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Kanye West: 'Beautiful' Soul Or Raging Egomaniac?

I am fascinated by Kanye West on every level. I thought his first two albums, 2004's College Dropout and 2005's Late Registration, were and remain some of the strongest, most diverse and imaginative hip-hop collections of the decade.

As a producer and rapper, his imagination seems limitless -- he covers more ground in his cultural references than any other contemporary pop musician under the age of 40. He's also, depending on your point of view, a sensitive soul or an egomaniac of the highest order. At this point, West is like Blue-period Joni Mitchell with a Twitter account.

West's new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of the year's most anticipated albums. And in "Runaway," a nine-minutes-plus opus, West takes himself to task for being an arrogant perfectionist who can "always find something wrong."

"I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most," he says, shortly before offering up a toast -- in blunt language -- to self-centered perfectionists such as himself. Because West knows that, in any given art form, it is not uncommon that one person's self-centered perfectionism is another's acclaimed genius.

"Runaway" was also the taking-off point for a 35-minute avant-garde musical that aired on TV in October. It includes images as varied as a phoenix fallen to earth, ballerinas and an eerie parade whose marchers carry a giant papier-mache bust of Michael Jackson. As with so much of what West does, describing it makes it sound pretentious or precious -- in execution, however, the work has a bristling, poignant yet confrontational energy.

At other points on the album, West diffuses his self-regard so that it becomes universal. In "Lost in the World," West creates a surging soundscape that transports the listener, carrying you along with him as he seems to travel around the world, searching for his place in it. Being "lost in the world," as the song title says, means combining American and African pop rhythms with a sample of the poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron declaiming, "Who will survive in America?"

Scott-Heron placed his question in the context of the oppressed and of conspiracy theories that were being floated at the times about radical groups such as the SDS, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords. West, appropriating it, applies it to the drama of his own life. You can say it's yet another example of egregious self-aggrandizement. It's also superb music-making.

While Kanye West is very much a man of the pop moment, I think he connects with a very strong strain in American popular music: the musician who cultivates an image that is inseparable from his music -- an artist whose work can be enjoyed on its own -- yet which is fully completed only when we also form opinions about his public persona, his statements, his actions.

From Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to Michael Jackson to Madonna to Bruce Springsteen, pop music has a history of both sincerity and assuming a pose that takes on its own authenticity. This 60-year-old tradition finds its current embodiment most glowingly in Kanye West.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.