Six minutes into “Runaway,” Kanye West’s lonely toast to inconsiderate “douchebags” just like him, the rapper runs his vocals through a distortion effect so severe it makes him sound like a synthesizer on the fritz. He says what sounds like “I’mma be honest,” but after that his words aren’t merely unintelligible; they’re barely identifiable as words at all, just a mush of pained sound. This cyborg cri de coeur is among the most arresting moments on West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and a jarring formal disruption: We come to hip-hop songs expecting to be able to hear what the guy on the mic is saying—it’s a big part of what goes into being a rapper as opposed to, say, being Thom Yorke—but what we discern most clearly in West’s “Runaway” coda are his hungry gasps for air, sucked down between bars. The effect is of a man—one for whom words have proven both cash cow and albatross over his turbulent career—drowning his words, and himself, in noise.
At three full minutes, the coda is ungainly, but West does ungainly well: He’s full of big, brash ideas and can be gloriously messy about expressing them, whether it’s in his songs, interviews, at awards shows, in his 34-minute movie, Runaway, or on his Twitter feed. When he appeared on the Today Show earlier this month and ground the proceedings to a squirmy halt, miffed that producers bum-rushed him with a clip of his Taylor Swift bum-rush just as he was formulating his hundredth reflection on that fateful night, what was notable wasn’t that the interruption rankled West—just because such practices are “something we do everyday,” as Matt Lauer put it, doesn’t mean they aren’t also rude. The notable thing was that West, who’s been around the block a few times, took objection with such spectacular awkwardness, his anger and humiliation catching in his throat, his temper flaring. But that’s the way those of us who like Kanye West like Kanye West, and he knows it: He wears his emotions on his sleeve, proudly impervious to the burnishing effects of media training.
West’s salient personality trait is his sense of injustice: It is easily provoked and sometimes screaming out for serious recalibration. Over the years, it has left West powerless to keep quiet about things like hip-hop homophobia, Bush’s Katrina response, Taylor Swift’s merits relative to Beyoncé’s, the Today Show’s A/V department, and his own flaws, which he can attack with as much gusto as he does haters, critics, and those who simply don’t give him all the respect he believes he deserves. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the best album of 2010 and the best album of West’s career because, with it, he’s managed to channel his sense of injustice into his music more fully and thrillingly than ever before. It’s a seething and sad album, full of tales of transgression, betrayal, repudiation, and bitter vindication. It’s also wild fun to listen to, unlike West’s 2008 breakup album 808s and Heartbreak, which ushered in a down-in-the-dumps period that the new LP carries forward. That’s no easy balancing act, but West pulls it off.
He does so thanks to his marvelous, hungry ear, as adept at wringing a hook from a two-note synth drone as from a sampled ’80s New-Age-Celtic-Fusion-Prog vocal (both of which gel, improbably, on the album-opening, RZA-co-produced “Dark Fantasy“). And whereas the affectingly desolate electro of 808s was ultimately bogged down by West’s broad, flatly sung declarations of spite, here he showcases his nimblest and most confident rhyming to date, putting a renewed emphasis on wordplay and storytelling. On “Gorgeous” he moves in four bars from a tossed-off declaration of drunken desire to a grim snapshot of sexual exploitation: “I need more drinks and less lights/ And that American Apparel girl in just tights/ She told the director she’s trying to get into school/ He said, ‘Take them glasses off and get in the pool.’ ” On “All of the Lights,” West has a violence-prone father meet his estranged infant daughter at a Borders bookstore after her mother takes out a restraining order against him. West’s decision to stage the “public visitation” at a chain store is, in an un-showy way, inspired—a detail that’s crushing to the exact degree that it’s so drably pedestrian.
“All of the Lights” is the album’s grandest song, its sense of despair deep and unresolved. Musically, West plays against his story of abuse and regret by setting it to hyperkinetic percussion and a galvanizing horn chart—the kind of high-drama fanfare that typically heralds starting-lineup roll-calls at NBA playoff games. In a strange but effective twist, the song’s events take place in the wake of Michael Jackon’s death: “MJ gone—our nigga dead,” West half-sobs up top, and a thick air of communal loss hangs over the song, magnifying its sense of portent. The song is not about West himself and yet it also, unmistakably, is. The rough shape of its narrative—a man beats his lover, does prison time, scuffles with her new boyfriend, then mourns his absence from his child’s life—echoes the events of West’s last year, marked as it was by an act of aggression against a woman (Taylor Swift), time served in exile (canceled tours, a reported stint at an Indian ashram), a high-stakes return to the scene of the crime (at this year’s Video Music Awards ceremony), and a general campaign to salvage the life his actions threatened to destroy. As he does on “Runaway,” a song about a self-denigrating but self-pitying philanderer, West takes ironic distance from the character, encouraging us to both sympathize with his predicament and remain disdainfully aware of his centrality in creating it.
