West's New Album Appallingly Good

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The Spectrum

Artist: Kanye West

Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Label: Roc-A-Fella

Release Date: Nov. 22

Grade: A-

Kanye West is the New York Yankees of music these days. Nobody is more polarizing – people either love him or hate him.

Many have criticized Kanye because of his arrogant behavior and enormous ego, but his new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, shows yet again that his microphone skills and musicality are not to be disputed.

Kanye has ventured back toward hip-hop territory after 2008's experimental 808s & Heartbreak, which featured auto-tuned singing rather than rapping. However, don't expect to hear those old-school Kanye beats with a sped-up soul sample, a funky bass line, perhaps a piano plink here or there, and some tight drums. Though Kanye is rapping again, the influence of 808s is readily apparent - the beats are more like orchestral compositions than simple loops, and the sampling is subtle rather than blatant.

The songs are more thought out as well. Kanye seems to have gotten bored with the standard verse-hook-verse format that dominates hip-hop (and his first three albums).

These new developments, the odd new cover art (gone is Kanye's trademark chipmunk), the more serious and universal lyrics, and the album's accompanying 35-minute short film make it clear: Kanye isn't just making rap music any longer. He's making art.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the first track, "Dark Fantasy," which also happens to be the album's best. The song careens between a carefully layered chorus of voices singing a refrain ("Can we get much higher?") and a menacing beat with some classic Kanye West rhyming. Kanye sounds rejuvenated, and he shows he hasn't lost his flare for clever and introspective lines:

"The plan was to drink until the pain over / But what's worse, the pain or the hangover?"

Other impressive tracks include "So Appalled," which features solid guest spots from Pusha T and Prynce Cy Hi, and "Monster," which probably has too much bass for your car and showcases the most impressive verse on the album (it's not from Kanye or Jay-Z; it's from unlikely candidate Nicki Minaj).

Although the album drops off a bit toward the end, its last track is another standout, and it's not even really a song. Entitled "Who Will Survive in America," it's Kanye's take on poet Gil Scott-Heron's "Comment #1." As the poem was originally recorded in 1970, it is striking how relevant it remains today, and it ends the album in true Kanye fashion: outspoken, blunt, brash, honest, conflicted, and emotional.

The album does have a few drawbacks. The hook of "Hell of a Life" sounds like Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," and it's rather awkward - Kanye could have saved an above-average beat had he thought of a more original melody. Instead, the song is probably the album's worst.

Additionally, the album suffers a bit from supporting its own massive weight. Excluding the short interlude and outro, the average song is about 6 minutes long, and though there are some moments of comic relief (Chris Rock provides one), the album's themes are largely serious or even brooding.

Gone is the Kanye West who gave us "Gold Digger," "Slow Jamz," and "The New Workout Plan." If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has one flaw, it's that it is missing one of these fun, lighthearted Kanye songs to balance with its more serious productions.

With that said, it's still the best mainstream hip-hop album that's come out this year.

E-mail: arts@ubspectrum.com