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#25: Kanye West (featuring Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Drake, and a small army of arrangers and producers) - All Of The Lights
it's pretty much impossible to say anything new or interesting about Kanye West or his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but i'll give it a shot. MBDTF is a maximalist pop spectacle of strings and horns and endless features and tracks that go well over 5 minutes. it launched a decade of enshrining pop stars as larger than life, all-encompassing cultural figures who garnered increasing critical attention and adulation. in other words, it's one of the prime crown jewels of the age of everyone's favorite term: poptimism.
it's also the sign that mainstream rap music was starting to take on the high-concept ideas that had traditionally been the realm of rock music for many decades. by the end of the 00's mainstream rock had been puttering out for awhile as it failed to evolve or transform in interesting ways and continued to recede into the background of pop culture. "indie music" had had a big moment in the mid to late 00's but quickly withered away in popularity and broader cultural attention due to the platforms that empowered those artists dying or artists themselves burning out. enter artists like Kanye West, ready to scoop up some of those ideas and bring it into his own work. i remember many users on the rock music forums i frequented seeing MBDTF and, specifically, Kanye's sampling of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" as half-hearted attempt to steal clout and cultural signifiers from rock culture. they were angry! it seems like a silly and kind of bigoted response in retrospect (which it kinda is, yeah), but also: maybe there's truth there too! but that's one of the many complicated questions about Kanye West: is he empowering black artists and other rappers through re-contextualizing music and traditions that originally stole from black artists and then mostly kept them out of its history as part of Kanye's ongoing narrative of struggle as a black artist, or his complete absorption of various kinds of other culture into the Kanye West Brand a mostly self-serving enterprise? the answer to both questions is yes.
anyway, if there's such a thing as a "prog rap" album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would be its poster child. instead of endless guitar noodling we have endless high-profile features and production techniques, enshrining various characters in the ongoing self-immortalizing narratives of famous people as part of their own storybook. Kanye West was a "producer" by a much more traditional definition at one point, but that definition shifted to mean "the guy who brings everyone together into one room". tracks on MBDTF include a massive list of different artist, arrangement, production, and engineering credits in ways that can only draw comparisons to the pipeline of production around Hollywood movies. and really: this is Hollywood maximalism in it's most straightforward and real sense. everything is too big, too long, too much. there's nothing subtle about this album, and that lack of subtlety is as American as... not paying taxes.
Though Kanye West is one of our biggest cultural characters, it's always hard to know with his work how much he wants you to really like him or identify with him or not. in many ways the character of Kanye in MBDTF plays the Jordan Belfort-like role of someone who thrives in absolute excess and is totally unlikable but exhilarating to be in the orbit of. but also Kanye never really fully commits to the bit - in other ways you might feel sorry with him and the way he's treated by the industry as a black artist... that is until his relationships flames out and he goes on about being the most persecuted human alive, or that he brags about the various ways he's abused women throughout the album. this part sadly is probably way more true to life than anyone wants to believe, and the Gil Scott Heron sampling in "Who Will Survive In America" weakly and abruptly concludes the whole album without really shedding more light on any of these things.
However, most great concept albums never really held together as narratives anyway. Besides: "All of the Lights" is a glorious success as a piece of music. it captures the only Kanye we know as fans: the Kanye as a spectacle, a part of a larger romanticized narrative that we tell ourselves about celebrity and the people who occupy that space. it's an existence that is always under the microscope of popular culture but can never exist outside of it. it's always blown out, coked up, and beautifully burning in the most colorful fashion for everyone to see. even the ugliest and pettiest moments captured by the lyrics are always soundtracked by beautiful blazing horns and luxurious strings that are drawn out in the most romantic, Wagnerian way possible. the beats aggressively skitter ahead like strobing lights. multiple different voices (including Rihanna) interject with the line "turn up the lights in here baby, extra bright - i want y'all to see this". Kid Cudi (Ohio pride!) also appears as a guiding angel and tells Kanye to get his life on track and let stuff go. the video cuts out a verse featuring Fergie as another character who is spinning out of control due to excess. Elton John is also on this song (!!), and is there to futilely attempt to warn Kanye to take a step back from killing himself and his career. there's no half-assing in this life.
celebrity here is a collective unconscious, something universal we need because we need a deeply sensory experience to keep us alive: something overwhelming and awe-inspiring to break us out of our own broken dreams and mundanity. the strobing, seizure-inducing video with its glorious neon text definitely also """''"'reminds""'''"" me of the Gaspar Noé film Enter The Void's famous intro. it's music that *sounds* expensive, and that's because it literally is extremely expensive.
and yet as this full surround-sound Hollywood bliss doesn't seem to reach the Kanye of this song, who appears to be in drugged out haze and paranoid that his girlfriend, who he went to prison for beating up, is sleeping with another guy (which she was, so he beats the guy up). he's weighted down by both money struggles and this child custody battle and his masculinity is humiliated by fighting for custody and having to meet at mundane shopping mall stores like Borders. this is an issue that comes back at multiple points in his lyrics, where he frames family court struggles seem like an ultimate form of oppression on his freedom and masculinity (and is unsurprising given his reactionary affiliations). but also, charitably, he's trying to make a case for the cycle to not repeat itself over again and for his child to not grow up in the conditions he did and make the same mistakes. so is the Kanye West character of this song actually Kanye or just an exaggerated archetype meant to capture the attitudes and struggles of rappers like him as celebrities? that dissonance clearly fuels the album, but is also a question that became more depressing to ask as the decade wore on.
the thing i can't stop thinking about with "All of The Lights" is how sexy and glorious it makes a total flame-out look. Kanye's lines do little to damper the extreme gloss and momentum of the song's arrangement. this kind of celebrity disaster is not something we can ever look away from as a culture. especially not as our favs like Rihanna and Elton John wade into the mess.
but it has to be said that as much as this song captures some sort of deep romanticized collective cultural desire, it's still built on a lie: even the biggest celebrity coke-fueled manias end at some point, and those people have to face the cold light of reality (if they don't die first). of course there's always genuine heartbreak there, and real passion and feelings and real pain that fuels the art and fuels the figures we see. many different generations of artists who came from struggle ultimately become victims of their own success in various different ways that fascinate and disturb us.... and also break our hearts. but also: the music industry loves to romanticize this process, thereby enshrining it as a permanent and unchangeable institution that's woven into the fabric of popular culture. it makes a whole lot of bank off it. and so we end up believing there's nothing else, because there can't be anything else.
years later, the glossy self-destruction of high-concept Kanye West would be embraced by a younger audience of Soundcloud artists with far less irony and self-awareness behind it. and now the gloss seems faded out and all that's left is starker, more nihilistic, and far more brutal to the artists themselves and those around them. there's no Elton John or Rihanna or Kid Cudi guardian angels here to guest feature and tell us that everything's going to be okay. it's just a trail of abused girlfriends and drugs, and young artists who failed to even be close to reaching their full potential before dying in their early 20's.
there's no one more American than Kanye West: an aspirational egotist with big dreams, big talent, a big persecution complex, and a need to have everything all of the time even when it's clearly a danger to himself and everyone around him. and all of us are working for (and living in the shadow of) artists like Kanye West, whether we really want to be or not.