Actually really, really nice
“So here we are. The greatest album of Beats Per Minute’s lifetime. Can’t say I’m surprised, and nor should you be. You saw this coming a mile off, right? Right. If you stand back and take a glance at the past five years, there’s been a decided lack of unifying, big statement music. Hopefully over the past two weeks we’ve proven that there’s been no shortage of varied, innovative, timeless, moving, genre-defying, life-affirming, genuinely brilliant releases across an array of formats and through channels with less barriers of entry than ever before. We’ve showcased 259 of the supporting cast, but that makes up just a fraction of a more amorphous musical landscape than has existed at any point in history. But you couldn’t call much of it truly universal. Not the same way that you could the likes of “Take Me Out,” Funeral, “Hey Ya,” “Paper Planes,” In Rainbows, “Umbrella,” Elephant, “Ignition (Remix)” – all of which dropped in the previous five year stretch. Our victor had three albums on the trot that were immense commercial and critical successes, but came at a time when mainstream media outlets channeled hits in a more conducive fashion. I don’t need to tell you that the structure of music conception and consumption fragmented around the turn of the decade – honestly, Google search Steve Jobs if you don’t believe me!! — but the Information Superhighway only began to irremediably shake things down half a decade back. That My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy managed to bring us all back together at a time when pretty much no-one can do that is impressive enough; that it did so while parading the protagonist nailing a harpy on the cover is worth celebrating. Arise, Yeezus.
Kanye West is without question one of the most compelling characters of our time. In an age where the endless stream of online discourse has neutered the capacity for musicians to get away with being total assholes, Kanye resolutely opposes this egalitarian view on what it means to be a superstar in the 21st century; if you don’t like it, you can fuck right off. Taking Nas’ eternal mantra and running a mile with it, the world is his, and he has no problem dictating proceedings on his own terms. Kanye proudly occupies a junction between Prince and Axl Rose: a gleefully polarising genius, one of the greatest living performers and quite possibly the last true rockstar [nb: I had this down in my notes months before he said the same thing himself.]
That he comfortably nestles shoulder-to-shoulder with the best to ever do it is not down to personality alone; in a similar vein to the globestraddlers of decades gone by, Kanye is acutely aware that unbridled ambition, when properly harnessed, can procure the best results. Zeppelin IV, Bitches Brew, Disintegration, Rumours, Siamese Dream, Sign ☮ The Times, and countless others would not be in the pantheon were it not for bloat, pomp and excess. Dark Fantasy stands amongst them. It is, bluntly, one of the finest works of pop of all time.
For those of you scoffing your derisory hog-nosed scoffs, (re-)consider the fundamentals – the very best of the stuff supposedly has the capacity to move you. Well, this is fullbodied mood music, a baker’s dozen that exemplify and embody the purity and potency of recorded sound, and the effect it has on its surroundings. That goes for the anthems right down to the lesser run-out cuts: when “All Of The Lights” comes on in a club, you go that little bit harder. When “Runaway” drops, so too does the collective mood, fingers ritually tapping out the opening notes. The way “Blame Game” utilises panned voice-warping over the sparse Aphex Twin sample is absolutely devastating, inviting sympathy for a man who fucks and chokes his girl right in front of our eyes; the fraction when all pulls away, leaving Kanye’s voice naked, softly asking that “somebody help” is heart-stopping. When “Devil In A New Dress”‘s luxuriating begins to fade, you ease up, before Rick Ross drags a knife across the throat of it with arguably the greatest single verse he has ever, and will ever, commit to tape.
That’s not a unique to Rozay, mind. Kanye got some absolutely incendiary guest spots going, prising the best out of almost every single carefully-picked collaborator: a fallen Pusha dusted himself off and spun gold that shimmers with the finest of his Clipse heyday; a pre-Grammy-winning-headline-status-Bonny-Bear-memebait Justin Vernon layered whiteboy falsetto over a song that was given a music video full of decapitation; the Gil Scott-Heron sample was hoisted out of context and imbued with even greater heft; Nicki’s verse on “Monster” was legendary before the record even hit the stores. I mean did anyone think Fergie, debatably The Worst Living Popstar™, was going to ever make anything above the level of “cunting godawful,” let alone end up on a 24ct album? I can just about swallow the fact that her inclusion here means she might wind up regarded in a positive light a hundred years down the line — just. None of this was “wilful imperfection” – every minute detail was slaved over, and the result is something richer and more creatively dazzling than anyone could have predicted.
Some say Kanye’s a better curator than rapper – his forté is the maximalist brilliance behind the production desk, siring talent young and old, creating bangers for the masses. Fair, he does have a tendency to overextend himself, garbling words and hamfisting metaphors, but I’ll be damned if Kanye doesn’t know how to turn a phrase: “Praise be to the most fly, Prada”? “Put that pussy in the sarcophagus”? Pretty much every single line on the record? Fine, his internal rhyme game might not be on fire, but tell me how many Talib Kweli songs inspire thousands of white people to clutch their heads and scream “our nigga dead” in clubs week in, week out…okay, dubious accolade, that one.
Placed in the wider picture, the timing of Dark Fantasy tells a story within itself. The narrative arc of his career is fascinating, a Grecian tragedy to rival them all. This is the painful snapshot of a king watching his empire crumble around him, bathed in pathos before a rise from the ashes imbues him with more hubris than before. It is every part of Kanye at once: aggressively dominant, emotionally vulnerable, defiantly arrogant, brutally self-conscious, laughably unaware; like a cornered animal frantically cycling through emotions as the walls close in around in, desperate for an escape. The recording process, a $3m Hawaiian excursion that would have outstripped any other tale of doomed failure were the end product not flawless, was micromanaged to the nth degree, belying the intense internal conflict of its creator.
Interestingly, it may have become almost too classic for it’s own good. But imagine listening to it for the first time! Fuck. I wish I had that opportunity again. As with all pivotal moments, I remember exactly where I was when it struck: lying in bed on a drizzly afternoon at my first year of university, intently listening, unencumbered by any distractions (fairly rare nowadays), jaw slackened, eyebrows raised. I had purposefully avoided all GOOD Fridays in the protracted build-up, because I wanted to hear it in full. It’s odd now that I had built such a level of anticipation without even a first taste, but I could sense a storm brewing. We here at BPM rightfully gave it a perfect score, as did an unprecedented amount of critics. It was canonised the second the first leak was downloaded. Scroll back up the page three spots and you’ll see the only viable comparison from recent times – an album against which Kanye’s masterpiece was used as a parallel benchmark. But whereas good kid, m.A.A.d city broke a star, Dark Fantasy cemented the star.
The man invites opprobrium in every facet of life, and frankly we should be glad he does. Modern music, and culture at large, is better for the wild unpredictability and prodigious talent of Kanye Omari West. Even set against a career that has seen no shortage of highlights, what Yeezy managed in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was legitimately unique: he channeled all the shit that had subsumed him and minted his most consummate body of work, a landmark that created empathy out of nothing for one of the most reviled people on the face on the earth. Using a tool many claimed to no longer carry the importance of years past, he hoisted himself from the lowest ebb back onto his rightful perch upon the top of Olympus, shifting the global worldview in 68 minutes and 36 seconds. He can do that of course; He Is A God. And didn’t he just let us know that here.”