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And the 2010 Album of the Year is…

[ 20 ] December 22, 2010 |

I hadn’t posted this here, but since Other Scott brought it up

Pitchfork and Rolling Stone have both declared Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the best album of 2010, but if you read those reviews, you’ll note that both of them avoid talking about the core appeal of the album, choosing instead to prattle on about his talents as a producer (which are myriad) or his public persona (which is outrageous) or about a line or two that seems excessive (of which there are many).  That the album contains some of the catchiest cuts West has ever produced is merely a sign of his continued development as a musician and his increased confidence as a producer: he’ll plink three notes on a piano and loop a “LOOK AT YOU!” because he needs no more than three and is confident enough to speak over the shouting.  But that’s not why the album appeals:

You can ignore all the lyrics of “Runaway” about toasting assholes that will, in fact, be toasted by actual assholes who think themselves worthy of a toast, because the only lyric in that song that matters follows them: “Run away fast as you can.”  The infectiousness of the song belies how deeply it hates itself: this is a song about a man imploring someone to flee from his own persona.  (And by man I mean Kanye West and persona “Kanye West.”)  The entire album consists of braggadocio trying and failing to paper over some fairly large holes in a person.  It’s the lyrical equivalent of trying to use Saran Wrap to drywall a house—not only does it fail spectacularly, but everyone can see right through it.

And that’s the album’s core appeal: voyeurism.  In the wake of his mother’s death, West has had numerous public breakdowns.  Events and emotions which would (and perhaps should) have remained private instead played themselves on a 24-hour cycle of a stage and West wasn’t ever comfortable playing the part.  It’s almost as if he’s comfortable with the idea of playing a part until the moment the spotlight falls on him, at which point no amount of borrowed gamesmanship can make up for the fact that he is a wound as yet unready for the stage.  And it’s this quality that pervades the album—the fear of failure performed as songs that consistently undermine their narrator’s persona.

That undermining—the call to “run away” from the person West is perceived to have become—makes his lyrics feel like a transcript from an early (and generally successful) therapy session, and given Americans’ deep and abiding love for privacy, it’s no wonder the album’s reached the critical heights it has.  I just wish critics would stop writing around the issue and admit that their desire to peer inside the mind of celebrity is no less salacious than that of the “average” listener, whomever they imagine him or her to be.

Comments (20)

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  1. SEK says:

    FTR: I don’t think it’s the best album of the year, merely pointing out the critical shortcomings of declarations as to why it’s in the running. (And it is in the running. The man’s struggling with misogyny like Faulkner did with race: it’s part of the fabric of his culture, he’s trying to deny it because he knows better, but keeps getting sucked back into it. Which, yes, means he’s not the best of people so much as a damn interesting cultural indicator.

  2. booferama says:

    Part of the appeal of Kanye West’s album is how self-aware the lyrics are. As a persona, and lyricist, he’s like a good fictional character: he’s deeply flawed, yet aware of it. But for all his self-awareness, he can’t actually change in a meaningful way.

    That’s what makes the album so great (and, in my mind, even better than Big Boi’s, which I love): he’s more willing than most to expose his real flaws. Compare his lyrics on this album (or any of their songs together from the last two years) to Jay-Z’s. Jeezy can’t get enough love; Yeezy can’t figure himself out.

    • SEK says:

      Do you really think they’re self-aware, though? I suppose I should give him more benefit of the doubt, but his inability to craft or control a persona outside the album leads me to believe that all these revelations, while intentional, are unintentionally revealing.* He knows he should know better, and tries to act upon the wishes of his better angels, but there’s too much pressure to live up to the expectations of a hip-hop producer, etc.

      In short, then, his persona on the album reminds me of nothing so much as Faulkner’s “Joe Christmas” in Light in August: a complex character who, by necessity, criticizes the cultural politics of the man who invented him.

      *E.g. his constant over-sharing on his blog and Twitter.

      • booferama says:

        I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on the lyrics, mostly because of how crafted the songs are. The twitter and blog posts, the public outbursts, those are part of who he is (a part that I tend to ignore). But just as he crafts the production so much, I think he crafts the lyrics that much, too.

        Take “Power,” for example. Most hip-hop artists would stop the song with having so much power, but he goes the next ridiculous step of presenting his weird suicidal fantasy. I think he does that because he knows a) it gives the song more dimension, and b) it’s revealing in a way other persona-crafting artists wouldn’t be. So when he says we’re all self-conscious, he’s just the first to admit it, I take that as him winking to his ability to more consciously craft his persona on the songs.

        Put another way: when Kanye leaps on stage to take the microphone from Taylor Swift, his self-awareness (the smarter self-awareness, anyway) doesn’t kick in. But when he reflects on it later, when he’s writing a song, it does.

