Kanye talks a lot about producing art. Not music. Not albums. Art. The way he frames it suggests something that can sit on a Dorian plinth and be labelled as such; something that could be played back- to-back with a Beethoven symphony in an ornate hall somewhere.
Last time around, this distaste for previous glories resulted in the art-pop fetishising of 808s and Heartbreak. He sang. He ruminated about loves won and lost, existential crises and death. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare it’ll do for Kanye. Out went the sped-up R&B samples and Chi-town consciousness, and in went stark, tasteful minimalism.
Statements of intent from established artists don’t come much bigger, and it helped change the conversation in a conservative genre. But as an album 808s was only semi-successful. For every “Say You Will”, there was a “Robocop”; for every audacious three minute drum-loop outro, there was a Lil Wayne verse.
The luke-warm reception was always unlikely to dent his ambition, and here ploughing on single-mindedly, chasing windmills in pursuit of his classicist ideal of ‘art’ as you’d expect Kanye to do, Fantasy represents a second try playing with high-minded ideas.
Only it’s downright decadent this time; a cursory glance at the measurements reveals as much. 68 minutes long, the majority of tracks stretch over the five minute mark; two posse cuts, “Monster” and “So Appalled”, occupy the heart of the album, featuring nine guests between them; the song before it features Alicia Keys, Rhianna, Fergie, John Legend and Elton John – indulgently deployed to sing one refrain on the song’s outro. It’s pure unrestrained maximalism. The mid-west consciousness from College Dropout, the baroque manoeuvres from Late Registration, the stadium-filling sensibility from Graduation and the emotional honesty from 808s are all here. And it’s delightful. If 808s was a minimalist Mondrian then Fantasy is a gold-gilded, 9-digit value Klimt – a different approach, but equally artful.
Kanye has talked of taking this project to Broadway; it wasn’t immediately obvious from the Spike Jonze short how’d that work, but here the widescreen vision is apparent. Fantasy, sequenced in the finest traditions of prog, offers the tale of the fiery descent of a man with everything felled by love and the blinding scrutiny of fame. The Louis Vitton Don becomes The 21st Century Schizoid Man (‘nothing he’s got he really needs’) throwing himself on the funeral pyre. Where 808s focused on introverted, bleary-eyed reminisces, Fantasy offers the whole Greek tragedy from the top.
In the tribal battle-cry of “Power”, he swaggers and offers pithy, tweet-length retorts, “I don’t need your pussy, bitch. I’m on my own dick.” It’s the same Kanye we always knew. But in the next song, amidst regal herald and maddening drums, domestic violence and the court-sanctioned civility of a relationship gone sour (“Public visitation, we met at Borders.”) peeps from the backstage.
The turn takes hold. By the nine-minute sprawl of “Runaway”, the central jewel in Fantasy’s crown, the outward smile is gone. The black super hero music is replaced by plangent, lonely piano notes and mushrooming bass tones. He breaks, “Never was much of a romantic, I could never take the intimacy.” Brusque cello stabs and elegiac violin strains charge in to hide the dirt and decay, and the whole rottenness of the situation.
It’s one of the peaks of the album’s narrative, but what’s more striking is what Kanye’s done with the song. The MPC samples and the whole baroque schtick are both good, fantastic. But the hurt croon, filtered through a superbly distorted vocoder is a stunning justification of his obsession with auto-tune and vocal modulation. The fizz and buzz of it crashes against the classical refinement of the strings like a tear-soaked drunk stumbling through the orderves at a wedding (given the imagery of the song, it’s probably a more germane simile than first appears). Its deranged distortion bears out the fractured mea culpas from the earlier verses. When he reaches for the higher notes, the untrained strain in his voice gets clipped, strangled and comes out in an alienated wail. It’s genuinely affecting music full stop. Not just for Kanye. Auto-tune and vocoder cynics be dammed.
Critically, on an album stuffed with guests. Everyone brings their A-game and are carefully directed for maximum effect. Not much more needs to be said about Minaj’s schizo, show-stopping verse on “Monster”. What’s more subtly impressive is how apparently ill-suited guests like Rick Ross (who does what Rick Ross does best over the shimmering soul and cinematic sweep) and Pusha T are employed, on “Devil in a New Dress” and “Runaway” respectively, to act as mischievous foils to the sentimentality, or perhaps just ghoulish representations of the younger, bolder Kanye. There’s even a three minute Chris Rock skit that features the phrase ‘Yeezy reupholstered my pussy’ but still emerges as a poignant piece of narrative exposition; a “Fitter, Happier” or “Vera” in his own modern-day Hip Hopera.
The album as a whole thrives on these juxtapositions: the collision of Perez Hilton blog revelation and the art-house sophistication. The last two tracks proper feature Kanye bouncing between angry foolhardiness and shattered resignation, and a ‘lighters in the air’ festival closer that, despite the stirring harmonies, is about confused self-isolation and escape. It’s the kind of muddled complexity that comes from bearing and letting loose. For a pop superstar who exists in the public consciousness as a collection of played-out internet memes more than anything else (Imma let you finish, Fishdicks etc), it’s a big, big move. Perhaps he’ll never succeed in making us believe his problems are as significant as ours, or that he isn’t just an arrogant asshole. But he didn’t have to make an album like this, and it should be applauded that he did.
Only a hubris approaching Kanye’s own would suggest this album represents Hip Hop future, but the breadth of emotion, the sincerity and the wide pallet of sounds on display here is stretching what Hip Hop can be and can do, bringing to mind work of Outkast a decade earlier. Purists of the genre will sneer, “his rhymes are clumsy. He can’t sing.” so what? A few clumsy rhymes are forgivable for an album that displays such artistic wholeness. It’s hard to imagine a less fallible storyteller producing such a confessional and raw album about himself that would produce the same effect. It’s his ineloquence, his rustiness and his off-key singing that makes Fantasy so affecting at times.
In a string of tweets before the Today show ambush (another outburst/another meme), Kanye announced (via Twitter, the social network of choice for egoists) he was pulling out of a string of promotional interviews. ‘I’m gone make this art but I’m not going to be scrutinized as a human being… I’m tired of using my celebrity to sell my art’. It’s a strange statement to make. The album’s Greek chorus of voices is never speaking exactly as him – unless he has some kids and a history of domestic violence he’s kept quiet – but it’s hard to imagine the album’s ruminations on the spotlight of fame and love and everything those things bring to bear are about anything else than was going on in his mind. He may not be that ‘motherfucking monster’ on the cover, but he’s thought he is at sometime.
An album like this gives interviewers more questions to ask about Kanye. Is he ok? What is this song about? Who’s the object of your affections in that song? His celebrity and infamy is inseparable from the albums he puts out. And if you’re one of those joyless people who gets so riled by his antics, his self-belief and self-dramatising, then this album isn’t for you. If you’re cool with it then the album is, as Kanye put in another tweet, ‘unquestionable’.
How Kanye defines art is a mystery; it’s unlikely they’ll ever be a time in history where someone won’t raise an eyebrow over “Moonlight Sonata” being followed by “Monster”, but this is a great, great album; his best. He might rile, he might not have the smoothest flow, or the smartest samples, but the ambition on display is unfaultable. Let’s have a toast for the greatest show on Earth.