As someone who released his first album the same month Facebook was launched, Kanye West knows it's time for a status update. The rapper hit the skids following an infamous tirade against Taylor Swift at last year's MTV Video Music Awards and bottomed out soon after when President Obama called him a "jackass" in an off-the-record portion of an ABC interview. Now, a year and 1.6 million Twitter followers later, he's returned from hiding (in Italy, apparently) and is back in our faces. "They say I was the abomination of Obama's nation," Kanye rhymes, cleverly, on his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (out Nov. 22). He never refers explicitly to the awards show moment, but other lines, like "I went from the favorite to the most hated," clearly refer to that fiasco. Before anyone starts thinking West's been humbled, though, he also asserts, "I got the power to make your life so exciting" and mercilessly proposes "a toast for the scumbags" around him. And in yet another track, he merrily tells us how he met, married, and divorced a porn star all in one night.
What, you were expecting consistency from Kanye West? As a thinker, producer and record maker, he's always been all over the map, and his public flogging since the Swift incident (and his recent, awkward apologies to George Bush for implying he was a racist after Hurricane Katrina) have only further muddled his message. Anyone expecting a full-throttle apology to Swift, or more detailed elucidation into what transpires in his brain, won't necessarily find them on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; the quotes above are about as self-reflective as he gets here.
Still, Kanye remains consistent where it counts: in his music. Back to the days of "Jesus Walks," he's never been afraid to think big as in, creating songs of epic proportions and he's not about to stop now. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his most extravagant work, is hip hop's version of grand opera: a congested, constantly bustling disc stuffed with oversized drama, guest rappers, insanely eclectic samples (best example: '70s prog rock icons King Crimson on "Power"), and backup vocals from a list of headliners that includes Alicia Keys, Elton John, and Fergie. (Taylor Swift may be the only major act who didn't make the sessions.) Tracks like "Dark Fantasy" and "So Appalled" are built on rumbling tanks of pianos and strings that sound as if West is marching into the apocalypse. On paper, "All of the Lights," which hints at blinding stardom, should be a mess: Between its trumpet-processional fanfare, Elton John piano, and Rihanna-sung hook, it should capsize before our ears. Instead, it's powerful and panoramic a validation of what West calls his "bravery in my bravado."
In our mashup-heavy pop music world, in which no one finds it abnormal when Weezer's Rivers Cuomo guests on a rap record, genre juxtapositions are old news. But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reasserts the fact that few combine disparate elements as smoothly as West. Both "Lost in the World" and "Runaway" the latter a nine-minute track addressed to someone who's been "putting up with my s--- too long," integrate the supple vocals of Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon. The unexpected results are elastic, shimmering soundscapes that pinpoint a common ground between the hardness of hip-hop and the sweetness of indie rock. Those two songs also feature prominently in the 35-min. video for "Runaway" that preceded the album. In what amounts to another homage to West's audacity of dope, he almost runs over a female alien who's crashed to earth, then takes her home, seduces her, watches helplessly when his friends find out what she really is, and gazes as she/it rises, phoenix-like, to the sky. (Yes, he identifies with her outcast fate.)
Naturally, West can't help but overdo it, as he did on his previous effort, 808s and Heartbreak. There, he insisted on trying to prove he can sing when he really can't. Here, too many guest rappers keep crowding him out, diluting whatever lyrical coherence the album may have had. "Blame Game" is that rare, effortless fusion of penthouse-boudoir R&B and hip hop grit until it segues into an interminable, decidedly unfunny skit in which a guy keeps asking a woman how she learned such mind-boggling bedroom moves. ("Yeezy!" she keeps responding, referring to West's nickname.) Yet for most of the album, West turns the chaos of his life into art, instead of just more Internet-mockery fodder.