"I fantasized about this back in Chicago" is the first thing that Kanye West says on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it's the only thing close to a context for the 13 tracks of delirious hip-hop decadence that follow. For the remainder of "Dark Fantasy," he's freely mixing the materialistic ("Mercy, mercy me, that Murcielago") and the existential ("Hey teacher, teacher/Tell me how do you respond to the students?/And refresh the page and restart the memory?/And re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?"). The track might not answer a lot of questions, but it's a dynamite beginning to an audaciously complex rap masterpiece, on-point thematically and, even more so, musically, with Kanye mashing up G-funk and baroque pop while huge, anonymous voices pop in to ask, "Can we get much higher?" like a stoned soul take on a Greek chorus.
The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop's all-time high points is already underway, and I'm confident that Kanye's new album can weather the backlash that all potential classics must confront. That said, insisting, on whatever grounds, that Kanye has released one of rap's great milestone's doesn't do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I've heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. These are the finest tracks that any group of rappers has yet to rhyme over, and if the album doesn't make Kanye any more of a contender for the title of Greatest MC than he was two years ago, it handily confirms that he's rap's greatest producer.
Even when Kanye was working as an in-house beatsmith for Roc-a-Fella, he showed a savant-like knack for sample-based hip-hop. It turns out that was only the earliest manifestation of a much more encompassing talent. For Kanye, the internal logic of pop music must be nearly transparent: He doesn't seem to get what makes every genre work, nor does he get all of them as well, but he has an intuitive sense of how to construct more kinds of songs than any other producer working today. He looks good in grimy hard rock on "Hell of a Life," pulls off arena-sized pop pomp on "All of the Lights," and still finds time, with the posse cuts "Monster" and "So Appalled," to kick out the two hardest rap tracks of his career.
Even when Kanye looks back, the results can be stunning. On "Devil in a New Dress," he perfects the sampling style he invented, manipulating the pitch and tempo of Smokey Robinson's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" until it crawls luxuriantly out of the speakers like wine poured in slow motion. It's a gorgeous slow burner that turns tragic in its third act, as Kanye's rhymes swap lust for heartache before distorted guitar lines and a muscular verse from Rick Ross close it out (that's Kanye acting tough, but it's clear he's really hurting).
Wisely chosen as the album's centerpiece, there's no question that the following track, "Runaway," is Kanye's most arresting showcase as a songwriter. The self-lacerating lyrics, including a filthy first verse ("She find pictures in my email/I sent this bitch a picture of my dick"), are far too off-putting to count as anti-hero posturing, much less as self-pity. The sense of uncomfortable proximity, that maybe Kanye isn't aware of just how much he's oversharing here, is reinforced by his unpolished and sometimes tuneless singing. After three verses plus a chilling interlude from Clipse's Pusha T, apparently as ruthless a boyfriend as he is a coke dealer, Kanye sounds drained.
The "Runaway" single ends there, but the album version undergoes a remarkable transformation, as the lonely piano figure that introduced the song is joined first by menacing cello and then, surprisingly, by an utterly weightless violin section. When Kanye returns, he's singing through a vocoder, and where his voice strained and cracked before, it now becomes a purely melodic instrument capable of making its own joyous contribution to the track. Kanye sounds disembodied, as though "Run away from me, baby" wasn't a directive to a mistreated lover, but the cry of a man trying to exit the black hole of his own implacable ego. The coda to "Runaway" is a fantasy of escape through pure catharsis, with the vocoder literalizing Kanye's ability to transform his personal shortcomings into art.
Nearly as accomplished—and equally as obsessed with the vocoder—is "Lost in the World," Kaney's much-anticipated reworking of Bon Iver's "Woods." It's astounding how he takes the strangest sample on the album and crafts it into a defiantly giddy dance number, complete with tribal drumming in the verses and group choruses that sound massive. It's a mad stroke of brilliance to take Justin Vernon's solitary ode to alienation and use it as the centerpiece of a catchy, communal reverie. It's experimental, to be sure, but it's also the closest the album comes to pure pop indulgence. All the more surprising, then, that the song is interrupted by a seething political missive from Gil Scott-Heron, his "Comment #1," the sample of which eventually derails "Lost in the World" entirely and runs headlong into the album's closing track.
