Dark, Twisted Fantasies and Slaying Dragons

The Root listens to Kanye West's new album and Pigeon John's Dragon Slayer.

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Kanye West

Slick production does not automatically equal great art. Such is the challenge faced by Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF).

To be fair, this is an album in which an artist's vision and his ability to execute seemingly came together. There's a sense of grandeur in the music that says big and impressive, owing to the sweep of musical influences that he's marshaled. I'm also relieved to hear that his mic skills have improved considerably since his College Dropout days.

Where West's last album, 808s & Heartbreak, was about his heartache, loss, loneliness and self-doubt, MBDTF shows he's so over that. He's embraced his superstar status with a certitude that was missing from the previous album. When he talks about any of his failings, such as in "All of the Lights," it's done matter-of-factly. That's the most humility that's shown on this album. Whatever his history, he's done apologizing for it. He's living the life; West no longer walks on the same ground as the rest of us, and he's just letting us know. 

And his efforts have been commercially rewarded: Rolling Stone recently crowned MBDTF as the No. 1 album of the year; and West had impressive first-week sales of more than half a million, putting his album in the No. 1 slot on the Billboard chart. The album dropped to seventh place in its second week.

Despite its shortcomings, there's a lot to like on the album. "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous," "All of the Lights" and "So Appalled" shine as standout tracks. "Power" is damn near anthemic. Toward the end he says, "Now, this would be a beautiful death," followed by the soaring male voice singing, "Jumpin' out the win-dooow/Lettin' everything go." It's chilling and sublime.

West is many things, one of which is an aesthete. By that I mean he has a strong sense of that which is beautiful. And he perceives himself to be at the top of the game, so it's not surprising that there may be some nagging suspicion that there's nothing left to achieve. So why not end it? I'm not suggesting that West is seriously considering suicide when a No. 1 album wasn't enough, but the notion probably makes sense to him. In fact, I'd be surprised if he hadn't noted the outpouring of adoration for Michael Jackson that occurred after the singer's untimely death. Given his ego, it's not too much of a leap to suggest that West expects that same type of canonization.

There is something to music and cultural critic Marcus Dowling's assertion that "Kanye West Is Culture." As Dowling writes, West "drives culture because he can." As West states in "Power," every superhero needs a theme song. But heroes aren't heroes just because they have superpowers or because they decide to call themselves such. Rather, every hero also needs a villain or some other opposition to overcome. Superman has Lex Luthor, Batman has the Joker and Ra's al Ghul. Their conflict, particularly when the hero is seemingly outmatched, pushes him to discover and express his best self.

It took the death of his mother to get him to look inward in 808s & Heartbreak's "Pinocchio Story." Looking back on his success to date, he asked, "Was I ever a real boy?" That was powerful. Authentic vulnerability usually is. Fast-forward to today, and he's the king of the hill. He's got all the cultural power and creative abilities, but unfortunately no challengers -- certainly none who inhabits that similar space in American culture. What's needed is someone to make West's ideas rise to meet his production abilities.

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