Kanye West’s outbursts over the years are motivated by a consistent, if peculiar, internal logic: that Mr. West isn’t to be disturbed. When he’s comfortable, and not feeling cornered, he can be thoughtful, as he was during an extended visit recently to a New York radio station.
“As a celebrity, as soon as you become a star, as soon as it pops off for you, at that point you stop growing,” he admitted. On November 21, Mr. West, 33, released his fifth album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/ Def Jam), and it’s terrific. And yet by not allowing for responses to his work other than awe, the value of the work itself is diminished; it becomes an object of admiration, not of study.
Instead the focus is on Mr. West’s persona and character. The result is that he becomes a polarizing public figure. Even his consistent success ? 14 Grammy Awards, four platinum albums and more ? has done little to change his public image. He’s certainly the only rapper to be insulted by two American presidents.
Nevertheless, Mr. West seems virtually incapable of making a bad record. His music ? ornate, ostentatious, curious and vivacious? is all within recognized formulas. A producer as well as a rapper, Mr. West controls all of the major elements of his songs. For an egotist Mr. West isn’t scared of collaboration. That ex
plains the most amusing bit in this album’s liner notes, from the credits for “All of the Lights”: “Additional Vocals: Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Tony Williams, The-Dream, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Elly Jackson (La Roux), Alicia Keys, Elton John, Fergie, Ryan Leslie, Drake, Alvin Fields & Ken Lewis.” Maybe three or four of these people are audibly identifiable .
Nevertheless, the patchwork of performers gnaws away at this album’s impact. In part that’s why it can feel bloodless compared with Mr. West’s previous album, “808s & Heartbreak,” which was a consistent and unnerving meditation on personal loss. He’s a better rapper than he’s ever been, as good as anyone he’s emulated. (His flow pattern on “Monster” recalls Juvenile’s “Ha,” a surprise.) He’s currently working on a collaborative album with Jay-Z: even a couple of years ago that would have been conceivable only with Mr. West producing, not rapping.
But on the two songs here where Jay-Z appears, Mr. West at least matches him, maybe bests him. On “Gorgeous” he sneers at the competition, “You blowing up?/That’s good/Fantastic,” maybe the iciest blow-off since Jay-Z’s “ ‘You got a little dough? That’s cool with me.’ ” And of course there’s the music, decidedly moody yet crisp, with dense orchestration against scraped-up drums and samples.
Often the songs sound like two ideas, one glossy and one raw, superimposed on each other. And Mr. West finds different ways to sound phenomenal ? “Dark Fantasy” recalls vintage Wu-Tang Clan; “Devil in a New Dress” is reminiscent of Mr. West’s 2004 debut, “The College Dropout.” Mr. West isn’t content without feedback; his effort is valueless without response.
Plenty of artists insist their work speaks for them, but as spectacular as his work is , Mr. West will never be one of them. Mr. West is someone worth interrogating, and that’s the highest compliment of all.