Next time you’re watching one of those stately period films the kind where aristocrats in splendid, elaborate costumes parade through lavish palaces you might consider that the characters you’re watching were probably filthy and uncomfortable. For some of them, it would have been the height of luxury just to douse their gloves with enough perfume to avoid smelling themselves. No plumbing, no air-conditioning, no dentists or dermatologists. Those eighteenth-century French women with the elaborate hairdos? The hair was powdered with flour and crawling with vermin. We think about their opulence and swoon a little, but they swooned from heat, stiff corsets, and foul air. The most opulent palace was, by modern standards, fundamentally nasty.
So what is it about Kanye West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that keeps reminding me of all that that actually sounds like all that?
But how about the filth? After the Swift incident, West retreated, made music, pondered what it meant to be a jerk, and returned with this album. One of the images attached to the record is a portrait of West wearing robes and a crown, but his face is split into some kind of Cubist monstrosity — he’s royalty and a ghoul at the same time, see? In “Runaway,” the short film he released this fall, he uses a plinking piano to summon a ballet troupe, then sings about raising a toast to the douchebags and assholes of the world — in other words, he sticks a symbol of classical refinement next to a lyric about being toxic and acting ugly. (Ballet already does this, too: All that beauty is built on twisted toes, bloody shoes, deformed legs.) This feels like the heart of West’s whole project this year. He’s attracted to these symbols of classical refinement and aristocracy — ballet, golden goblets, “Persian rugs with cherub imagery,” Greek mythology, next-level luxury brands — and then he sits among them reminding us that it doesn’t make him any different, or keep him from acting poisonous, or pissing the world off by grabbing people’s microphones. It’s all about the worms in the wig, the stink on the princess.
The part about royalty is easy to explain: By many measures, West is the foremost pop-music artist in the country, and he’s ludicrously aware of this fact. It causes him to behave in ways that don’t entirely make sense to normal people. When he stopped by the Today show this week to promote his album, he wound up telling someone off-camera to be quiet, and snipped at Matt Lauer about a video clip — of his infamous confrontation with Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards — playing while he was trying to talk. This seems absurdly arrogant, unless you follow West’s logic: The Today show needs him far more than he needs it. It’s not just the video clip that’s making him feel insulted — it’s the show’s failure to recognize this fact. When you’ve had to earn and demand respect, instead of having it offered to you as a courtesy — and this is precisely how a lot of black men in hip-hop feel about life — you can wind up touchy about the moments when it’s withheld or begrudged.
That’s not a new concept in hip-hop: A lot of this music is about wearing a crown, but staying every bit as hungry and contradictory as you were before you grabbed it. It’s just that West is very, very good at abstracting that feeling — turning it into sound and music and emotion, not just lyrics and narrative. It’s not simply Kanye’s ego that puts me in mind of crusty aristocrats: It’s also the drums, samples, melodies, and synths on this album. Crisp, graceful sounds keep bumping up against muddy, sweaty ones. Elegant minor-key melodies keep bumping up against rawness and ego. Opulence bumps up against grit, until the music begins to sound a little decayed, tragic, and under threat. (Every filthy aristocrat, after all, was surrounded by an even filthier mob.) And there’s something about this collision that has a tremendous attraction.
It almost goes without saying that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is impressive: It was made by a perfectionist with a big budget and a whole lot of feelings to sort through. But it’s also adventurous, fierce, and full of vitality. Its guiding principle seems to be to go in harder on every front: Be more opulent and arty, be more vicious and aggrieved, be more “complicated” and self-lacerated. West, as per usual, summons up beats that feel less like drummers or machines, and more like crowds. He makes “Power” knock and head-bang and calls it his own superhero theme music. He makes space for rappers to play goblins on “Monster”; Nick Minaj, who specializes in play-acting, uses that space to turn in one of the year’s most striking verses. He does gloomy and elegiac (“Blame Game”), but he also turns in huge tracks like “All of the Lights,” which manages to tap into a terrific vein of desperation and frustration; the song’s chaos of guest artists actually helps. It also helps that the song has West projecting his own situation onto a defined character — an abusive man meeting his ex at a bookstore, to convince her that he’s changed and beg to see his daughter again.
It’s hard to talk about those songs, and that music, without writing about who Kanye West is: There’s too much of him, and too much of his personal story, wound into the work. His public self-expression — even the most ill-advised parts of it — are continually connected to his musical self-expression, and his visual self-expression, and even his consumer self-expression. He knows better than anyone how big he is, and how big he’d like to be, and he’s setting out to make art that lives up to that; when two consecutive presidents comment on your flaws, it’s easy to feel justified in getting florid on record. The constant push for more sometimes makes the album feel bloated and indulgent, or like it’s too interested in turning hip-hop into moody art music; plenty of rap fans have watched West get more and more baroque, as his career goes on, and turned their attention back toward more elemental sounds. But the guy’s not sapped of energy. Getting bigger drives him harder, and every drama in his life — from the real ones to the ridiculous kerfuffles about whether he’s a bit rude — makes him get a little weirder and come on a little stronger. If you’re the kind of person who worries that we’re becoming a nation of self-dramatizing narcissists, maybe it’s not good that West makes self-involvement sound so great. But it does make for serious pop, and puts him in rarefied territory: One of those few stars popular enough to be heard by everyone, yet inventive enough to influence where music will go next.
See Also: Demented Genius: Kanye West