as a man tarnished by his own elevated public standing, hellbent on resurrecting his status as one of the most beloved and technically proficient hip-hop artists in modern times. 

This drive to achieve sonic greatness is what drew many to The College Dropout and Late Registration, as despite the comforting soul-samples on the former and the baroque pop influences on the latter, his primary attraction has always been the ambitious scope of his work. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy evokes comparison to his initial efforts for this very reason, the album an expansive ode to musical extravagance, with lush melodies and manic percussion characterising every track on the record, as is necessary for a man trying to redeem himself in the eyes of both critics and the public. The soaring choral refrain that begins the LP on 'Dark Fantasy' asks the audience whether or not West can "get much higher", and based on the sheer audacity of the hook, it's hard not to see his point. With Twisted Fantasy, he's pushing the boundaries of the various genres he's been restricted to abide within, and expanding upon ideas he established within 808s. In a purely aural sense, he achieves redemption plentifully.

But redemption is not acquired solely through rousing percussive breaks and nuanced guitar samples; to re-obtain the respect that he forfeit when he interrupted America's sweetheart during the MTV Video Music Awards, he must make note of and examine his imperfections. And examine he does, rigorously scrutinizing his own being to an extent that proves only marginally less extreme than the unbridled self-evaluation that defined 808s and Heartbreak. On Twisted Fantasy, he's angry, but more so with himself than anyone else. On 'Runaway', he comes to terms with his narcissism, and pleads that the subject of the song (arguably his ex-girlfriend Amber Rose) escape him before he can cause them more damage. On the album's lead single, 'Power', West samples King Crimson's '21st Century Schizoid Man', emphasizing how his public persona is regarded and criticised by the mass populace. On the same track, West subtly draws attention to his extortionate boasting and how unconvincing it is by subverting the aggressive forward motion of the beat through the introduction of a melancholic piano melody. Twisted Fantasy dismisses the notion of self-appraisal without rumination; here, every instance where Yeezy makes note of his accomplishments feels calculated, designed to further the (admittedly loose) narrative of the record. 

West's focus isn't wholly centred around introspective reflection, as he allows himself brief opportunities to offer scalding criticism of contemporary American culture, as witnessed within the fiery 'Gorgeous', where the artist comments on various conspiracies concerning the treatment of African Americans, blatant racism and the prevalence of prejudice in society. But even during these instances, the man making these claims and connections remains the focal point; these conspiracies that he makes note of are those that threaten to undermine his own influence and freedom. During the album's magnum opus, 'All of the Lights', the bassline and brass section come together to form a stirring sonic environment that does not relent in force until the final note; meanwhilst, West raps over the top of the instrumental, his wordplay fixated on the struggles of middle-class America and the issues associated with incarceration, domestic abuse and custody disputes. These concepts initially seem irrelevant in the context of the rest of the album, but upon closer inspection, they serve as metaphors for Kanye's troubled history with fame. These elements instill a greater sense of weight for the album, West dealing with real-world concerns that are much larger than him. During the record's most profound junctures, Twisted Fantasy exceeds its limitations and targets ideas that both relate to West's internal and existential dilemmas, but also have greater scope and impact than anything else he has ever done before. 

It's during the climax of the LP that West's lyricism reverts back to the dejected introspection that we saw most prominently during 808s and Heartbreak. After the light and bubbly production that defines the luscious 'Devil In A New Dress', destructive despondence manifests during the aforementioned 'Runaway', as West muses on his own faults. The endless reverb of the piano; the rumbling distorted synthetics layered over the rest of the instrumental; West's defeated vocals. It all culminates in one of the album's most beautiful and affecting tracks; one that, much like 'So Appalled', takes the glamour out of the glamorous. The song ends with West singing through a vocoder, his words indiscernible in-and-amongst the buzz of the synthesizer. It is pure sonic expression, the equivalent of a three minute long scream. Hip-hop has never been this open and emotionally distraught.

