In 1958, renowned musician John Cage gave a series of compelling lectures calling for a fundamental shift in musical time. He argued that the essential formality of art music is the production of “time objects”, which Cage outlined as such: “the presentation of a whole as an object in time having a beginning, a middle, and an ending, progressive rather than static in character, which is to say possessed of a climax, and in contrast a point or points of rest.” Cage’s mission was to create a “process essentially purposeless”, one that would defy traditional narrative and delve into the complex irrationality of the modern world.
Cages’ most famous musical example of this philosophy is the piece ‘4:33’, a (you guessed it) 4 minute and 33 second piece of complete silence. This may seem an odd comparison to make with Kanye West, someone whom it seems would be unable to remain quiet for 4:32 of that 4:33. However, if you look closer, you’ll see a lot of similarities between ‘4:33’ and Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
What’s most interesting about ‘4:33’ is that people rush to opera houses to see it conducted. A full-piece orchestra, gentlemen dressed in lavish suits, women in elegant dresses, little boys fidgeting in their miniature tuxedos, little girls in couquettish numbers. They all pack an opera house to listen to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence performed by a conductor (with a stopwatch) and sizable orchestra. The orchestra is even given sheet music. You might be wondering why people would attend such an event, or even why it would be accepted at all. It is an event where it’s free-form genius and it’s extreme self consciousness cannot help but be inextricably linked. If there is anyone that fits that dichotomy in the pop landscape, it’s Kanye West.
Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasty leaves the audience with a similar feeling of adriftness and intimacy that I would imagine an attendant of ‘4:33’ would experience. There are no definite climaxes on many of the songs. The album’s opener, “Dark Fantasy”, co-produced by RZA, sets the ethereal, sprawling tone of the album. 3:53 into the track, “Dark Fantasy” comes to a halt, only 4 seconds later to be resurrected once again by Teyana Taylor’s robust vocals. In “Runaway”, the second single off the album, Kanye suddenly goes on a fascinating 3 minute exercise of indecipherable auto tune. “Devil In A New Dress” – the most reminiscent of Kanye’s early soul-sampling days – treats us to a guitar solo followed by a surprise appearance from Rick Ross. Many of the songs have musical interludes, or some form of verbal interlude (see Kanye’s monologue & Chris Rock on “Blame Game”, or Gil-Scot Heron sampling closer “Who Will Survive in America?). With the exception of the All of the Lights Interlude, and the spoken word closer, none of these songs fall under 4 minutes. They are peppered with piercing points and placid points of rest, a juxtapostion that is extremely rare in popular music.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, under the large umbrella of “popular music”, will be classified as Hip Hop in your local record shop. Strangely though, there is not that much actual rapping going on on this record. The most straight-laced, old school boom-bap rap records are the GOOD Friday releases “Monster” and “So Appalled.” The former record was intended for the Jay-Z/Kanye collaboration album Watch the Throne, while the latter seems to have garnered the highest votes for most out of place of track on MBTDF. Why are arguably the most lyrically dense songs on MBTDF being treated as if they didn’t fit on a Hip Hop album? Is it a coincidence that other masterfully lyrical songs we have previously heard, “Mama’s Boyfriend” and “Chain Heavy”, didn’t make the final album? I think not. If we look further, we can see just how far Kanye’s sonic ambitions have stretched above all else.
Hip Hop is dependent on lyrics like no other genre. Rappers have much more space to fill in a record, many more bars to express their visions. Rhymes are placed at the forefront of a record, and it’s very difficult to hide mediocre lyrics behind a beat. Kanye’s big brother Jay-Z puts it succinctly: “My raps don’t have melodies.” An MC’s lyrics bear the weight of crafting a melody, and it’s no surprise that lyrical craftsmen like Jay-Z and Biggie have what many refer to as “flow” (which one could argue is merely abiltity to create a catchy vocal melody). Not even Kanye can escape the traditional emphasis on lyrics, and he has the occasional clunker on MBTDF (“At the mall there was a séance/Just kids, no parents” from Dark Fantasy). Most Hip Hop albums wilt under the pressure to construct lyrical gems,and Kanye has always been hit or miss. This record is no different in that department. See the standouts “Hell of a life” and “Lost in the World” for his finest lyrical moments. What is different, however, is the level of production that Kanye has delivered. Rhymes are second to melody, reason second to emotion.
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye has heightened the push and pull of utterance. Many of the songs contain some remnant of chanting, from “Power” to “Runaway” to “Lost in the World”. The one track with sharp political wit – “Gorgeous” – is contrasted with almost infantile, tribal chants that pervade most of the album. Considering how omnipresent and outspoken Kanye has always been, it is utterly fascinating that he would place these instances of phlegmatic cacophony alongside his most lush productions. The greatest moment, in my mind, is the transition of the final 3 minutes of “Runaway” to the jarring opening of “Hell of A Life.” Kanye wails underneath distorted vocal effects, surrounded by violins for 2 minutes, eliciting every single emotion (despair, relentless joy, remorse, spontaneity) until the final minute, when we can finally begin to hear the remnants of a lost chorus. The sonorous excess dies down in the final seconds, only to be gloriously reiginited in the teeth gnashing guitar of “Hell of a Life”. Those 3 minutes moved me more than any other on the album,and seemed to encapsulate the journey that West has taken over these past couple of years. That Kanye West, the contemporary king of earnest overstatement, was able to express that so subtly, is astounding.
So, as the official release date nears, we’ll get our Rosewood on, we’ll rewatch “Runaway”, we’ll watch all the interviews, all the grainy (I’m looking at you secret show in NY that performed “Momma’s Boyfriend”) and the gaudy (I’m looking at you all white out SNL) videos. We’ll show up to the record store, pop in the CD as soon as we get home, and finally be rewarded with a Hip-Hop album that teaches us as much about ourselves as it does it’s creator. All that matters,at the end of the day, is the music. By Kanye silencing himself more than ever before, we can finally hear him at his highest frequency.