“Now, this would be a beautiful death.”
That’s how Kanye West portrays his triumphal moment on “Power,” the most exhilarating, witty, and necessarily bombastic track of his career — and the turning point of his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He ascends the throne of not just music, but the entire cultural realm, his narcissism riding surly shotgun as he relishes the riches, veneration, and, yeah, the “light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands” afforded by such a position — call it the Michael Jackson Memorial Chair of Pop Primacy. But no matter how stupendous the feeling (and if you’ve cranked the song’s hurtling tribal refrain, you know), eventually the clout he craves feels like an abuse of power. And the chain around his neck becomes heavy as Horus.
Fantasy — a ballsy, self-aware admonition that luxuriates in its grandiose reveal as an Assholes Anonymous orgy that gets nowhere close to serenity — is 2010’s album of the year because Kanye dramatizes all of the above and more with a budget-averse musical imagination that’s ominous, symphonic, heartsick, riff-ravaged, and driven by the most technically legit rapping he’s ever managed. Challenging the “I’m just doing me” cop-out parroted by so many artists, the producer/MC deals in multitudes, feeding off countless collaborators, and making a case for the album-as-art form with a vivid theme and narrative arc (not to mention faux-classical interludes, codas, etc.).
After the street-sweeper blast of “Power,” Fantasy descends into synth-swelling hedon-ism on “All of the Lights” (a Concerto for Velvet Rope with intricately deranged drum programming that peppers 11 “featured” guests) and the elaborate grotesques of “Monster” (most notably, Nicki Minaj’s brilliantly batshit vocalese on her already historic cameo). Amid the lavish, soul-drenched bitterness of “Devil in a New Dress,” Kanye collapses into decadent free fall, crying out, “You love me for me? Could you be more phony?”
Of course, this is Greek Tragedy 101 — if Aeschylus wanted to show Xerxes’ hubris today, he’d have him cackle, “I lost 30 mil, so I spent another 30 / ‘Cause unlike Hammer, 30 million can’t hurt me,” like Kanye’s cagily self-interested mentor Jay-Z on “So Appalled.” This story of a tragic, overreaching fall from grace will remain in our pop culture’s DNA (see 2010 albums by Yeezy wingman Kid Cudi and MGMT) as long as we worship abstracted, individual success above all, and cling to the idea that a big score is our birthright. It’s a mass delusion that demands a “21st Century Schizoid Man” sample (see “Power”).
Still, Kanye being Kanye aches for a hip-hop Thriller — pop art that dances in the world’s bloodstream. Yet the societal and business factors that enabled such a phenomenal beast no longer exist, so he has to create his own rarefied sphere. And “Runaway,” a disorienting, nine-minute set piece scored for MPC drum machine (enhanced by a breathtakingly choreographed 34-minute film — watch it below) does just that. Foregrounding the frisson that occurs when popular and fine art, street and formal language, poor and rich, black and white, trade places — basically hip-hop’s evolutionary hustle — he conjures his own Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner tableau that opposes icy elegance and crass hilarity (i.e., his lampshade “toast to the douchebags”). Trapped between the two, he warbles with douche-chill honesty: “I’m so gifted at findin’ what I don’t like the most.”
In his 1989 essay “The New Black Aesthetic,” novelist Trey Ellis championed a generation of young African American artists and intellectuals who looked past Africa and jazz and the Civil Rights movement for inspiration, crossing race and class lines, fired by alienation from both protective elders and shady gatekeepers. Hip-hop was more essential to Ellis’ formulation than he realized; that generation ransacked the whole landscape. Now Kanye is trippin’ on the aftermath, reconciling the dreams, the nightmares, the porn stars.
“Lost in the World,” based on Bon Iver’s “Woods,” is the album’s final song — an Auto-Tuned choir of bewildered voices, with a lovesick West struggling to resist self-pity (unlike on his previous album, 808s & Heartbreak). The concluding sample from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 screed “Comment #1″ lashes us, asking, “Who will survive in America?” No answer is forthcoming. But, as this album signifies, the art lies in still asking the question. CHARLES AARON
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