Kanye West redefines pop
Rap star Kanye West’s astonishing new album redefines the world’s most popular music.
IREALLY feel that I am the tree and the people are the branches,” Kanye West recently declared. The 33-year-old rapper has never been renowned for modesty. During an impromptu question-and-answer session at a recent screening for Runaway, a 40-minute art movie West has written, directed and starred in, he fired off proclamations of his own genius, claimed he was on a mission to bring “real culture to pop culture” and compared his new music to “the abstracted (sic) works of later Matisse and Picasso.”
West has long considered himself among the greatest pop artistes of our time. And now, possibly to the irritation of his many detractors, he is about to prove it.
Officially released today but already widely leaked on the Internet, West’s new album, My Dark Twisted Fantasy, may be the Sgt Pepper of hip hop. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that (to quote a breathless five-star Rolling Stone review) “goes for the grandeur of stadium rock, the all devouring sonics of hip hop, the erotic gloss of disco – all of it, all of the time.”
At once demented and utterly inspired, in this critic’s opinion, West is so far ahead of the field, he might as well be in a different field altogether.
Following an odd foray into Auto-Tuned minimalist synth pop for 2008’s melancholic and touching 808s & Heartbreak, West has come crashing back into hip hop with an album of such musical and lyrical boldness, depth, emotion and adventure that it pushes the boundaries of what the world’s most popular musical genre can actually mean.
In one sense, it represents a return to hip hop’s neglected basics, creating tracks from samples and using them as a platform for verbal gymnastics. But the eclecticism and inventiveness of West’s musical palette leaves most producers in the shade as he constructs crazed grooves by combining unlikely samples from sources as diverse as soul legend Smokey Robinson, British progrockers King Crimson and electronic experimentalist Aphex Twin.
Stacking choruses with criss-crossing vocal harmonies, West’s innate melodiousness and pop sensibility holds wildly disparate elements together, constantly shifting the sonic dynamics with new shades of orchestration and instrumentation on songs that seem to build to breaking point then sudden- ly veer left with surprising codas punchy enough to be hits in themselves.
This is a shape-shifting album that, even after repeated listens, remains hard to pin down. At its centre is West himself, firing off lyrics crammed with wit and emotion, underpinned by anger both personal and political.
Veering between guilt and pride, braggadocio and self-loathing, My Dark Twisted Fantasy feels like an intimate, complex psychological portrait of a man all too aware of his own flaws yet paradoxically proud of the humanity inherent in acknowledging weakness.
West has been a controversial figure since he first rose to prominence in 2004, as likely to be in the news for intemperate or narcissistic public outbursts as his bold and articulate records. It says something about his impact on pop culture that two presidents have denigrated him. George Bush called him “disgusting”, while bizarrely claiming in his autobiography that West’s Hurricane Katrina criticism (“Bush doesn’t care about black people”) was the “lowest moment” of a presidency that included 9/11 and two bad wars.
Yet, to many, West’s impassioned comments about race and politics show the star at his best. President Obama, meanwhile, was moved to call West “a jackass” following an incident at the 2009 MTV awards when West stormed the stage, snatching the microphone from country ingénue Taylor Swift to insist her award should have gone to his friend Beyoncé.
While previous incidents and outbursts had been treated in the spirit of comedy, the bullying of Swift was the moment when America finally seemed to tire of West’s almost pathological egotism. The truth may be that he was already in emotional free-fall following the sudden death (during cosmetic surgery) of his mother and manager, Donda West, in 2007 and the break-up of his six-year relationship with fiancé Alexis Phifer in 2008.
Speaking recently, West hinted at a propensity for depression, talking of “crying, nerves, breakdowns.” As public opinion turned against him, West retreated, keeping an uncharacteristically low profile for most of the past year. Yet he maintained his workaholic and perfectionist tendencies, with ventures into the world of fashion (with Louis Vuitton and Nike), the creation of his first film (at once self-indulgently pretentious and extraordinarily gorgeous) and months in the studio crafting his latest album.
West’s dismay at his increasingly negative media image seems to have inspired a strategy to reach out directly to fans, via Twitter and other social media. He has been giving music away, leaking his album online one track at a time, and forgoing press interviews for public encounters, such as his recent appearance at the Runaway screening in London.
West got up to make a few remarks and remained on stage for more than two hours of mind-boggling monologue in which he dropped such gems as “hip hop is like black semen. Anything it connects with becomes black.” As outlandish and provocative as we have come to expect, when watching West in person, the vulnerability beneath his egotism is all too apparent. He cuts a brittle figure, fast-talking, hyperactive, bug-eyed with intensity, his mind obviously racing, his emotions close to the surface. It is not hard to imagine him crashing from this hyper state into the depression he alluded to.
Like Bowie or Prince in their prime, West may not be the biggest-selling artiste of his time, but he is the one who has the bravado to push his talent to its limits.
His ambition, he says, is to “crash the art world and the pop world together”. A masterpiece seems a good place to start. – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2010 n Kanye West’s My Dark Twisted Fantasy is released by Universal Music Malaysia.
On a mission: Kanye West has long considered himself among the greatest pop artistes of our time. And now, with the release of My DarkTwistedFantasy (pic left), he seems about to prove it.