“The best living or dead, hands down” is how Kanye opens his verse on Monster. We’re used to hubris by now, but there’s an obvious question. The best what? His rapping is a level above anything he’s done before on this album, but still, few would claim he’s the best emcee. Best producer then? Maybe. That’s defensible. But that’s not what he meant.
Nobody’s ever done what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does on this scale before. Look at the list of guest contributors: Jay-Z, Raekwon, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, La Roux, Rihanna, Elton John. If Kanye calls, you say yes. The beats, from the moment the first one drops properly on opener Dark Fantasy, are definitely back to being hip hop, but modern and fresh, willing to turn King Crimson into a truth to/from power monologue. It’s solidly good music. It’s captivating, start to finish, and every song, from the introspective and beautiful Runaway to the phone-speaker jam All of the Lights, has equal chance of being the thing lodged in your head when you wake up.
You can pick flaws in the album with a magnifying glass. Jay-Z’s verse on Monster, which begins with a two-line list of different types of monsters opening with Sasquatch, might as well just say “I fell off.” And So Appalled maybe flexes a little much. But zoom out. In the context of the album as a whole, all those famous guest appearances are just decoration. This is Kanye, interruptor, Katrina politiciser, autotune lunatic, responding to all that swirling, insidious discourse surrounding him in terms of his music and his place in pop culture and society as a whole. “Saying I’m the abomination of Obama’s nation/Well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation,” he says on Power, his true podium moment. Human after all. The way “tripping off the power” slides to “tripping off the powder” over the course of the song points to a self-awareness it seems he’s been denied.
When Kanye says he’s the best living or dead hands down, he means in general. “What’s a black Beatle anyway?” he asks on the bonepicking Gorgeous. Those are the terms in which Kanye thinks of himself. In terms of scale and execution, MBDTF forces us take him on those kinds of terms too.
Words: Karl McDonald