There seems to be a trend in the past year or so for R&B and/or rap artists to expand their horizons and try to do a modern-day Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Earlier this year, one massive success was Janelle Monae's "The ArchAndroid", which borrowed from so many different musical forms - sometimes in the same song - that it was nearly overwhelming at times.
Now Kanye West has stepped up and made the album of his career. "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is a phantasmagoria of different genres, pulling in influences from Bon Iver to Gil Scott-Heron, and blending it all in a cohesive, fascinating, and downright MEAN album.
Kanye has so much to say, that it's only natural that he reached out to a ton of guest stars, samples, and divergent forms of music. In essence, though, he's made a rock album with a certain amount of inevitability. I mean, why did it take this long for someone to pick up on the brilliant King Crimson anthem "21st Century Schizoid Man" IN the 21st century? It took Kanye to realize the potential there.
The album is rife with rock guitars, many of which are sampled from other music. Take a look at some of the sampled artists for an idea of the diversity to be found here :
Manfred Mann's Earth Band
Tony Joe White
All of this makes the album completely bursting with music, and makes for very few dull moments. Along with this, the filthy, misanthropic (and, yes, occasionally misogynistic) lyrics manage to titillate and shock at the same time (and for Kanye putting us on notice about what he's aiming for : "What's a black Beatle, anyway?/A f***ing cockroach?").
The most amazing thing about what's going on here, though, is the near-perfection of the blending of guests, styles, and genres to make a complete whole. Many of the guests have moments of brilliance (witness Nicki Minaj's brilliant rap on "Monster"), but it all contributes to a distinctly Kanye-esque take on music, life, and philosophy.
There are a couple of minor musical "interludes" on the record, but here's more evidence of Kanye pushing against the wall : most of the songs are long opuses that shift and mutate into several forms. All of them are good, but some standouts include the above-mentioned "Monster", "POWER" (that's the Crimso-sampling one), and the remarkable "Runaway". This track starts off with nearly a minute of one piano note before kicking into a slippery syncopated rhythm. Again, the lyrics are just as nasty as they can be ("Let's have a toast for the d*****bags/Let's have a toast for the a**holes"), and concludes with a oddly affecting filtered sound which could be vocals or guitar, and sounds like both.
The album ends with "Lost In the World", featuring a delicately auto-tuned Kanye and Bon Iver, and stops in the middle of a note.
Does that mean there's more to come? It's going to take some doing to top this.
I give this new Kanye record a 9.5 on the England Swings scale of 1-10.