‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’

By Drew Hunt

Despite all the hoopla—the award show tantrums, the braggadocio soap-boxing, the outlandish fashion choices—Kanye West remains, without question, the most captivating figure in pop music today. He surpasses the likes of Lady Gaga because his artistry is ultimately the driving force behind his every move.

Although his logic isn’t always the most sound—proclaiming Lil Wayne to be the next Jimi Hendirx is among his most groundless claims—for all his controversy, West, in addition to being the most gifted of any mainstream performer, is a pro in letting his art do the talking.

To listen to his latest album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which hits shelves Nov. 23, is to ascertain his deepest desires and most haughty meanderings. From expressing his yearning to “choke a ‘South Park’ writer with a fish stick” on the blues guitar-sampling “Gorgeous” to the epic, self-effacing “Runaway,” there isn’t a stone unturned, and West bears his soul in ways that are almost uncomfortable. His overt honesty—unquestionably his greatest asset as an artist—is on full display in this album, and the hip-hop artist has no qualms about spilling his guts to all who listen.

But the album isn’t all about grief and repentance. Let’s not forget this is hip-hop music, a genre that lends itself to a kind of superfluous bravado—something West, despite his self-proclaimed regret, has boatloads of.

Though prone to histrionics, tracks like “POWER” and “Monster” manage to rise above their apparent insincerity because West injects unapologetic conviction into his music. However, this sometimes breeds contradiction—by claiming “no one man should have all that power” on one track, then turning around and asserting himself as “the best living or dead, hands down,” he reveals himself to be as self-aware as he is oblivious.

Truly, West is an artist who lives in the moment. In some instances, this lack of discretion has been detrimental—most notably what has become known as The Great Taylor Swift Incident of Aught Nine—but it has also yielded some of the most sonically advanced music in recent memory.

As with each of his previous efforts, “Fantasy” isn’t so much a hip-hop album as it is a deconstruction of one. To listen to each of his albums in succession is to hear West deviate further away from what is typically considered hip-hop. If “The College Dropout” sounds somewhat commonplace in 2010, it’s because its release almost single-handedly set the bar for what a hip-hop album should sound like in the 21st century. And because of West’s obstinate work ethic—and his desire to constantly stand out—“Fantasy” becomes yet another benchmark.

He had adequate help, as well. Featured verses from the likes of Nicki Minaj, Clipse’s Pusha T and Rick Ross—whose gruff cadence is an excellent bookend on the solemn “Devil in a New Dress”—give the album its hip-hop credibility. Additionally, the presence of Justin Vernon—the wunderkind behind the lo-fi folk outfit Bon Iver—makes little sense in theory but is wholly successful in practice.

As for the production, West finds himself working with his primary influences, including Chicago legend No I.D. and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who provides the beat for the album’s most assertive track, “Dark Fantasy.” As the album’s opener, the song is adequately introspective as West seeks to find a way to “refresh the page and restart the memory, re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy”—effectively setting the table for an album that’s as self-reflective as they come.

For now, it’s easily the best hip-hop release of the year and should leave his admirers—and detractors—with plenty to talk about, which, ultimately, may be West’s greatest achievement.