Kanye West's latest is being hailed as a masterpiece by many, but is it a leap forward or just 'black music that white critics find easy to listen to'? DARAGH DOWNESgathers a crack team to investigate
ASK ANY Kanye West fan what they think of when they hear the words “Good Friday”, and all but the most pious will tell you it’s the name of a tasty free- download promo campaign their idol launched on his website last August.
COME ON OVER, VALERIE
For Valerie Francis, however, the combination of "Kanye West" and "Good Friday" brings a very different association to mind. A couple of years back Francis wrote and recorded a song called Punches. A talented young director by the name of Eoghan Kidney shot a video for it and, on the night of Wednesday, April 8th, 2009, uploaded it to his Vimeo page.
That Friday – Good Friday – Francis was heading to the Phoenix Park for a lunchtime stroll when a bizarre message came through on her phone from a friend in New York.
"Holy shit," it read. "Kanye links to Val!" One of the planet's biggest stars had only gone and given Punchesthe mother of all shout-outs the night before by posting it on his blog. It hadn't even been up 24 hours.
Listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasyover the past few weeks, Francis has often thought back to this incident – and not just for reasons of personal gratitude. What makes Kanye's fifth studio album an unalloyed triumph in her book is the way it lets him indulge, on a grander scale than ever before, his wide-eyed curiosity about other people's music.
Kanye’s ravenous “appetite” for new ideas, Francis argues, is what has inspired him to open his studio doors to a who’s-who of guest vocalists and co-producers. It has also emboldened him to restore sampling to the heart of his own songs.
The result? “I think this is his masterpiece.” This album sounds like “all the things he’s wanted to do for so long but hasn’t been able to actually complete”.
That Kanye’s talent lies more in 21st- century studio wizardry than traditional musicianship or songcraft should not, she insists, lead one to underestimate his genius. “In this day and age, artistry comes down to producing and all those other things. It’s not just about musical technique.”
BLACK AND WHITE
John Connolly shares Francis’s admiration for Kanye’s genre-leaping eclecticism. “Quite often if you read an interview with a black musician, particularly a younger black musician, where they’re asked to reference previous artists they’ve listened to they will almost exclusively reference black artists. Kanye doesn’t cleave to that formula on this album.”
He points to the use of samples from white artists as diverse as Bon Iver ( Lost in the World), King Crimson ( Power) and Mike Oldfield ( Dark Fantasy) as instances of this non-snobbish ethos.
But there the unreserved praise from Connolly ends. This album has failed to challenge his long-standing belief that Yeezy amounts to little more than “a talented loudmouth”.
Diagnosing a bad ratio of samples to original ideas, not to mention a tendency to hide behind other people's vocal talents, Connolly finds My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasyoverblown, overlong and overhyped. Take away the "critical, commercial and popular noise" around it, and what you're left with is "black music that white critics find easy to listen to".
As soon as the sharp intakes of breath around him have subsided, he elaborates. "When I listen to this I'm always reminded of that moment in The Wirewhere there's one of these white wannabes sitting on the step and the black drug dealer says to him, 'You know you're white, right?'. And there is something fundamentally ridiculous about a whole lot of white people trying to connect with music that is principally out of the black urban experience."
WILD WILD WEST
Orla Tinsley also worries about the cultural-tourism aspect of Kanye's mainstream success. She has tended to see him as enmeshed in rap's "history of violence, misogyny, anger, aggression", and has found his treatment of women in his videos and songs pretty obnoxious. When she took a look at the video for Monster, one of this album's most abrasive tracks, its necrophiliac fetishisation of hanged women only confirmed her worst fears about West's misogyny.
And yet she has never been able to shake off a certain guilty fascination with his music. “It’s undoubtedly right on the pulse of pop culture right now. It’s so clever. I really want to hate him, but I find it really difficult.”
Before listening to this album, Tinsley was tempted to add the charge of egomania to Kanye's rap sheet. She was surprised to find that "a lot of the songs here are about his struggle with his ego and his inner child" – a struggle she sees being played out on a wider scale in contemporary American culture. What intrigues her about songs such as Runaway, Blame Gameand Monsteris the obsessive way in which West keeps playing with "the perception of him that's out there, the perception that he's a monster".
If this is narcissism, then it has rarely come across as so compellingly knowing. If it’s egomania, then it has rarely sounded so self-doubting. You almost begin to give thanks that Taylor Swift beat Beyoncé to that MTV Video Music Award.
Dan McAuley used to think of West as “a bit of an idiot” whose “ridiculous posing” was insufferable. But he has “begrudgingly” fallen in love with this album.
His take on the unorthodox role West has carved out for himself on the project is intriguing. “I think he was just kind of the director of this album rather than the sole creator of it.”
He compares the album to a movie, freeing us up to relax traditional notions of what a music artist ought to be held responsible for. “If we’re looking at the album just as being an album, not as who made it, then it’s still a great album. Kanye just chose the people correctly. So it would be kind of like if you’re working on a film, it’s very much a collaborative thing – it depends on who’s your cinematographer, your scriptwriter, whatever. So you give credit to the whole crew. And with this you’ve got to do that, you can’t give all the credit or all the blame just to Kanye. He was just the director of it.”
As Francis is quick to point out, this cinematic analogy also invites us to think twice before equating Kanye’s more offensive in-character pronouncements with his own personal views.
McAuley's band, Cloud Castle Lake, recently recorded a cover version of Lost in the Worldfor a forthcoming compilation. It was already his favourite song off the album, but by the time he got to record the 90th vocal track, his appreciation of Kanye's achievement as artist/producer/auteur had deepened greatly.
Perhaps Cloud Castle Lake might consider sticking a video of their version up on Vimeo?
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