Kanye’s new album pushes rap’s boundaries

Victor Luckerson

It’d be easy to view the last year and a half of Kanye West’s life as a giant publicity stunt. The transition from his infamous 2008 MTV Video Music Awards encounter with Taylor Swift to his 2009 VMA debut of “Runaway” (a song where he generally apologizes for being a jerk) almost fits too perfectly. That night, West began writing his redemption story, and he continued to pen it in 140-character bursts through his hilarious and candid Twitter account (choice tweet: “sometimes I push the door close button on people running towards the elevator. I just need my own elevator sometimes, my 7 floor sanctuary”).

The story culminates with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” West’s fifth studio album and his first rap album since 2007’s “Graduation.” Though the title at first seemed laughably pompous, West’s album is legitimately both menacing and poignant, and easily his most complete sonic package since 2005’s “Late Registration.”

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” expertly captures West’s development as an artist from a humble Chicago producer to an international superstar. Each track captures some snippet of his evolution. You can hear the soul of his debut “The College Dropout” in the haunting background vocals of “Devil in a New Dress,” the orchestral pomp of “Late Registration” in the stirring strings of “Runaway,” the gloss of “Graduation” in the surefire hit “All of the Lights,” and the auto-tuned synth of “808s and Heartbreak” in the brooding “Hell of a Life.” Along with these ingredients, West has extended himself even further from the normal bounds of hip-hop, sampling rock band King Crimson for “Power” and indie folk group Bon Iver for “Lost in the World.” The result is an eclectic mix of songs that skirts the edges of the rap genre but also manages to remain thematically consistent.

For the first time in his career, West has really embraced the album concept. While “Graduation” was jammed with pre-packaged pop hits and a few throwaway album tracks, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” works best as a complete listen. There are less euphoric party tracks and more introspection at the person West has become, as he raps, “N-ggas is goin’ through real sh-t, they outta work / That’s why another g-ddamn dance track gotta hurt / That’s why I gotta spit something that got a purp.” The changeup in approach works. This is the first West album that never once had me reaching for the skip button.

More than his older work, this album ably captures the dichotomy of West’s persona. At one moment, he’s towering over the guitar riffs and soaring choir of “Power,” already positive that we’re “feeling this sh-t.” A few tracks later, he’s apologizing for his own arrogance on the subdued “Runaway.” The bass-heavy “Monster” sees West, Jay-Z and newcomer Nicki Minaj playing up rap bragadacio in full force, but on “Blame Game” West sings in his own vulnerable voice to a scorned lover, “I can’t love you this much.”

What seems like hypocrisy at first is actually West owning up to his own faults. He is always confident in the heat of the moment and quietly remorseful upon reflection — that’s why he apologized to Taylor Swift and said he empathized with George W. Bush. Though he’s had some wincingly embarrassing moments, he is one of the only pop stars in the world that seems more like a person than a brand or identity. It’d be hard to find words to describe Jay-Z besides “rich” and “cocky,” but Kanye has offered enough of himself to the public to fill a book with adjectives.

Still, West’s hyper-confidence does undermine him at times here. Most of the tracks are five to seven minutes, and “Runaway” goes on for a whopping nine minutes, with a three-minute outro. If he had shaved a featured rapper or two off and reigned in his production a little, the album could have moved at a brisker pace. It meanders just a hair at times.

But to be honest, it wouldn’t be a Kanye album without the imperfections. Only through his half-crazed swagger could West make the sonic innovations he does here. There is nothing here as altogether genre-smashing as “Stronger,” but West has absorbed so many types of music into his creative palette that he can expertly carry you from one edge of hip-hop to the other without the transition seeming awkward.

West’s newest album is not a departure from his signature sound, but rather an evolution into new possibilities. He continues to push the boundaries for what represents both hip-hop and black masculinity. In just six years Mr. West has crafted enough head-bobbing beats to fill an entire party playlist. If any man should have all that power, it’s Kanye.

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

Artist: Kanye West Recording Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam Number of Tracks: 13 Release Date: Nov. 22 CW Critic’s Rating: 3½ out of 4 stars Bottom line: West’s new album expertly blends his soulful roots with experimentation in genres not typical in hip-hop.