Dark, Twisted Fantasies and Slaying Dragons

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Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella)

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

As West says, "No one man should have all this power." True, indeed. Because, in the end, it's the art that suffers. And for the listener, that makes Dark Fantasy more of a frustrating dream.

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Pigeon John

Dragon Slayer (Quannum Projects)

If you don't follow Los Angeles' underground hip-hop scene, you may not be familiar with Pigeon John. You may be more familiar with the Volkswagen commercial with the two guys seat-dancing in the backseat, which featured his song "The Bomb," the lead track from his thoroughly enjoyable new album, Dragon Slayer.

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As opposed to the bombast of Kanye West, Pigeon John (born John Kenneth Durkin) takes his love of Hank Williams, the Beach Boys and Run-DMC and comes up with an album in which he plays to his own strengths, not to those genre conventions that are so well-worn by now.

First, he mixes in singing with his raps, which helps make the album feel more cohesively musical than most mainstream hip-hop offerings. Another important quality is that John is a great storyteller, one who's not afraid to poke fun at himself. He has an atypical point of view, as in "So Gangster," where, over a beat that brings to mind a Western, he says he's "got Hawthorne [California, his hometown] backin' me up" and raps about when he's "bangin' some Depeche Mode" in his truck.

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It all speaks to a far different orientation than that of someone like Kanye. While Kanye is rockin' stadiums with "the power to make your life so exciting," Pigeon John has more everyday concerns: "I'm not tryna ball in the Lambo/I'm tryna keep my little nephew in some clean clothes," he says in "Buttersoft Seats."

"Davey Rockit" is a poignant tale of paternal rage at a dream deferred, and how it affected and inspired the man's son. And every married man will get a chuckle out of "To Do List." Dude's wife goes out of town and leaves him a list of things to do around the house, but he chooses to hang with his boys. Both hilarity and calamity (when the wife returns) ensue.

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Pigeon John's Dragon Slayer, like Shad's TSOL, works because he's taken his experiences and spun them into short stories to which everyone can relate. It's a welcome break from hip-hop's lyrical orthodoxy. 

Rob Fields writes about black rock and black alternative music on his blog, Boldaslove.us. Follow him on Twitter.

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