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Review: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop’s all-time high points is already underway.




Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

“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.

Label: Roc-a-Fella Release Date: November 22, 2010 Buy: Amazon



Review: Lambchop’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) Doesn’t Say Much

Modern trappings do little to obscure the fact that frontman Kurt Wagner feels more out of time than ever.




Photo: Merge/Steve Gullick

After more than two decades of dealing in musical anachronisms, one might assume that Lambchop’s recent forays into electronics mean that frontman Kurt Wagner has finally gotten with the times. Defined by synths, vocoders, and drum machines, 2016’s FLOTUS and now This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) are daring departures from Wagner’s previous attempts to mine outmoded styles of the past for new truths. But these modern trappings are just misdirection, doing little to obscure the fact that he seems to be feeling more out of time than ever.

Perhaps inevitably, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) isn’t as sprawling or stylistically immersive as FLOTUS. When you put out an album whose lead single is an 18-minute synth dirge, it’s probably a good idea to take a bit of a step back for the follow-up. This album lacks the stitched-together quality of FLOTUS, that certain emphasis on atmosphere, texture, and the unexpected, rather than structure and melody, that makes that album alternately impenetrable and transcendent. This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is 20 minutes shorter, and far less formless. Even its more abstract passages, like the nearly five minutes of roaming piano and wispy horns that close the title track, feel more familiar within Lambchop’s pre-established paradigm of reimaging old genres—in this case, lounge jazz—and as new again than the alien soundscapes of FLOTUS did. The Wagner who spent much of the 2000s trying to turn himself into the world’s strangest, crustiest Vegas lounge singer is recognizable here as well. He’s just singing through a vocoder now.

No one could credibly accuse Lambchop of making conventional pop music, but new collaborator Matt McCaughan, who co-wrote over half the album with Wagner and is responsible for much of its electronic instrumentation, at least steers the band in a less abstract direction. The whining synth motif that pops up in the middle of “The December-ish You” is a sneakily good earworm, and if it weren’t for Wagner’s creaking old-young voice, “Everything for You” might sound like something you would hear at Sephora.

That’s not to say Wagner sounds anything but disaffected by modernity. Just as FLOTUS’s title falsely promised political musings in an election year, the fact that all but one of this album’s eight song titles are written in second person is just a canard—as if anyone wouldn’t notice that the only person Wagner is singing about is himself. A song title like “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” seems to promise a withering indictment of some behind-the-times character, but in reality, it’s just about Wagner sitting in a car and trying to reconcile his own place in the dizzying 2019 cultural landscape. Political references abound throughout This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), but they’re mostly just context-free phrases: “Be it so un-presidential,” “The news was fake, the drugs were real,” “Fell asleep during Vietnam,” and so on.

Rather than grapple with politics, Wagner sounds like he’d much rather revel in daily mundanities: “I’m in a Mexican restaurant bar/Watching surfing and it’s amazing,” he sings on “The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You.” In so doing, Wagner culminates a retreat into himself. Whereas Lambchop once boasted a grand, 12-plus-piece lineup, the band is now smaller and more insular than ever before. But Lambchop has always been whatever Wagner wants it to be, and if he wants “you” to mean “me” this time around, it simply does. “I see your reflection,” he sings at the very end of the gentle, acoustic-based closer “Flowers,” as Nashville legend Charlie McCoy’s honey-sweet harmonica billows behind him, “and I say hello.”

Label: Merge Release Date: March 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Meat Puppets Remain Resilient on the Mellow Dusty Notes

The album marks the band’s first reunion that feels truly consequential.




Dusty Notes

The Meat Puppets have gone on hiatus and subsequently reunited at least four times now, rivaling any cash-grabbing classic-rock dinosaurs still out there in their ability to put boomer butts in arena seats. With the possible exception of guitarist Curt Kirkwood’s short-lived, Y2K-era solo project, it’s not as though the post-prime iterations of the Meat Puppets have been especially unwelcome. But their 15th studio album, Dusty Notes, marks the first such reunion that feels truly consequential, thanks to original drummer Derrick Bostrom returning to the fold for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!

Anyone who might want to trace a direct lineage between the new album and alt-rock classics like Meat Puppets II, and who hasn’t kept up with the band since they broke up for the first time, will of course notice the audible effects of the intervening 35 years: Curt and brother Cris’s low, calm voices; the slower tempos; the preponderance of acoustic guitars, often in place of fuzzy electric ones. One might also wonder if the band took the wrong lessons from Meat Puppets II’s acclaim. The idea of three former hardcore punks with acid-blasted brains playing a twisted psychedelic version of country and Americana music was novel and fascinating in 1984 and remained so 10 years later when Kurt Cobain invited them on stage to play during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Remove the acid and hardcore, however, and you just get middle-aged Arizonians playing straightforward country music, like Dusty Notes’s pointlessly faithful cover of the Don Gibson standard “Sea of Heartbreak.”

Fortunately, though an old-school country aesthetic defines the album—the banjo picking on “Nine Pins,” the sweet hillbilly harmonies on “Outflow”—Curt’s irrepressible songwriting quirks make the rest of Dusty Notes anything but formulaic. The post-Bostrom Meat Puppets have often veered much closer to modern alt-country than the hardcore of their early days, and Dusty Notes is no exception; in fact, it might be the mellowest of their albums to date.

With key assistance from keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, Curt turns what are at first blush prototypical country strummers into weird, melodic concoctions. Stabinsky’s contributions—circus organ on “Nine Pins,” Mariachi-like synths on the title track—often leap out immediately from the mix. But it’s Curt’s songwriting that makes those same songs stick in the brain, from the demented polka groove of “Warranty” to the sunny Tex-Mex hooks and characteristic stoner turns of phrase on the title track.

If anything is missing from Dusty Notes, it’s certainly not hard-rock dalliances. Besides, with both Stabinsky and second guitarist Elmo Kirkwood—Curt’s son—abetting the original trio, the album features a fuller, richer sonic character than any of the band’s early albums ever managed. Rather, there’s not enough of Curt’s guitar playing. His inimitable jangle riffs from the ‘80s and fuzzed-out, spacey heroics from later years are both in short supply, which does render Dusty Notes more conventional-sounding than most Meat Puppets albums.

It’s unlikely anyone predicted that a 2019 Meat Puppets album would feature a return to the blown-out arena-metal of 1989’s Monster, but that’s exactly what we get with “Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy,” complete with Dungeon Master-friendly verses like “Your chariot of protons/Slices through the gloom/Drawn by a pharaoh/Risen from the tomb.” It’s fun, but once the novelty and nostalgia wear off, it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as the songs here that don’t quite sound like anything the band has done before, like “Unfrozen Memory,” a dramatic slow-burner that melds distorted guitar with Stabinsky’s expert, baroque-style harpsichord, or “The Great Awakening,” on which silky, entrancing acoustic arpeggios drift into a tough, bluesy chorus and come back again like you’re falling in and out of a dream.

These particular songs exemplify what the Meat Puppets, at their best, have always been about. Not their singing or their playing or their lyrics, which were all often utterly incoherent even at the band’s peak. It’s their ability to evoke emotional states—some precious feeling half-remembered from childhood, or perhaps a really good acid trip—that has allowed their music to remain so resilient for almost 40 years.

Label: Megaforce Release Date: March 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.



Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)

MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.

Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.

Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.

Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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