Kanye West's new album is both a symptom of and an anthem to his towering ego.
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
When the most interesting thing about an album is its reviews, there's probably something wrong. Kanye West's fifth studio album has garnered a landslide of critical praise - including, notably a rare perfect 10 from the esteemed US music website Pitchfork - triggered by his stratospheric celebrity, his very public eccentricity, and his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality. Sampling everyone from Aphex Twin to Mike Oldfield, Gil Scott-Heron to Black Sabbath, this is the work of an artist so infatuated with his own fame and greatness it warps towards the grotesque, like Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey's sofa, but for 70 minutes.
Hubris isn't the problem, in itself - hubris has often been the source of great art. DarkFantasy, the opener, works in this vein. There's a gospel chorus asking West's rhetorical (for him) question, "can we get much higher?" with a driving, plinky-plonk piano-led rhythm underscoring its epic sense of ambition - and that's great. Even on West's first, best album, 2004's The CollegeDropout, there were lots of sky-scraping solipsism and opulent fripperies (skits, overlong tracks). If his debut demonstrated the value of vaulting ambition, Dark Fantasy represents its folly.
The pomp and ceremony of Power exemplifies his mania. "Every superhero needs his theme music," he raps, "tripping off the power... the world is ours." The backing track, with its handclaps and repeating "way-hey-hey" vocal, makes it feel to all intents and purposes like Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll. Intercut with this sort of musical chest-beating are tracks like All of the Lights (Interlude), a short burst of an orchestra warming up, a nice analogue for the sense that money has not bought West taste.
Although there are plenty of contenders for this title, the apex of his full-frontal assault on modesty is Runaway, and it is simultaneously breathtaking and desperately mediocre. Following a solitary, stabbed piano melody, we are sucked into six minutes of rising sonic extravagance, lyrical bombast, until all that remains is a fuzz-backed, heavily filtered vocal doing an impression of waves of guitar feedback. As a hip-hop producer, West has been (rightly) spoken of as among the greats of the past decade's renaissance, a musical auteur on a par with Timberland or the Neptunes: but this is squawky, reedy, just banal.
As a vocalist and frontman, West has never been exactly overburdened with charisma. While most of the album's megastar cameos add nothing except an insight into his contacts book (Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Rick Ross), two with genuine personality only serve to shame his soft-scoop rapping: the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA on So Appalled, with his rasping, eccentric delivery, and Nicki Minaj, who manages about five different characters in one earth-shattering guest verse on Monster.
At his best, West compensated for this lack of vocal personality with a preponderance of live backing vocals, chipmunked soul samples, and his own playful wit. Without these props, the emperor of pop stands alone, in the centre of the red carpet, with no clothes on.
"Baby, I got a plan / Run away as fast as you can," drones the chorus to Runaway. Given that this plan probably involves paragliding out of a rhinestone helicopter, using a tiger-skin rug as a wind-sail, Baby would be well advised to take heed and make herself scarce. As would anyone expecting a masterpiece from this album.