The song is also the centerpiece of a lyrical motif that spans the album (and reaches back to the 2006 song “Flashing Lights“), built around the word lights. For West, lights signal alternately alluring and malevolent forces, the beacon and the rocky shores rolled into one. The chorus of “All of the Lights” is an epileptic litany: “Cop lights, flash lights, spot lights, strobe lights, street lights,” West barks, rapid-fire. On “Lost in the World” a choir tells West to “run from the lights.” “Monster” begins with the words “I shoot the lights out,” presaging the song’s descent into id-unleashing darkness and rhymes about having sex in sarcophagi. On “Hell of a Life,” lights are used to evoke ways in which we aren’t always honest with ourselves. After describing his relationship with a “porn star” (an ungallant reference, it seems, to West’s ex-girlfriend, the model and former stripper Amber Rose), West sneers at those who cast judgment on them: “How could you say, ‘They live their life wrong’/ When you never fuck with the lights on?” he raps.
West’s relationship with Rose seems to have inspired both “Hell of a Life” and the melancholy “Blame Game.” The former is about a celebrity dating beneath his station, but what starts as a titillating frisson turns into scorn on the latter song: “You should be grateful a nigga like me ever noticed you,” West snarls. Apparently, a difference in taste proved fatal: “You always said, ‘Yeezy, I ain’t your right girl/ You’ll probably find one of them I-like-art-type girls.’ ”
Five years ago, West scored a hit with “Gold Digger,” a cheeky single about how money can get in the way of love. Now the characters in his songs break up over issues of art connoisseurship. The “I like-art-type girls” line might seem throwaway, but it’s central to West’s erudite conception of himself and, more generally, to the way he’s revised hip-hop’s narrative of upward mobility, putting a premium on the amassment not simply of capital but of cultural capital. West isn’t the only rapper to collaborate with and reference art- and design-world bigs like Takashi Murakami, Marc Newson, George Condo, and Phoebe Philo, but he does so the most, and the most loudly—it’s hard not to see his influence in this regard even on his erstwhile mentor, Jay-Z.
Which is only fair, considering that West is the most influential hip-hop figure since Jay-Z. Avowedly middle-class, West breaks wholesale from the MC-as-hustler mold that the Notorious BIG hashed out and that Jay-Z evolved and made paradigmatic. (Here’s Jay-Z in 2005, recalling his early skepticism towards West’s rapperly ambitions: “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.”) As a lyricist, West’s capacity for emotional oversharing is audible in moody heirs like Drake and Kid Cudi, successes who don’t merely shun the hustler origin myth but threaten its mainstream dominance. As a producer, West was key in pushing hip-hop back toward sampling and, later, in opening it up to indie-music sources and sounds. And he’s a fashion icon, synonymous with the plastic-slatted sunglasses that flooded malls and street-vendor stalls a couple of years ago and the slimmed-down silhouettes of today’s hip-hop wardrobe.
All of this, so to speak, is on the man’s one-sheet. What’s sometimes lost in discussions of West, however—perhaps because of his association with the redolent but reductive term “hipster rap“— is his conviction that hip-hop is supposed to be a place where politics happen, where black identity can be explicitly affirmed. West himself tries to downplay this on occasion—interviewed about the movie Runaway, he insisted that the choice to stage an all-black dinner party waited upon by an all-white staff was “based off of color palettes … not racially charged at all”— but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, to put it mildly, racially charged.
Throughout the album, racism inflects all sorts of interactions. There’s the porn star who tells West that “her price go down, she ever fuck a black guy,” the TSA agents who “check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random,” and the government that “treats AIDS” the way West treats “the cash”: “I won’t be satisfied till all my niggas get it—get it?” That second “get it?” puts a little wink between West and the conspiracy theory he’s referencing (and has referenced before, on 2006’s “Heard ‘Em Say”). It’s almost as though he’s sampling the rhetoric of ‘80s gangsta rap, borrowing some of its outsider’s fury without taking complete ownership of it. On “Power,” though, there is no wink when West describes his success as ominously contingent: “In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen.” It’s a stunningly bleak thing for a pop megastar to say.
This is how West’s sense of injustice makes things interesting: He invariably sucks the wind out of his own sails, offsetting some grandiose declaration with its unflattering flipside (sometimes in the same breath), and his perspective changes constantly, moving from me to we to them. The charges that West is an insufferable egotist are accurate but ultimately unsatisfying: As big as he fancies himself, his best music is bigger.