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Hypester Alert: Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"

"Would you rather be underpaid, or overrated?" -Jay Z, in "So Appalled".
Surely(*) you have read some of the fervent, effervescent reviews of Kanye West's fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by now. Rolling Stone(**) calls it his "rock-star manifesto", Pitchfork gives it the ultra-rare 10.0 rating (an honor only bestowed upon the heavyweights of music like Wilco and ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (SarcMark!)) With a level of hype surrounding this record that is unprecedented even in West's hype-filled career, it is the responsibility of we at The Blogulator to explore the machinations of the Hype Machine. More specifically, we mean to answer the important question: is it Worthy of Hype, Hyped on Reputation, or should it get Sw-hyped Outta Here?

(*)And don't call me Shirley. Rest in peace, Mr. Nielsen.

(**)Rolling Stone also irritatingly says that Nicki Minaj, the Young Money artist who appears on "Monster" is "the new queen of hip-hop." Rolling Stone, I expect you to be hypester filled douches, but this level of hype is out of this world. Sure, Minaj has some crazy-fun style in her guest verse here and has displayed some showmanship in her solo outings, but don't even get me started on how women in hip-hop are generally ignored unless they have some kind of hook(***)(*****). Minaj may eventually prove to be Worthy of Hype but for now, let's leave the crowns to ourselves, mmmkay?

(***)Minneapolis is lucky to have a sensational trifecta of outstanding female hip hop artists in Dessa, Maria Isa, and Desdamona. Represent, Mpls.

(****)Yes, I footnoted in a footnote. Leave it alone.

First, the problematic. "Fantasy" is unquestionably structured like a "rock-star manifesto" with respect to the history of bigger-than-life rock stars. In fact, in my estimation, the nearest comparison to this record in terms of tone and structure would be Pink Floyd's "The Wall". Like "The Wall", "Fantasy" is a vicious, cold take on the larger-than-life music lifestyle, one with a protagonist who indulges in every indulgence one could partake in on the road. Musically, it is also structured the same, with opening track "Dark Fantasy" serving as a mission statement, "Power" serving as the big "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)" single, "So Appalled" serving as the centerpiece much like "Hey You" does on Floyd's record, "Runaway" as "Comfortably Numb", and "Lost in the Game / Who Will Survive in America" as "The Trial". West lashes out at his detractors like Roger Waters does, from the writers of South Park in "Gorgeous" to those who call him "the Obamanation of Obama's nation" to, pretty much everybody in "Monster": "My presence is a present, kiss my ass."

Which is a long way of saying that the hypesters claiming that this album is a ground-breaker are not seeing the forest for the trees: this is just a concept album, but done by a hip-hop artist.

So, throwing aside the structure argument, how does "Fantasy" hold up musically? Well, after West's slight detour, the auto-tuned whacked-out "808s and Heartbreaks", which, to me, is a lesser record for West (but still a very good record compared to the rest of music), West returns to straight-up hip-hop like his first three records.

Except that, West has never really been a straight-up hip-hop artist. He first rose to fame producing Jay-Z, having provided the production to his biggest hit "Izzo (H.O.V.A)". But when West broke out with his first solo album, he was a hip-hop star, but also a blip on hipster radars, consistently written up on Pitchfork. His debut "College Dropout" was a slice of old-school hip-hop style, loaded with old-school soul samples, and just really damn smooth. His third album "Graduation", though, started to flirt more with the hipster contingent of his fanbase, famously sampling Daft Punk with "Stronger"(*****). "808s and Heartbreak" was an even bigger turn toward the indie kids with all the autotuning and what not.

(*****)They played the ess outta that song at Brigitte and my wedding. Definite hypester shizz.

So, yes, with regard to "Fantasy" being his "return to hip-hop", it's a similar move to Radiohead's supposed "return to rock" with "Amnesiac." That is to say, it is a return, but West has unquestionably evolved beyond his former sound to the point that returning to the sound he started with would be pretty pointless. As Chris pointed out to me, West is the rare case of an artist going from a target demographic of mainstream to indie, rather than vice versa.

Which is why it is problematic to really call this a great hip-hop record, with all the allusions to Radiohead and Pink Floyd that I just made. It brings up a question I constantly wrestle with when I listen to this record: is it fair to call it a great hip-hop record? Does the hype surrounding it that, to me, feels like indie hypesters calling it a great hip-hop record because it is essentially a classic rock record done in hip-hop? When I break it down like that, "Fantasy" doesn't hold water.

