Good God! What’s with all this praise Kanye West’s new album’s been getting? I mean, really: Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A”; Rolling Stone gave it five stars; Pitchfork Media gave it a 10 out of 10; and most recently Rolling Stone (them again) put it at the top of their “Best Albums” list this year, comparing the song “Runaway” to the Beatles’ “She Loves You”. Now, if that ain’t some praise, I don’t know what is!
But is it justified?
I bought the album the day it came out on Amazon.com for $4 (yes, folks, this is product placement), and it was certainly worth the money, but I still couldn’t help but feel a tad dissatisfied with how the album turned out. Maybe I just don’t like Kanye West; maybe his production style doesn’t rub me the right way (pause).
Here’s the thing: recently, I’ve been getting into instrumental versions of classic rap albums, such as Only Built for Cuban Linx, Supreme Clientele, 2001, and The Infamous. I’ve also been listening to instrumentals from hits or simply awesome songs by great hip-hop producers, like Just Blaze, Pharrell, Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, and Lil Jon. After listening to all of these instrumentals, one of the things that I learned was that a great song still sounds good without the vocals. For example, if you tune out the vocals on albums like David Bowie’s Low, Happy Mondays’ Pills n’ Thrills n’ Bellyaches, or even Nirvana’s Nevermind, the music is still plenty satisfying. I found this not to be the case with a lot of Kanye’s music.
When listening to Kanye’s beats by themselves, they sounded kind of flat, especially in the cases of Graduation and 808’s and Heartbreak. Even some of his older beats from the College Dropout days seem a bit lifeless without vocals. However, after applying the “tune out the vocals” formula to Late Registration, I learned something: Kanye is best when he’s at his most grandiose and epic. Just listen to “We Major” or “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and tell me I’m wrong.
Thankfully, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is every bit as grandiose and epic as Late Registration, if not more so. Most of the music on this album is amazing, particularly “Runaway” with its simple piano striking and its pumping drumbeat. The highlight of the song, however, comes toward the end where, out of nowhere, Kanye starts incomprehensibly crooning in heavily-distorted auto-tune. I don’t know why, but it just sounds so damn cool. Another highlight is “All of the Lights” which is total excess in all its glory, from the horns and its drum pattern to the fact that the song features everyone but your grandfather.
There are a few duds here and there, like “Gorgeous” which features Kid Cudi and Raekwon, neither of which sound remotely interesting or interested, and the beat is weak too. Also, there’s “Devil in a New Dress”, which is not bad per se, but it sounds too much like “We Major”. Another one is “Blame Game”, which is not particularly interesting and has weak beat, but is only redeemed by a totally random, but hilarious Chris Rock skit at the end.
The vocals are not really interesting or memorable; it’s mainly everyone flexing their style and Kanye talking about his problems. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before. However, there are a few notable exceptions, including the singing from everyone on “All of the Lights” (and I’ll go ahead and throw in “Lost in the World”), a wonderfully boastful line in “So Appalled”: “If God had an iPod I’d be on his playlist”; and Nicki Minaj practically demolishing everyone on “Monster”.
So now, we come to my ultimate judgment: I really like this album.
Is it Kanye’s best album so far? Yes.
Is it one of the best albums of the year? Yes.
Is it THE best album of the year? Eh….Not really.
I mean, by default, since no rapper has made an album nearly as good as this, one could make the case that this is the best RAP album of the year. However, I’ve heard better albums this year in other genres (MGMT’s Congratulations, for example). Still, this is pretty much an essential purchase.