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Kanye West (from left) on stage at the MTV Video Music Award; at a rehearsal for the Macy's Thanksgiving parade in New York; on the red carpet the ACE awards; in a tuxedo; at the premiere of his film Runaway in October.
Here at the end of 2010, writing about Kanye West has become something of a genre unto itself, one with rules and requirements but few restrictions beyond the writer's imagination. There's no shortage of opinion about Mr. West, and many who have entered his world have done so by riffing on the compellingly off-balance combination of the rapper's egomania and public awkwardness with his creativity. But a lot of it has succumbed to the temptation to drag Taylor Swift into the discussion.
For me, at moments in the past few months — between free G.O.O.D. Friday tracks and endless tweets — I've found myself teetering on a wire between debilitating Kanye fatigue and ecstatic awe at the quality of his work. At times I've wanted to leave him behind; in other moments I've felt like the only way to truly appreciate the effort he's put into his persona, his music and his relationship with fans and the media would be to make him a thesis topic, to devote myself completely to following and footnoting every collaboration or reference he drops.
Articles in both Slate and The New York Times have each pointed out, in different ways, the extent to which social media has allowed Kanye to remain in control of his message, but I'm not satisfied. Now that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is upon us, my one nagging wish is that West would have consented to talk with someone about this album. Someone who would challenge him as much as he challenges himself, maybe just someone who would leave Swift out of things and ask about the music, which is as deep and twisty and rewarding as his public persona is tangled and frustrating.
But booking an interview with the man himself is impossible. And then there's this, in the words of the Village Voice's Zach Baron:
Kanye West is basically writing the musical of Kanye West's 2010. This is a record completely inseparable from the year and the person it describes. Kanye hasn't made art out of his life; he's made his life into one continuous public work of art — a seemingly minor but in fact crucial distinction. He is Marina Abramovic in the chair at the MOMA, except he's been there since January, and he's not getting up.
Baron points out that West's year wouldn't have been possible without the responses of the public. But his command of the spotlight has given media a reliable mark, as Pitchfork contributing writer Tom Ewing noted in a reference to the site's perfect 10.0 review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:
P4K giving its highest mark is about the only way someone external to Kanye — OK, except Taylor Swift — CAN interrupt the story and break the control, even if it's just reinforcing the overall narrative.
In the spirit of that symbiosis (parasitism?), I'll use this space to print my questions for Kanye and let the volume of writing about him stand in — awkwardly and near-satisfyingly, but ultimately incompletely — for his answers.
How important is it to you that this album is commercially successful?
Today, you can cop West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for the low, low, low price of $3.99 on Amazon. ... [T]his has become the go-to strategy for making a sales splash in 2010. ... The fact that West — the most overdog artist out right now, bar none — is employing the same tactic that struggling indies have used this year to insert themselves into the conversation is indication of just how desperately he wants to sell a bunch of records this week.
-Zach Baron, in another post at the Village Voice's Sound of the City blog.
Are you really recording all the time? If you are, and putting so many of those songs out on the internet, why make an album at all?
The G.O.O.D. Fridays project is an act of generosity and a risk — giving away music months before your album’s release requires its own kind of mania. But it was also a testing ground. When the douchebag-toasting single "Runaway" was released, fans voiced disappointment that the official version did not feature the sampled flourishes they’d heard during his live version at the MTV Video Music Awards. Fantasy restores those flourishes. When "Monster," the epochal posse cut that announced Nicki Minaj's manic brilliance to so many, quietly crept up the Hot 100, the song became more than track six — it became an essential part of this album's story, delivered months early.
-from Sean Fennessey's review in the Village Voice.
Keep in mind also that these tracks are released on Fridays, the end of the news cycle, so if it’s a dud, no stench will linger.
-Nick Sylvester, on New York Public Media's Thirteen website.
So much has been written about the connection between your life and your album. Are you writing about your life?
The song is not about West himself and yet it also, unmistakably, is. The rough shape of its narrative — a man beats his lover, does prison time, scuffles with her new boyfriend, then mourns his absence from his child's life — echoes the events of West's last year, marked as it was by an act of aggression against a woman (Taylor Swift), time served in exile (canceled tours, a reported stint at an Indian ashram), a high-stakes return to the scene of the crime (at this year's Video Music Awards ceremony), and a general campaign to salvage the life his actions threatened to destroy.
-Jonah Weiner (who wrote the template for faking an interview with West) on the song "All Of The Lights" in Slate.
Do you care about what the critics have to say?
Sure, you can find some voices of dissent, but overall there's not much to worry about here.
You've been mentored by some of the biggest names in rap and now you're something of a mentor yourself. Do you defer to anyone when you're in the studio? Do you feel a responsibility to nurture artists who are less well known? Or does everybody who comes into the studio to work with you on a track come in at the same level?
Once we hit the studio, it was just all focus on the music. All focus was one hundred percent on the music. There were rules: no Twittering, no e-mailing, no blog-watching — no stupid questions. All of this stuff is posted all over the walls. A wall of questions, for inspirations. "What would Mobb Deep do?" All types of stuff.
-Pusha T, who raps on two of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's tracks, in Vulture's "Oral History" of the making of the album.
Sometimes it can feel like your songs are curated exhibitions — galleries that feature a selection of guest verses or samples or references. What have you pulled from your fascination with art and fashion as far as making something new out of parts?
For an egotist Mr. West isn't scared of collaboration, in part because, like anyone who runs a good salon, he understands one can be measured by the depth of one's guest list. That explains the most amusing bit in this album's liner notes, from the credits for "All of the Lights:" "Additional Vocals: Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Tony Williams, The-Dream, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Elly Jackson (La Roux), Alicia Keys, Elton John, Fergie, Ryan Leslie, Drake, Alvin Fields & Ken Lewis." Maybe three or four of these people are audibly identifiable on the song. But Mr. West likes collecting, and what good is a collection if it's not on display?
-From Jon Caramanica's review in The New York Times.
The album begins with an appearance by Nicki Minaj... [whose] introduction to the gothically grandiose song "Dark Fantasy" reworks a poem by Roald Dahl that itself revisits "Cinderella," the classic story of beauty's triumph over trying circumstances.
-From Ann Powers' review in the Los Angeles Times.
How do you see yourself in the world of rap? Can you place yourself at a point on a continuum within that world, or has your music bled over into pop?
The album it reminds me of most — not musically or anything — is John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band — which is similarly predicated on the idea that howling access to one man's head is inherently interesting, and is liked by everyone big enough to admit that in some cases that's true. (Not by me, in other words). That record comes from a similar position of being able to do anything you like and wholly liking almost none of it.
-Tom Ewing thinks West's album has a four-decade old precedent from one of rock's icons.