It’s easy to begrudge Kanye West his critical and commercial success. He’s powered by boldness, able to turn Can and Curtis alike into garnish for his own ego or transfer unmolested into limp auto-tune balladry. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his temerity has reached the next level.
Listening to ‘Power’, it’s easy to be swayed by the track’s audacity alone. The spindly guitars, King Crimson sample and spacey synth coda recall the bombast of progressive rock, while the vocal performance is one of Kanye’s best, simultaneously self-reflexive and egotistical: ‘they say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation’. By contrast, third single ‘Runaway’ – a quiet storm of RnB vocals and understated piano plinks – stands dangerously close to MOR.
Throughout the album, there’s a strange polarity between hip-hop and RnB – though the hammy vocals of West’s previous album 808s & Heartbreak have left their stain on the rapper’s music, here he produces the most straight-up rap tracks of his career. Highlights ‘Monster’ and ‘So Appalled’ hinge on a masterful succession of guest verses, spotlighted by expansive production. Fantasy is an album of extremes, of disparate and often bizarre strands colliding – ‘Lost in the World’ starts with Bon Iver channeling Phil Collins and ends with a polemical Gil Scott-Heron sample.
Whereas Kanye’s previous albums had their own signature, ranging from the hugely influential soul sampling of The College Dropout to Graduation’s murmurs of house, Fantasy is difficult to pin down – a chaos that somehow coheres into one of the most interesting mainstream releases of the year.