For some, it may seem pointless to follow up such an evocative and poignant track with one as blatantly arrogant as 'Hell Of A Life', but the narrative of the record dictates that this is a logical decision. 'Hell Of A Life' is a relapse of West's old habits, those of which he noted were part of his personality during 'Runaway'. He is urging Amber, or perhaps the public, to run away, because he can not change who he is. 'Hell Of A Life' is a swaggering ode to old-school rock values, with sex, fame and money all discussed at length, whilst West ponders how he is reprimanded for his honesty, when others are afraid to speak their minds. He connects the openness he has with his beliefs to the open sexual nature of a porn star; he compares how adult performers are admonished by the general public for their supposed promiscuity, to how he is unafraid to voice his opinion, controversial as it may be. In general terms, West's message is a positive one, as he urges people to be more receptive to new ideas and viewpoints, but in the context of Twisted Fantasy, it feels like an intentional excuse for his behavior towards this girl and those around him. 

As the album draws to a close, 'Blame Game' concludes Kanye's difficulties with this girl, who is now most certainly Amber Rose. His inability to resolve his immorality, vanity and ego are primary themes within the first few verses on the track, with inklings of regret seeping in. He flies back and forth, placated and calm in some instances, whilst angry and violent in others. The song pans back and forth, suggesting numerous internal monologues circling about in Kanye's head, offering him paths to take. But by the end of the piece's duration, he seems appropriately disheartened, his final words delivered with a forlorn sense of remorse. The record concludes with 'Lost in the World', which utilises Justin Vernon's haunting vocals to create a sense of meditative reflection and yearning; yearning for approval; yearning for love; yearning for connection. West's rap describes how both Amber, Kim Kardashian (who was recently revealed as the inspiration for his verse on the song) and fame are all both the best and worst things that have ever happened to him. He describes them as his "heaven" and his "hell"; his "war" and his "truce"; and most importantly, his "freedom" and his "jail". They allow him to spread his wings, but they can also be his trappings, as he has indicated all throughout the album. As the song closes, an excerpt from Gil-Scott Heron's Comment #1 emerges (on what is technically the final track, 'Who Will Survive In America'), condensing the questions of the album into a one minute and thirty-eight second package. It asks the questions: is the American dream worth the chase, and is the decadence of fame deserving of our obsessions? 

Those questions can be answered by the music that proceeds them, the rest of the album indicative that the response is perhaps no. But that doesn't mean that Kanye is going to abandon the limelight, as he's already too caught up in his depraved ways to leave now. But that has always been the case with the man, at least according to him. His reluctance to desert fame and the public eye serves as one of the pivotal features for his character; one of the features that has made him into such an intriguing figure. His bravado and ego are somewhat fascinating, but it is his contradictory combination of denial and acceptance that allow him to remain truly captivating. He is a manifestation of what he openly detests on Twisted Fantasy, and that is what allows the record to transcend genre conventions and remain wholly unique. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a soaring, opulent exploration of desire and inevitable ruination that never ceases to amaze. Full of variation, lavish composition, expansive production and revealing lyricism, West again manages to challenge pre-conceptions about what hip-hop can and cannot be, and achieves greatness whilst doing so. Twisted Fantasy takes all the building blocks established in West's previous four studio exploits, and combines them to produce the masterpiece that he has been seeking for years; the apotheosis of his career. There is no other album conceived in the twenty-first century as progressive, dazzling, emotional and brilliant as this. You can purchase My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.

10

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ____

Additional notes about release: an iTunes bonus track ('See Me Now', featuring Beyonce, Big Sean and Charlie Wilson) is available. The deluxe edition comes with a copy of Kanye West's tie-in short film, Runaway, which features many of the tracks from the album. The iTunes copy also comes with a digital booklet.        


Track Listing

1.Dark Fantasy4:41
2.Gorgeous5:58
3.POWER4:52
4.All of the Lights (Interlude)1:02
5.All of the Lights5:00
6.Monster6:19
7.So Appalled6:38
8.Devil In A New Dress5:52
9.Runaway9:08
10.Hell Of A Life5:28
11.Blame Game7:50
12.Lost In The World4:17
13.Who Will Survive In America1:38
Total Album Time:68:36