‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ raises a toast to the jerks, Kanye included

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KANYE WEST “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” 3 1/2 stars

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It’s sometimes easy to overlook, given that Kanye West can’t seem to go three months without being written off as a jerk, but
he has made some of the decade’s most resonant, ambitious pop music.

On his fifth studio album, “My Beautiful Dark
Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), he owns his contradictions.
What makes him so off-putting — his almost pathological allegiance to
expressing his emotions, unfiltered — is also what makes him so
compelling.

Because of West’s let-it-blurt bluntness, he is definitely not getting a Christmas card this year from either Taylor Swift or former President George W. Bush. But that transparency makes “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” a terrific album.

Perhaps only West could turn all the hatred that has
been directed at him into “Runaway,” a surreal nine-minute anthem. In
an elaborate video for the song, West positions himself at an upright
piano between an opulent banquet table filled with guests dressed in
white and a group of ballet dancers in black tutus. He hammers out a
few notes, then stands teetering atop the piano, while asking his
guests to raise a glass: “Let’s have a toast for the douche bags. …
Let’s have a toast for the scumbags,” he sings, before advising, “Run
away as fast as you can.”

Ostensibly sung by a groom to his new bride at a
wedding, the song plays as an apology, a warning and a defiant
manifesto. The music mirrors that complexity.

A midtempo funky-drummer beat glides underneath the
melancholy, reverberating piano notes, while a deep, mushrooming bass
tone threatens to swallow everything. Brusque cello strokes contrast
with elegi­ac violins, while a dirty guitar wends through the string
section like a drunk, splattering mud on the white-tablecloth beauty.
It’s a turbulent combination of sounds: brooding and chastened in the
verses, oddly triumphant and darkly humorous during the choruses.

Much of the album has that feel, a collision of
opulence and emptiness, a meditation on the disconnect between the
artist’s intent and the public’s perception.

West is a long way from the character he portrayed
on his 2004 debut album, “The College Dropout,” the blue-collar,
minimum- wage retail clerk who rapped about his life with frankness and
humor. Now he’s one of the world’s biggest stars, with a
multimillion-dollar recording budget and every indulgence at his
fingertips.

West dives into the deep end of decadence and hedonism on the new album.

“Can we get much higher?” a voice whoops on the stage-setting “Dark Fantasy.”

“Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?” he leers on
“Monster,” while rhyming “esophagus” with “sarcophagus,” surely a
hip-hop first. Opulence is everywhere: Choirs roar, trumpets blow
fanfares, strings swoop and swoon, harpsichords get down with brittle,
Baroque panache.

Yet West is just as enamored of distortion and
grime, with the electric guitars of “Gorgeous,” the tribal drums of
“Monster,” a nod to Black Sabbath on “Hell of a Life.”

West’s characters are drunk on sex, power, their self-proclaimed exclusivity.

They are profane and boastful. Their every whim is sated, yet how come it feels so hollow?

Over several songs linked in the last half of the
album, West explores relationships that burn fast and burn out even
faster — a metaphor if there ever was one for the express lane of
celebrity in which he finds himself.

“Hell of a Life” is the temporary high, a mixture of
metal strut, Gothic keyboards and a bender gone off the rails. “Blame
Game” is the morning after, fragile and broken, with a raw, mocking,
lacerating coda by Chris Rock. On “Lost in the
World,” West could be talking about a would-be lover or his
relationship with fame and his fans, or both: “You’re my devil, you’re
my angel. … You’re my freedom, you’re my jail.”

West gives the last word to Gil Scott-Heron,
whose “Comment No.1” is excerpted on the final track, “Who Will Survive
in America?” On the original 1970 spoken-word piece, Scott-Heron
criticized the revolutionary youth movement of the ’60s for failing to
grasp the more basic needs of the African-American community. West
edits down Scott-Heron’s work but retains its essence, that of an
African-American male who feels cut off from his country and culture.

More than anything, West wants to be understood, but
on his terms — a difficult, if not impossible wish given all the
baggage he’s accumulated. His desperation and frustration were readily
apparent as he stammered around in his recent, supremely awkward
interview on NBC’s “Today” show. He was trying to deal with his latest controversy, President George W. Bush’s assertion that West’s racially motivated remarks about Hurricane Katrina were “the lowest point of my presidency.”

But even when West plays a card as hackneyed and
unsympathetic as the poor, misunderstood pop star, he does it with
nearly unparalleled aplomb and complexity. He does it defiantly, but
also with a streak of melancholy and humor, and delivers it with wicked
music, as if being portrayed as a pariah somehow empowers him. On the
exhilarating “Power,” he admits he’s “lost in translation with a whole
… nation.”

“You got the power to let power go,” he tells
himself. Yes, he has the freedom of choice to leave all the drama
behind, and a menacing laugh rises from the mix as if daring him to do
it. But with his mix of ego, sensitivity, neediness and talent, West
leaves no doubt that he never will.

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(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

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