My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
It's tempting to push back against the universal acclaim that's greeted Kanye West's fifth album, which is also his roughest and most apparently flawed disc to date. A surprising portion of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy finds Yeezy's usual pop polish diluted by stuttering fidelity, carelessly edited samples, and a nearly radical looseness of structure, and his dependable unevenness as an MC is as frustrating as ever. (Rhyming "scumbag" with "douchebag" in the chorus of "Runaway" is among the least damning examples of one of his worst tendencies.) On first listen Fantasy seems more like a fan mixtape of Internet leaks than a definitive statement from rap's strangest superstar.
But alas, another rave: The album that eventually reveals itself is as compelling an emotional statement as mainstream hip-hop has managed lately, and a clear summation of West's career to this point. It's immediately apparent (via RZA co-produced opener "Dark Fantasy," not alone in sounding like a Late Registration outtake) that Kanye is back from the sonic left field of 2008's 808s & Heartbreak; but that record's indulgence and introspection find new purpose among Fantasy's nasty beats and its mid-album guest spot extravaganza. (Jay-Z and Clipse's Pusha T get two each.)
The synthesis finds Kanye going about his business on one level while painting a larger portrait of pain and neurosis. The bombastic "POWER" segues suddenly from apocalyptic braggadocio to threats of suicide, while Fantasy's quiet climax "Blame Game" brings a relationship postmortem so raw that an integrated Chris Rock skit, run over the song's fragile Aphex Twin sample, somehow seals it as the record's most poignant piece. Even the forced self-reflection of "Runaway" gives way to an overdriven, Auto-Tune-drenched final verse, unintelligible but for Kanye's gasps for air; whatever he's saying, and whomever he's saying it to, the sincerity is all we're allowed to hear. This exception proves the rule, as what makes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy fascinating, even important, is that a force so insecure could be so generously unselfconscious.