It would be a lot easier to dismiss it if it wasn't chock full of great songwriting, consistently jaw-dropping production, show-stopping guest appearances by hip-hop heavyweights like Rihanna, Jay-Z, Pusha T, and the aforementioned Nicki Minaj, and predictably great lyric writing. But that is what this album is full of: great songs. And unlike West's contemporaries like Pink Floyd, he is able to push the excess up to eleven without feeling, y'know, excessive. My favorite track, the sparse, world-melting "So Appalled", features five (FIVE!) guest rappers, and goes on for a bloated 6:38 running time. Yet, the haunting, ball-busting production and great guest turns keep it from feeling overwrought whatsoever. The dual singles "Power" and "Runaway" are unquestionably instant classics. The energy does die down a little bit with the last few tracks, only saved by the balls-to-the-walls Imogen Heap-influenced "Lost in the World", but this is an album that can be enjoyed as much jamming out to it in one's car and jamming on headphones.

So, while we have established that the hypesters calling this record a ground-breaker are missing out on, oh, the history of concept albums, it is, indeed, a very, very good record. Depending on one's preferences, it may or may not be your favorite record by West. Me, I prefer his first couple of albums, the less indie-influenced ones. And it is a little harder to identify with the now-superstar West, who in "So Appalled" describes his life: "Five-star dishes, different exotic fishes, man this shit is fucking ridiculous." But if West is aspiring to be a larger-than-life, alright, rock-star, he definitely succeeds with "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

Hypester Assessment: Worthy of Hype

And now, I leave you with a closing line, and a link, to my favorite track, "So Appalled":
Praises due to the most high, Allah / Praises due to the most fly, Prada

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  1. Blogger chris | 1:17 PM |  

    I still have yet to listen to this, though I plan to tonight, so I'll probably comment again, but since we disagree about 808s & Heartbreak, I feel like I must argue that it being "indie due to its autotuning" seems like quite the conundrum of a statement, considering that autotune is everywhere in the mainstream and largely reviled in indie unless you're Bon Iver (which is where the "Lost in the World" sample comes from). Even the most devout are split about Sufjan using it in his latest.

    That aside, I think with my love for 808s and not being a fan of bloated concept records (sorry Floyd), I will be interested to see if I can get into this one. I will report back.

  2. Blogger qualler | 1:38 PM |  

    Thanks Chris. For one, given that my blog post was a bit stream-of-consciousness, let me clarify a few things:

    -I do still really like 808s as an album. As a Kanye album, I don't love it as much. Just a personal preference.
    -I should have clarified that the autotune in 808s is an element that would appeal to the indie crowd, not the sole element. I would still contend that 808s is a continuation of his branch into indie-dom, due to the higher ratio of singing to rapping, the more chill/less aggressive musical palette.
    -I think this ultimately works as concept album. It's not my favorite type of album, but as a concept album, it is one of the better ones.

    Excited to hear your take on it, Chris!

  3. Blogger chris | 3:19 PM |  

    All right, I listened once Tuesday night and twice last night. I also listened to 808s again.

    I've gotta be honest: 808s feels so much more intimate and real to me, than Fantasy. Don't get me wrong - there's a reason I was able to listen to Fantasy thrice in two days: it's chock full of vivid sound that's equal parts art pop and hip hop. But it just feels at once bloated and yet all glitz and little breadth. Deep sure, but all about the same damn thing, and that thing gets tired after a while.

    Arguably the content of 808s is even more trite (lost love) but its style is so unique without ever going over the top (actually quite minimal at times) that I feel it's a fresh take on the lyrical genre.

    Anyway, "So Appalled" is quite astonishing even though it's bloatedness is a bit ridiculous, as are the singles, but honestly "Runaway" would be much more perfect it was 4-5 minutes long instead of 9. In terms of mainstream music for the masses, it's brave and bold, but that's part of the downfall of fame: b/c your ego blinds you, you also get sidetracked from truly connecting w/ your listeners, no matter how much people talk and blog about you.

    Also I like that the Chris Rock samples are off-putting, but while I can respect that from a distance, it doesn't make me want to voraciously listen to and fall in love w/ the record either, which I'd much rather do.

    Lastly, I should mention I only kept comparing the two because 808s is what turned me on to Kanye. I have never listened to any of his other records all the way through, though I plan on doing so now.

  4. Blogger qualler | 3:44 PM |  

    I am with you on the distance-ey feeling of this record, Chris. It goes along with the whole "I got problems because my life is a horrible complicated mess of excesses" thing that is inherently non-human.

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