Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
From Kanye West's producer beginnings to his current superstar rapper status, there has been little question regarding the man's significant talents. His touch brought out the best from Jay-Z and Alicia Keys when they first made their names, and the release of his first album was a critical and popular success. The man may have an ego the size of a large nation-state, but there's little doubt it is not deserved.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a statement of epic proportions. From the first announcement, we've been primed to expect something big; something that not only changes the game, but completely rewrites the rules in the rulebook. With hype like this it's hard to keep expectations in check so when the album kicks off with the impressive 'Dark Fantasy', it begins to dawn that what we have here might well be everything we've been led to believe. Just sixty seconds of Nicki Minaj's spoken opening verse is all it takes before we find we're caught in the iron-fisted grip of the album. You don't have to be a fan of rap to appreciate what is an obvious and powerful statement of intent on the part of West - he intends this to be his masterpiece and has done everything in his power and called in every favour he's owed to ensure that it is.
Collaborations have always been a strong point when it comes to any rap album - there is only so much rhyming and grooving that anyone can take and rap has often been most effective when combined with other disparate sounds, styles and vocalists. Kanye West recognises this and almost every track here sees one or more major names stepping on board to add their talents. It would be churlish to list anything as a highlight - every word, chord, vocal on the album has been calculated to give maximum impact.
There is a true crescendo when the album meets the halfway point in 'All of the Lights' - epic in scope and contributions, it may be one of the album's shorter tracks, but the guestlist is one of music royalty. It seems that everyone who has had the benefit of West's golden touch returns the favour here, from the likes of Rihanna and Alicia Keys to John Legend and even Elton John. It really is a testament to the track that it doesn't become a who's who mess of vocals and adds a real emotional core to what is a surprisingly personal album.
It's not until we get to 'Runaway' that we finally begin to understand the impact that Fantasy will have. The opening bars give us a chance to catch our breath over what has been an exhausting but exhilarating experience so far; but the track suddenly blooms into something exciting and beautiful, constantly surprising and ends up as a stunning nine minute opus. Jay-Z lends his not insignificant talents to two tracks and quickly repays any debts owed to the man that helped make him such a massive name - the superlative 'Monster' (which also features the brilliant and unique Nicki Minaj) and 'So Appalled'; both are tracks that alone would make an album shine, but here they sit comfortably alongside eleven others that are all equally as important. There's a real current of outrage bubbling under the surface too - West has a real anger that comes across in his lyrics, but he doesn't do it in such a way as to drown things out with a 'message'. The album closer, a largely spoken word track featuring a totally unrestrained rant on what America has become by Gil Scott-Heron throws all pretence aside and goes for the jugular: "All blood and tears instead of milk and honey" - simple words that parlay a real and unavoidable truth, summing up the feelings and emotions that the album has been teasing out of the listener from the start.
In terms of West's previous albums, this is as far removed as you can get - while in hip-hop terms they're all top-of-their game stuff, this is something more. Fantasy is probably closer to earlier releases than 2008's 808s & Heartbreaks, there are clear elements of all of his albums coming through. We see a real evolution in West's sound here - it's both more calculated yet also seemingly more insane. Few of the tracks should work on paper with their mishmash of artists, styles and subjects, and in any other hands Fantasy would probably be nothing more than a collection of unrealistic ideals; so here, as a lyricist AND producer, West has achieved something of an impossible feat.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy not only exceeds expectations, Kanye West sets the bar so high that the album becomes something that will be talked about for years to come. Never before have we heard something like this; it's an album that demands to be listened to and one that rightly sees West enter the all-time hall of fame with no argument.