On 2007's Graduation, Kanye West seemed to have learned something important about making great albums: focus is key. Unfortunately, that album suffered from a soft second-half and, despite the album's focus and unified sound never managed to reach the heights of West's first two albums. And let's talk about those albums for a moment--The College Dropout and Late Registration are both fine albums, classics even, but they suffer from too many skits and lame jokes that don't quite add up to anything. Kanye's first two albums, it seems, are prime examples of made-for-iPod albums and the song-is-God mentality of many contemporary music fans. Fortunate for us and Kanye, most of the songs are good enough that we keep going back and sitting through the fluff to get to the meaty stuff. Then of course, in 2008, Kanye released 808's and Heartbreaks and album full of drum machines and autotune. An album about loss and heartache and misogyny. Okay, sure, misogyny isn't anything new to hip hop, but the confessional nature of 808's and Heartbreak made the violence and hatred a little more real than was comfortable. Unfortunate, as sonically, this was easily Kanye's most unified, engaging moment.
So why the history lesson? Well, it's because the dirty version of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy made it's way on to the internet last night, and I'm going to make a pretty bold claim about how it stacks up to the Kanon. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, pound for pound, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye West's best album. But how can that be, you say? It doesn't have the firepower of those first two albums' highlights. While "Power," "Runaway," and "Devil in a New Dress," are all stand-outs, they don't quite match the immediacy of old jams like "Spaceship," "Through a Wire," "Jesus Walks," "Golddigger," "Touch the Sky,"...etc... etc...you get the point. So how can anyone possible say that MBDTF is Kanye's best album? Because it is a tight, focused album in which every song pops on its own, but
which flows as a unified whole. The dirty guitars and distorted vocals of the Nuggets-esque "Gorgeous" are exquisitely crashed by the percussive chants of "Power," which ends on a King Crimson sample that gives way to the quiet elegance of "All of the Lights (Interlude)" which explodes into it's own magnified echo that is "All of the Lights," the actual song. The album's pacing and transitions are impeccable. Despite the long run times of most of the tracks ("Runaway" is 9 minutes long), each song's moving parts keep us moving and pushes the minutes by faster than they have any right to move.
As for thematic content--this is a lot of album to digest, and I'm not sure I'm ready to do this heavy lifting yet. But I'll offer this: as we might have guessed, MBDTF is an album about celebrity, about indulgence, but mostly about self-interrogation. We still get those misogynistic moments ("I slapped my girl/she call the feds")but rather than coming from a place of anger, they're now rooted in odd moments of self-loathing. "Runaway" is probably the best example of this, in which West famously notes that he "sent this bitch a picture of [his] dick." And while this line is dark, and weird, and dripping with sexual harassment, because the rest of the song is fairly self-critical ("Baby I got a plan/Runaway as fast as you can") the end result is almost cathartic. We get a sense that West is trying to exorcise his demons and while he isn't always successful, by drawing this battle out in big, vibrant strokes for everyone to see he has made one of the most impressive hip hop albums of the last ten years.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will never be confused with a quiet or small album. To borrow a phrase from the album, this thing is a "motherfuckin' monster." It's big and brash and exhilarating--everything hip hop can and should be. Hell--it's everything pop music can be. And maybe that's why MBDTF is such a success, it feels like another shift for pop music, a move beyond the current mainstream toward a bigger, fuller idea of what the mainstream is. As such, MBDTF is a flat-out masterpiece and will be hard to top one most year-end lists, and will most likely be in the top 5 conversations 9 years from now when we're all older and border and making out best of the 10's lists. Welcome back, Kanye.