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ALBUM REVIEW: Kanye West, 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' (Def Jam)
Like a proud pet cat depositing a mangled mouse at the foot of your bed, Chicago hip-hopper Kanye West wants to re-earn your love and respect by regurgitating the contents of his cluttered psyche in your ears. He knows he's been a pain, and now he wants to make it up to you. But will you reward him or scold him for trying so hard? That depends on what you crave from his fifth album, the melange of lunacy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is short on fun but long on ambition.
Everyone from Elton John to Jay-Z to Fergie (plus indie-folk band Bon Iver and Chris Rock, too) helps out here, a veritable who's who in Kanye's mad, mad, mad, mad orbit. But despite the bold-faced crowd, this is nevertheless a singular vision. "I'm up in the woods / I'm down on my mind," the 33-year-old electro-sings on Lost in the World. That becomes one of the more danceable crowd-pleasers, but it's also a thesis statement, apology and brag. He's seen the error of his ways — but there's only so much changing 'Ye will do for us. Now if you don't mind, he'd like to marry a porn star.
After the brouhaha involving Taylor Swift at the '09 MTV VMAs (and the related brouhahas before that), West talked of rebirth, of becoming a man who wants to bring joy, not controversy. But this album isn't nearly as chummy as The College Dropout (with Slow Jamz and Jesus Walks) or Late Registration (with Touch the Sky and Gold Digger).
Then again, it's not supposed to be. Instead, the genius here is not in the rhymes (the language is far more coarse and sexual than before) but in the mind-boggling production, the tireless encyclopedic layers of soul, metal, funk and tribal that make each track feel like a funhouse spin. Let it be known the man is working! Rocky-esque fanfare provides a stirring backdrop for Rihanna's hook on cautionary fame tale All of the Lights. Monster blends a ghoulishly vaudevillian chorus with a rim-rattling beat out of the Big Boi school. Blue Note piano from John Legend drives ugly, honest Blame Game, which stalls at an endless raunchy rant by comedian Rock.
Samples vacillate wildly from King Crimson to Manfred Mann to Smokey Robinson. This could easily be an instrumental album. Call it prog-rap. The average song length is six minutes, with one track, Runaway, which he performed in a truncated version on the most recent VMAs, clocking in at nine minutes, a minimalist tiptoe through the volcano of his thoughts: "Let's have a toast for the a-------," of which he counts himself a member.
Although George W. Bush might not agree, the pop culture universe is better off with West in it. He's still a head case, but he's as real, and really insane, as you get. In these days of prefab pop and hits that should miss, his desire to let it all hang out is invaluable. And we should all toast to that. GRADE: B+
A DALY DOSE: RANDOM MUSINGS ON POP CULTURE
, * Nicki Minaj is the hot hip-hop flavor of the month, a Lady Gaga-Lil' Kim hybrid who mixes light-speed raps, goofy accents and a whole lot of no-she-didn't. Up until now, the Queens-raised 25-year-old has primarily been a cameo star guesting on other people's hits. But with last week's release of breakthrough debut Pink Friday, she's ready to challenge Kanye for the top of the charts. Her album is decidedly not-for-the-squeamish; it's a toss-up for the sickest mind on Roman's Revenge, her shock-effect duet with Eminem. But if you don't mind guttermouths, Pink Friday is xxxhilarating, a full assault on the senses.
, With all apologies to the Springsteen Mafia constantly lurking over my shoulder here at the newspaper (put down the shiv, Klinkenberg . . .), I haven't had much time to spend with The Promise, the Boss' "lost" album of tracks recorded in 1977-'78, a famously fertile valley of creativity that would eventually birth Darkness on the Edge of Town. But I'm charmed by what I've heard so far. In the liners to the recently released two-disc set, Bruce admits to courting the "echoes of Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison," and indeed, songs such as The Brokenhearted and the rolling groove of the Phil Spectorian Gotta Get That Feeling are obvious nods to the crackly radio in whatever rusted jalopy the Jersey boy was jump-starting in the mid '60s. Like most Springsteen creations, these songs are no doubt deeper than the chugga-chugga Buddy Holly beat on Outside Looking In. So I'll keep listening, really I will. In the meantime, this ought to get the mafia off my backstreets for a while.