Fans who sifted through the official singles, televised short film, and free downloads that Kanye West released this fall are already familiar with most of the songs contained on his fifth album. Even so, students of pop culture will be missing out if they don't listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in its finished form. West has tricked out these tracks with sharper verses and grander instrumental interludes, then lined them up in a sequence that demands to be heard from start to finish. Songs that might have felt self-indulgent or tossed-off in other contexts are now essential components of a soundly built structure easily his most consistently compelling full-length since 2005’s Late Registration.
West begins Fantasy with a flashback. ''I fantasized about this back in Chicago'' are his first words on the opener, evoking his now-distant pre-fame years. He spends the rest of the album exploring the sounds that have defined his work since then. The luxurious soul of 2004’s The College Dropout, the symphonic pomp of Late Registration, the gloss of 2007’s Graduation, and the emotionally exhausted electro of 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak all recur at various points, as if to remind us of his achievements.
But those echoes of past styles don’t mean West is repeating himself. He is ravenous for fresh inspiration, and the last four decades of music are on the menu. He samples atmospheric noodling from Aphex Twin and bombastic nuggets from Black Sabbath and King Crimson, and he gets help from some of the biggest names in pop, rap, and indie rock. West crafts these influences into a fever dream with a crescendo around every corner the Beautiful Fantasy of the album’s title.
So what makes West’s new music so Dark and Twisted? Nothing much, unless you pay attention to his outrageously hedonistic lyrics. The rapper makes only a handful of explicit references to the damage his image sustained after he interrupted Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. But while he’s sounded humbled in recent interviews, his attitude on Fantasy couldn’t be more different. If anything, he appears even more narcissistic on critic-baiting tunes like ''Gorgeous'' (where he threatens to ''choke a South Park writer with a fish stick'' and declares, ''I need more drinks and less lights/And that American Apparel girl in just tights'') and ''Hell of a Life'' (on which he imagines “marry[ing] a porn star”).
Yet the ruthlessly self-indicting ''Runaway,'' expanded to nine minutes from the version he debuted at this year’s VMAs, complicates Fantasy’s intermittent ugliness. ''You’ve been putting up with my s--- just way too long,'' he admits to a girlfriend, or maybe the entire listening public, before leading a bitterly ironic ''toast for the douchebags'' in the chorus. It’s a dose of harsh reality that casts the excesses around it in a new light. West may be obnoxious, but at least he’s interested in confronting those aspects of his identity through his music. Few stars of comparable wattage would dare do the same. A