Kanye West wears his sacred heart on his designer sleeve, and as a result finds himself shamed and pilloried. He brings this on himself of course; god complexes are tacky, and yet West has more than earned his, suffering for the public since 2004. After all, can you think of another pop star who’s turned a near-fatal accident into a hit single? West’s never been shy about showing off the crosses he bears; from “Jesus Walks” to Jesus pieces, he’s modeled himself in His image while working to reconcile higher callings with human conditions. Of course, West’s most terminal condition is that he’s an asshole — who else would wear a crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone? — but that doesn’t make him any less the victim of his own hubris. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is any indication, his recent troubles have taught him how better to be a victim, how to suffer more beautifully and fruitfully than ever.
There are some who would have you believe that Fantasy is a response to the aftermath of the 2009 VMAs, but the pain West displays here goes deeper than a little public ridicule. Sure, he might “tell the cast of SNL to kiss [his] whole ass” and threaten to choke “a South Park writer with a fishstick,” but being made into a mockery is insignificant compared to the pain of losing a parent. Packed with more references to childhood than Funeral, the holy ghost of Donda West looms over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. West raps that it’s “just kids/ no parents” on “Dark Fantasy” and then spends the rest of album struggling to make sense of his mother’s absence. On the next song, he informs us that “this is the real world, homie/ school finished,” and on the one after West claims that he’s fighting for custody of his inner child, that his “childlike creativity, purity and honesty/ is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts.” Longing for lost youth isn’t exactly the freshest motif, but West’s unrelenting sincerity saves Fantasy from coming off as stale or obvious.
But Donda West isn’t the only ghost haunting this album. The death of Michael Jackson informs Fantasy in a significant way, complicating West’s Neverland fantasies. MJ — name-dropped at the start of “All of the Lights” and quoted on “Lost in the World” — sets the stakes for West, not just musically, but biographically as well. Life in the spotlight is perilous, and West knows that what happened to the King of Pop could just as easily happen to him. And while exercises in celebrity self-pity often come across as insipid or indulgent, West succeeds at universalizing his misery.
But not for lack of aggrandizement — quite the opposite, actually. West brags about finding “bravery in [his] bravado,” and though it might sound like a tossed-off ad-lib, the line is key to appreciating Fantasy. There’s a wealth of shit-talking on the album — from super-sized cipher cuts like “Monster” and “So Appalled” to the grotesque, baroque braggadocio of “Power” and “Hell of a Life” — and it balances out the weariness and soul-searching. If Fantasy is a bi-polar record, then at least it feels like an authentic reflection of West’s emotional state and his search for equilibrium. Many of Fantasy’s bleakest songs are also those that best get the blood pumping. “All of the Lights,” a magisterial jock-jam, begins with a solemn overture, but then fanfare and dueling drumlines kick in, building the song past the point of excess. But perhaps excess is the point. West raps about custody battles and domestic abuse on “All of the Lights,” and though the non-autobiographical lyrics are among the album’s most generic, he snarls so hard that he sounds like a man on the verge of snapping. His consistently bilious delivery is one of the album’s greatest pleasures. West takes desperation and sells it as liberation, empowering himself — and his audience — through the rejection of helplessness.
Fantasy is hardly as difficult or artsy as it wants to think it is, but its emotional complexity more than compensates for bulging song lengths and near-constant pomposity. “Blame Game” is one of the prettiest and ugliest songs West has ever written; he hurls hurtful, misogynist invective, while also using the song to explore the emotions that drive his outbursts. The mournful, Aphex Twin-sampling underpinning is Fantasy’s most restrained instrumental, but West resists jerking cheap tears from it. “Blame Game” ends with one of Fantasy’s most obvious indulgences, a profane, protracted Chris Rock skit spilling over the instrumental, the juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy making the song’s implications sting all the worse.
For all of its virtues — a GOAT guest list, near-perfect sequencing, and musical and thematic cohesion, to name a few — what ultimately makes Fantasy so remarkable is West’s uncanny self-awareness. A disembodied chorus urges West to “run from the lights/ run for your life” on “Lost in the World,” the record’s frenzied penultimate track; but even as we listen, we know there’s little chance that he’ll leave the spotlight behind. West is telling us, over the course of 11 songs, that he’s willing to die for our amusement, our respect. “I need a happy ending and a new beginning,” he raps on “Gorgeous,” but fame offers the former at the expense of the latter. West might want out of “this fake-ass party” at the end of the album, but moments later, he’s contemplating death again.
A year after his “imma let you finish” moment, West gives someone else the last word; the irony cannot be lost on him. Gil Scott-Heron closes the album with the unanswered question of “who will survive in America?,” and it’s easy enough to assume that West is worried that it won’t be him. Jesus died around the time he turned 33 — West’s current age — a parallel even West is probably too modest to point out. Nevertheless, the past few years have shown West first-hand what happens when the populace turns against its demagogues, and with Fantasy, he’s letting us know that he’s ready for our scorn and adulation.