Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy arrived like a hurricane. A green swirling monster on the radar, the anticipation was mounting months before it struck. You could see it seething on the horizon, swallowing ships and gaining momentum as it surged toward shore: G.O.O.D Fridays, “Most disgusting moment of my presidency,” Matt Lauer. Kanye knows how to stir things up with natural disaster-like efficiency, so it’s hard to fathom how his music can live up to the larger-than-life personality behind it. Well, it does and it doesn’t.

Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Roc-A-Fella

Twisted Fantasy could very well be the best thing Kanye has ever done, and that’s saying something, considering his body of work. Every track boils over with inspiration, and even though there are six different guests on every song, the album remains a distinctly individual statement. ’Ye spits verses alongside Jay-Z, Pusha T, Raekwon and Rick Ross, and trades hooks with Rihanna, Fergie and John Legend. Yet it’s ultimately the Kanye show. Only Mr. West can go toe-to-toe with such big names and emerge the most compelling figure. It’s not even close.

But, of course, it’s all by design. You can hear it in the grandiosity of each track: ideas piled upon ideas, the concluding three minutes of distorted, Auto-Tuned droning on “Runaway,” the “Hey, why not tack on one more verse?” attitude. Every track is so transparently the result of Kanye trying to make the best song of his career (and he just might have succeeded with “Runaway”). You can almost hear him in his Hawaiian studio: “Yeah, this one’s it, the hottest ever.” But it’s just so Kanye of him to forget that there can only be one best, that there’s just no room on one album for 11 “Runaway”s.

He’s stubborn. You can’t knock him for trying, especially when he came so damn close. Each track could easily be your favorite Kanye song, depending on the week, the day, the season. “So Appalled” is furious, and the beat is more of a battlefield than a drum track. Swizz Beatz’s existential hook (“Middle finger in the air, if you don’t really care / It’s like that sometimes, man, ridiculous / Life can be sometimes ridiculous”) is at first disconcerting, then a novelty and then finally an indispensable mantra. “Blame Game” makes superb use of Aphex Twin’s “avril 14th” for the album’s closest thing to a ballad, and “Devil in a New Dress” is just pure, soul-sampling Kanye demonstrating his mastery of the form.

As the title implies, the album is an attempt to exorcise some of the creator’s demons — or, if not to exorcise, to speak in tongues for 13 tracks and get them to reveal some sort of truth. Kanye knows he’s a “douchebag,” an “asshole,” a “scumbag.” He’s trying to be a better person; it’s just that he doesn’t know how to replace his vices with virtue. “Hell of a Life” plays on the Dark Fantasy (or is it Beautiful?) of being married to a porn star. He raps, biting the hook from “Iron Man,” “No more drugs for me / Pussy and religion is all I need.” On “Runaway,” he says “I could have me a good girl / And still be addicted to them hood rats / And I just blame everything on you / At least you know that’s what I’m good at.” He can see the light, but he’s not quite sure if he can get there. And even if he could, would he want to in the first place?

In this way, Twisted Fantasy is mired in conflict. There’s an apocalyptic exuberance running throughout the album, a self-destructive instinct to celebrate the good life in the face of the knowledge that it’ll eventually kill. It’s embodied in the bald-faced excess that defines the album; the same overindulgence that makes each track a soaring musical statement also works to undermine its merit. Can we really believe that the album is a product of genuine artistic inspiration when it’s so consciously designed to be better than anything else out there? Or, more important: Does it matter what the product’s ends are when the thing itself is this fucking good?

But, really, it’s a hip-hop album. The best of the year — maybe the best of the last few. Questions of art and intention mean nothing when you’re singing along, for the 40th time, “And I always find / Yeah I always find something wrong.” Because with Kanye, you can always find something wrong. But where it truly matters — lyrics, beats, originality, humanity — there’s so much right, and no one straddles the divide as boldly as Kanye West.

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