Kanye West is ahead of his time, a true "21st Century Schizoid Man."
He wasn't content to simply make his new "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (Roc-a-Fella), which drops Monday, his best album yet, or even the best album of the year. He didn't want to just alter the way hip-hop sounds, the way singles are heard on the radio. He didn't want to just excite fans about the album's release, he reinvented the artist-fan connection by distributing a new song each week, on "Good Fridays" for months.
And he succeeded. With all of it. Every last bit.
So why isn't everyone hailing West as the conquering hero? Well, as with everything that involves West, it's complicated.
His musical heroics - often made to sound even more impressive here by welding stadium-rock riffs to thumping, bruising hip-hop beats - are matched (or surpassed)only by his antiheroic personal missteps, ranging from petty tantrums to his almost unbelievably unthinking interruption of Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards.
To confuse matters further, the same boldness and narcissism that make West such a great artist also make him hard to take at times. It's a problem he recognizes and addresses often in "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
His apology, "Runaway," is stunning. "I just blame everything on you - at least you know what I'm good at," he sings in the Auto-Tuned voice that dominated his last album, "808s and Heartbreak." However, instead of the small, intimate songs of that album, "Runaway" is huge. Sprawling over nine minutes, it's held together by a plinking piano progression and a chorus of cheers that ends with him urging her to "run away as fast as you can."
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In the fragile "Blame Game," with a mournful hook sung by John Legend, West bounces between spiteful and self-loathing for nearly six minutes before bringing in Chris Rock for some raunchy comic relief that outlines exactly what West had lost. It's clever, funny and sad simultaneously, which is an emotional package that West nails time and time again.
He also creates extraordinary caricatures, especially in the massive "Monster," which, like "Runaway," is really a suite of separate ideas. This time, the separate verses of West, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj are unified by an industrial beat that sounds like Nine Inch Nails in the "Head Like a Hole" days and the ferocity of their deliveries. Even Jay, known for his more laid-back style, gets revved up before offering the payoff. "Everybody wanna know what my Achilles heel is," he says. "Love! I don't get enough of it."
On every track in his "Twisted Fantasy," West has some sort of trick up his sleeve, whether it's the way he turns the seductive soul jam "Devil in a New Dress" into a weird meditation on religion or the way he takes a lengthy chunk of Gil Scott-Heron's "Comment #1" and turns it into a club hit.
It's amazing to think that West's first single, "Power," with its wild prog-rock sample of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," is actually one of the album's most direct tracks.
With all those accomplishments, though, comes the strange revelation that West has trouble utilizing the basics of not just his profession, but of common sense.
Who would think that charging the stage and taking the microphone away from the then-teenage Swift during her acceptance speech was a good idea?
More recently, West got played by his own lack of preparation when he gave an interview about President George W. Bush on the "Today" show.
But that kind of high-profile sideshow is what makes West and "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" that much more compelling. When he calls himself "Hood phenomenom, the LeBron of rhyme" in "Devil in a New Dress," adding that it's "hard to be humble when you stuntin' on a JumboTron," he doesn't seem to realize that what he's outlining isn't necessarily a good thing.
Or maybe he does. How twisted is that?
"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"
BOTTOM LINE Boundless ambition matched only by his narcissism and talent
Kanye West going persona to persona
Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is the latest in his line of ever-changing personae for his albums. Here's a look back:
THE COLLEGE DROPOUT (2004)
STYLE Playful-meets-conscious rap. He's even wearing a backpack in the publicity photos.
HITS "Jesus Walks," "All Falls Down," "Through the Wire"
CONTROVERSY After losing the best new artist award at the 2004 American Music Awards to Gretchen Wilson, he leaves the show, later saying, "I felt like I was definitely robbed . . . I was the best new artist this year."
LATE REGISTRATION (2005)
STYLE Less jokey, more topical
HITS "Gold Digger," "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," "Heard 'Em Say"
CONTROVERSY "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
STYLE More Europop-influenced, more dancey
HITS "Stronger," "Good Life," "Can't Tell Me Nothing"
808s & HEARTBREAK (2008)
STYLE Minimalist, drenched in Auto-Tune and synthesizers
HITS "Heartless," "Love Lockdown"
CONTROVERSY "Taylor, I'mma let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time."