        • SEK says:

          when Kanye leaps on stage to take the microphone from Taylor Swift, his self-awareness (the smarter self-awareness, anyway) doesn’t kick in. But when he reflects on it later, when he’s writing a song, it does.

          Strategic self-awareness? I like that. (But seriously, I see what you’re saying: he does strike me as a reflective, depressive type, and his persona-building and -demolition are consonant with that.)

          • booferama says:

            I should clarify and say there are some things he’s probably not self-aware enough about, even in the lyrics.

            But it’s strange how little Pitchfork and RS say in their best-of lists about the album itself. In Pitchfork’s case, I wonder if they kept it brief because of how long their 10.0 review was.

          • Brad Potts says:

            You see this personality conflict in a lot of entertainers, especially musicians.

            Performance requires you to put yourself out there and connect with the crowd, while songwriting usually requires a good deal of introspection.

  3. Brad Potts says:

    So Pitchfork has released its annual “Best 50 Albums by Pretentious Hipsters and Rappers” list.

    Brothers by the Black Keys and High Violet by The National would split my first place vote.

    • SEK says:

      I’ve never “gotten” The Black Keys, so I can’t say anything about that, but High Violet would’ve been a worthy pick, and did make the top ten, if I’m not mistaken. That said, I’m not sure how championing The National excludes you from the category of “Pretentious Hipsters.” I love the band as much, actually more, than the next guy, but … you know what I mean.

      • Brad Potts says:

        I’m a little bit of a hipster when it comes to music, so I am not saying anything particularly bad about that. I have just noticed that it is very rare for anything even slightly mainstream to make it into the top ten on any list at Pitchfork, and when it happens it is almost always hip-hop.

        Just check out the top ten tracks from this year. Actually just check out the pictures. Two Big Bois, two Kanyes,Janelle Monáe, and a bunch of goofy/awkward looking white people.

    • The Wrath of Oliver Khan says:

      Meh, every Black Keys album appeals to me a bit less than the previous one. Not saying they’re selling out or getting worse or anything like that, though – probably just a symptom of my tastes slowly changing.

      Anyway, Junip’s “Fields” or Three Mile Pilot’s “The Inevitable Past is the Future Forgotten” would get my vote.

    • Seitz says:

      Brothers is the first album I bothered to listen to by the Black Keys, and I really loved it. It was my 8th favorite album of the year, and one of only three bands I didn’t see live that made my top 10 list. Still, I’m not sure I’m a fan of blues enough to really dig into their back catalog.

      I can’t get into the National. Don’t know why. They should be right up my alley, but for some reason, they just don’t resonate with me, even though they have some songs I like.

      In the end, I thought Titus Andronicus released the most ambitious and most well executed album of the year (as well as being the most fun to listen to). The Monitor is a truly epic achievement, and honestly, I’m not sure how they top it.

      Deerhunter, The Morning Benders, the Besnard Lakes, and the Walkmen rounded out my top five.

      • SEK says:

        I loved Lisbon, and am in no ways knocking it, but … you can see why West’s album is more adventurous, right? Stripping down anthems is admirable, but being unironically anthemic in a moment that caters to schmaltz is a genuinely brazen thing to do and Kanye does it on at least seven tracks, none of which sound anthemic in the same way the others do. Again, not knocking Lisbon

        • Seitz says:

          I honestly haven’t listened to it, but all the hype has made it inevitable that I will, and I look forward to it. My problem is that I see a lot of shows (roughly 50 or so this year, which means about 100+ bands when you include openers and three days of the Pitchfork Festival), so I spend a lot of time listening to the bands I’m going to see, and there’s only so much time to listen to stuff. There aren’t many albums I listened to this year from bands I didn’t see at some point in the year.

          But seriously, after it sinks in, that Titus Andronicus album is pretty amazing.

          • SEK says:

            Well, I have a nine hour drive tomorrow and plenty of time to let something sink in, so thanks for the recommendation. It’s downloaded and ready to burn.

            Relatedly: if people would like to turn this into a thread about “Music SEK should listen to on his long drive home tomorrow,” by all means, please, go ahead.

  4. kurzleg says:

    Curse Your Branches – David Bazan

  5. [...] What SEK says. And that’s the album’s core appeal: voyeurism.  In the wake of his mother’s death, [...]

  6. Dan Hill says:

    For road tunes, none better than Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul Voice of America. “by the turn of the tire we’re sanctified,” and still classic songs.

    Michael Bloomfield, Live at the Old Waldorf, guy makes guitar scream, cry beg, steal.

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