After Kanye West dropped out of Chicago State University to focus on his music career, he didn't immediately become a rapper. His first notices and raves came for his production work. He caught a break crafting tracks for Jay-Z, then for Mos Def, Ludacris, Nas and others. He added a crackling urgency to their music -- new sounds, new styles, cleverly manipulated samples -- that grabbed ears and turned heads. Then and only then did Jay-Z let him do his own thing, signing him as an artist to Roc-A-Fella Records.
Those true talents -- seeing the big (usually huge) picture, hearing where all the pieces could go, honing and shaping each individual one, fitting it all together -- may have never been realized with such sync and success as they are on West's triumphant fifth album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," out Nov. 22.
These are the talents that curse Kanye, too, that make him into the nuisance of the celebrity pages and live TV. Every emotion he has, he expresses -- grabbing awards-show microphones, blurting accusations about presidents. Every reaction he has to things he sees or hears, he posts. His blog has long been a frequently fascinating share of intriguing design and edgy music and arresting photography, punctuated with occasional capitalized missives; his Twitter feed is a notorious stream-of-consciousness jumble, worthy of its comparisons this summer to Tracy Jordan's non sequiturs on "30 Rock." He transmits as soon as he receives, with few filters. Yet only in the studio is he able to make something of the transmissions, to carve and mold the mass of it into wildly ambitious and continually surprising music.
"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" -- much of which has already been presented through West's G.O.O.D. Friday releases, but it's much more successful as an album -- may be the world's first social media album. It functions almost exactly like a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed. The overall content is guided by Kanye, the account holder, but friends and followers pop in all the time with their comments and contributions, pokes and posts. There are several fellow producers and dozens of guests on this album, including Jay-Z, Q-Tip, Raekwon, Pusha T, Rick Ross, RZA and Swizz Beatz. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Nicki Minaj each show up twice. "All of the Lights" brings together Alicia Keys, Rihanna, John Legend, Kid Cudi, La Roux, Fergie, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Charlie Wilson, even Elton John on a single track. The album could be credited to Kanye West & Friends, and sometimes one wonders where the boy wonder has gone off to, scanning the crowd for sign of his bling. Then he pops in with several lines of rhymes, sometimes intoning them (let's not call it singing), reminding us that this is his house, his party.
But these aren't guests like on every other hip-hop record, nor are they collaborations. Every sound on "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is a sample, a sonic fragment West uses to build his set pieces -- be it a live person (Elton John's piano part at the top of "All of the Lights"), an instrumental sound (more sped-up beats and some great strings) or an actual sample (Gil Scott-Heron's outraged rant at the end of "Who Will Survive in America"). Each guest's participation seems particularly purposeful, not just some babbling to fill in a blank left behind for whenever they make it by the studio. They're not performances, they're contributions, and West slots them into songs that tend to veer away from the basic verse-chorus framework, often drifting in and out of noodling but beautiful instrumental introductions and transitions. In the end, as crowded as "All of the Lights" is it maintains an almost operatic drama, telling a tale of adultery and its aftermath that winds up being quite moving.
That he's rapping again, after suffering such undue abuse for his "singing" on his last album, "808s and Heartbreak," is cause for celebration not just because his vocalizing isn't always spot-on but because his mouth is on fire again, throwing out genius rhymes ("Praise due to the most high, Allah / Praise due to the most fly, Prada" in "I'm So Appalled") and typically radical claims ("I treat the cash the way the government treats AIDS / I won't be satisfied till all my niggas get it / Get it?" in "Gorgeous").
West's most artful skill is his ability to contrast the light and dark pieces against each other, the profane and the sacred. "Blame Game" utilizes Legend's soft, pretty voice to sing a smooth, troubling refrain -- "I'll call you 'bitch' for short / as a last resort and my first resort / You call me motherf----- for long / At the end of it, you know, we both are wrong" -- over mellow cello and tinkling piano, then West enters to rap more of the couple's love-hate relationship (a less physical version of Rihanna and Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie") before culminating in a hilarious, X-rated spiel by comedian Chris Rock. He rips more hard raps on "Devil in a New Dress" -- chuckling through lines like, "We love Jesus / but you done learned a lot from Satan / We ain't married / but tonight I need some consummation," and later chewing through an impersonation of a preacher, "Say-tan! Say-tan! Say-tan!" -- all over a fluttery, high, quiet-storm soul vocal that's part bedroom allure, part angelic prayer.
The nine-minute epic "Runaway" is the tune West unveiled at this year's MTV VMAs -- the toastmaster's song for "d-----bags," "a--holes," "scumbags" and "j---offs" -- and contains what could be the thesis for this album, made in retreat from a broken engagement with designer Alexis Phifer and his public gaffe with Taylor Swift: "I don't know what it is with females / but I'm not too good with that." The song itself ends with Kanye actually in retreat. The last four minutes find him humming and singing, but his voice is Auto-Tuned and distorted beyond perceptibility. What's he saying or singing? Can't really make it out, can't really understand him. Which, no doubt, is how he feels his clumsy public statements are often received. His difficulty in communicating makes him a menace in the real world, but it's pretty compelling on record.
Pop culture fiend
Kanye West's raps fling pop culture references at a furious pace. Here are some favorites found on "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy":
"Sex is on fire / I'm the King of Leona Lewis" from "Dark Fantasy" -- A play on words, using the Kings of Leon hit "Sex on Fire"
"What you gonna do now? Whatever I wanna do -- gosh!" from "Monster" -- The last word is delivered like an imitation of "Napoleon Dynamite"
"We make 'em say ho cause the game is so pimpish / Choke a South Park writer with a fish-stick" from "Gorgeous" -- A reflection of the joke in last year's "Fishsticks" episode of Comedy Central's "South Park," which poked considerable fun at Kanye and parodied his song "Heartless" as a tune called "Gay Fish"
"Colin Powells, Austin Powers / Lost in translation with a whole f---ing nation / They say I was the abomination of Obama's nation" from "Power" -- Well, the commander-in-chief did call Kanye a "jackass."
"I sent this girl a picture of my d---" from "Runaway" -- Nope, it's just Kanye's dirty mind. This was written and recorded before news of Brett Favre's anatomical cell phone pics.