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Dark, twisted and remarkable

It's difficult to talk about Kanye West anymore without sounding over-the-top. Every facet of his existence seems exaggerated, constantly defying any rational expectations for behavior or artistic output. Accordingly, everything about his new album feels exaggerated.

Unlike the divisive personality that created it, though, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy leaves little room for debate on its merit. The album is artful but still instantly enjoyable - even as West explores hip-hop's capacity to carry resonant meaning.

West retains his ability to make evocative but pop-friendly beats, while expanding his taste for sonic environments more lavish than any seen on previous West LPs, all without ever straying too far from his roots. Then almost by necessity, his flow has adapted, becoming more flexible and captivating. Simply put, he has become a better rapper, adapting his delivery to create a variety of tones - from melancholy and self-loathing on "Runaway," to relentless, jabbing braggadocio on "Monster."

Fantasy had an appropriately isolated and fantastic genesis. The album was produced from 2008 to early 2010 in a Hawaiian recording studio near West's own beach mansion. Somewhat like an Ezra Pound of hip-hop, he brought together his favorite emcees and producers from the last two decades, gave them rules and put together a truly eclectic album. But despite the number and stature of the album's varied guests, it never feels unfocused, attesting to the strength of West's vision for the album, however grandiose.

And that is, of course, the only viewpoint that matters. As Nicki Minaj says in the epigraphical opening lines of the album in "Dark Fantasy," "You might think you've peeped the scene / You haven't." Here, West invites us to look past the "watered-down" story of American cultural reality and into his, the "far too mean" reality that has become apparent to him as a black artist in America who willingly and dramatically thrusts himself into the public eye.

As forbidding as that introduction is, it's not difficult to appreciate the quality of the music that follows. West also reaches out to the casual listener, the one who doesn't care to contemplate Minaj's opening lines. West doesn't shy from using either traditional hip-hop drums and claps or elaborate, "wall of sound" instrumentation, and often uses both congruently, as on "All of the Lights." The resulting beats are engrossing enough to demand multiple listens, an experience that forced me to dwell on the contemplative lyrics on the tracks.

As much as any song on the album, the aforementioned "Lights" gives form to the best characteristics of the album: dynamic production and amphibolous lyrics. It sounds at once like golden-age hip-hop and a movie score. The lyrics are catchy and often amusing but layered in meaning. They suggest simple linear narratives but are also allegorical - and not just concerning Kanye's recent struggles with public perception.

It is in these veiled and subversive meanings that the album is perhaps most ambitious. Framed by Minaj's invocation and Gil Scott-Heron's haunting 1970 spoken-word poem, "Comment #1," the album deals unabashedly with racism as it still exists in America. After listening to the album straight-through, Heron's haunting question literally echoes as the album ends. "Who will survive in America?" West's Fantasy seems to suggest that it is increasingly difficult for him, the black artist, to count himself as one who does so. As he says on "Gorgeous," "As long as I'm in Polo's smilin' they think they got me / but they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me." West is aware of himself both as a contemporary successor to the minstrel show and as "a fly Malcolm X."

But West - again, as the bookends of this album clearly illustrate - is begging the listener to pay attention to his Fantasy, to face the twisted reality in which most hip-hop perpetuates stereotypes, pimping mere "intercentury anthems based off inner city tantrums / based off the way we was branded." As evidence, he points out "face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon."

On the closing "Who Will Survive in "America," West asserts through Scott-Heron that "America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey," and he may be right. Put aside your convictions, though, and West's Dark Twisted Fantasy reaches hip-hop's promised land.


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