By this point, Kanye has pimped on Mt. Olympus, married a porn star, and made love to the Angel of Death, and instead of wrapping up the album with its most joyous track, he tears back the curtain and leaves us staring at a grim and recognizable present. Heron's words: "All I want is a good home and a wife and a children and some food to feed them every night...Who will survive in America?" The pop-star decadence is shown to conceal the familiar country of predatory lending, teen pregnancy, mandatory minimum sentencing, blighted inner cities, racial profiling—and the confounding question is what power fantasies like Kanye's have to do with it. Perhaps they sustain the men and women who fight for survival even as they prop up the system that forces us to combat one another on its terms. And where this question applies to all forms of escapism, it seems especially appropriate for rap to confront, as it has aspired to give black America a voice, a soundtrack, a language, and an escape.
The truth is, like Jay-Z recently told Jon Stewart, rap is an art form. And I think that, like Stewart suggested in response, there are plenty of people who already recognize it as such. But vindicating rap—or, for that matter, comic books, video games, or music videos—as belonging to the ever-expanding family of acknowledged "art" is less important than rap's defenders realize. On the other hand, it's absolutely crucial that rappers and producers are actively exploiting whatever artistic potential rap does have. It matters that artists like Kanye are finding new frontiers in rap precisely because there are so many people interested in policing rap's borders, making sure it doesn't get too violent, or too queer, or too smart. And as long as they're winning, it doesn't matter if rap is blasted out of playground stereos or dissected in college English classes: Rap's status as art is a matter of demonstration, not definition.
So as to avoid sounding conspiratorial, let me be clear about who is handicapping rap in the year 2010. It's the easy-target A&R guys, sure. But it's also, more powerfully and more frequently, the fans. It's especially those fans who believe that realness is definitive of good rap and refuse to accept anything less than a one-to-one correspondence between life and lyrics. For the twentysomething black male to whom rap is most often marketed and by whom rap is most often performed, realness is as much a matter of asserting ownership as it is of relating to the music. Though, ironically, some of the people most invested in keeping rap tied to realness are middle-class white folks who like rap precisely because they don't relate in any literal sense to its message, but rather because it provides the edgiest musical escapism on the market. Keep those groups in mind and you start to realize the subversive genius of Lil Wayne's choice of protégés in Nicki Minaj and Drake: The first group finds nothing more threatening than a female rapper (except, as Nicki has pointed out herself, a gay rapper) and the second is just as threatened by a rapper who is unabashedly educated and privileged. Rap critics of many colors and income brackets also deserve some blame, for soft-pedaling paternalism when they praise rappers for "channeling raw experience" or for "unflinching realism," which can amount to saying that the best rap is either autobiographical or journalistic, but never idiosyncratic, poetic, or performative. For 20 years, rap's aesthetic has been monopolized by authenticity, and it's high time it got a bit of competition from fantasy.
From that perspective, I see Kanye as nothing short of a hero, and I see virtually no danger of critics praising My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy too much. Kanye spent the last decade or so pushing himself and his fans to come to terms with a vision of hip-hop so wildly expansive that it could annex whole genres, swing to any mood, freely mix piety and pitch-black humor with snarkiness and swag. His unfailing ear for beats meant that, for three albums in a row, we were all too busy nodding our heads to see how powerfully the game was changing: It wasn't until 808s & Heartbreak that anyone noticed, and only then because Kanye's ego finally got the better of his musical talents (this was, after all, the record that introduced "solipsism" to the vocabulary of rap criticism). With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy complete, even that misstep finally looks purposive, as though Kanye first recorded an album as sonically and emotionally distant from his previous work as possible in anticipation of later finding a place for its instrumental digressions and painful candor.
But where 808s & Heartbreak's stunted emotional arc expressed little more than an egomaniac's bile for his ex-girl, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal ("Dark Fantasy" imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it's Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It's all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. This much he confesses on "Power": "I just needed time alone with my own thoughts/Got treasure in my mind, but couldn't open up my own vault." With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there's no question that he's found the key.