One of the greatest indictments of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina — and the flood that threatened to sweep New Orleans into oblivion — in 2005 came not from George Bush’s political opponents but from rapper Kanye West — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” West said.
The former United States president, in his recently published memoirs, Decision Points, says that, of all the bad things that took place during his presidency, Kanye’s comments were the worst.
Many critics have singled out West’s most recent offering, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as one of 2010’s top hip-hop albums. It’s an accomplished CD, no doubt — it’s his fifth, after all — and shows the rapper-cum-producer’s grasp of the intricacies of melody, tight lyrics, sense of occasion and awareness of self (if he wasn’t a rapper, we’d simply describe him as egocentric).
West first received acclaim as a producer for Jay Z, Mos Def and others before he himself was accepted into hip-hop’s marble halls. The producer’s predilection for melody is apparent in most of the CD’s songs.
The album begins with Dark Fantasy, a sing-a-long track that exhibits his songwriting skills. His narrative bias is achieved without giving up the rapper’s main assets — rhyme and clever wordplay.
Gorgeous, the second song, which features Kidi Cudi and Raekwon, is easily one of the more interesting on the album, containing pithy, perhaps desperate, lines such as: “Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion/ the soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing?”
Power is perhaps the most politically engaged song on the album, although its political energy is subsumed somewhat by the “eehs” and “aahs”. He raps about “the system broken, the schools closed, the prisons open” and, ripping off popular themes, he offers biting commentary on US politics, as in the lines: “Colin Powells, Austin Powers/ Lost in translation with a whole fuckin’ nation/ They say I was the obamanation of Obama’s nation”.
His railings about the failings of the US show a genuine awareness of the wider world, which goes beyond the gestural antics of Bono and his ilk.
All of the Lights, featuring Rihanna, is a bouncy track about a man at the edge of a mental breakdown. Without a job, unable to see his daughter, he stands precariously at the precipice, staring into the abyss below.
This is followed by So Appalled, a track that features a glut of his co-conspirators, including West’s spiritual father, Jay Z. It’s a prickly and percussive song boasting a certain internal unity and logic. This is strengthened by the styles of featured artists, such as Pusha T, Prince Cy Hi and Swiss Beatz. Targets of fun in the song include MC Hammer, who is mocked by Jay Z for his relative poverty: “I lost 30 mill so I spent another 30/ ’cause unlike Hammer 30 mill can’t hurt me”.
How about a bit of self-referential arrogance? There’s a bit of that (“If God had a iPod, I’d be on his playlist”). But perhaps the most striking aspect about this song is its breadth and coherence. How he manages to drag Prada and Ferrari into a song in which there is also a nod to civil rights hero Rosa Parks is breathtaking.
In Blame Game, West brings in John Legend to harmonise about a relationship gone wrong. The song reaches its crescendo when Chris Rock appears, achieving a narrative flourish and theatrical exuberance not usually experienced in eight-minute songs.
Is West setting himself up as one of the all-time greats of hip-hop? If you talk to his fans, the question is a no-brainer. They say he is a good producer, his rhymes are tight and mean, he is aware of the wider world and his street credibility is not suspect because it wasn’t gleaned from penitentiaries.
But one renowned American critic has noted that West “doesn’t have the vocal instrument of verifiable greats such as Method Man (broad and raspy), Lil Wayne (curling and shape-shifting), or E-40 (deep and liquid), but he makes the most of his and his collaborators’ talents”.
This album is proof of that and it is not the kind that would appeal to people who don’t like the genre in the way of, say, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, which brought jazz to a non-jazz audience, Nas’s Illmatic or Dr Dre’s Chronic, all CDs with a crossover appeal.