This week, Kanye West released his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to rapt reviews. Quantifying the critical acclaim, Pitchfork gave the album an even 10.0. I don’t agree and I don’t approve. While I could have stomached a 9.5, clearly a 9.9 was not statement enough. That kind of statement I find to be nothing less than reckless journalism.
I understand the claim that it’s some kind of representative of a modern zeitgeist. I acknowledge the honoring of its boldness and musical adventurousness. I will credit the formidable creature it is and the remarkable ability of Kanye to allow his most personal work to be the most shared stage of his career. Indeed, there are virtues to be celebrated in this album. But saying it is perfect is not a reading of the album as a work in its own right–it is an appropriation of the work for an unclear cause in a way that ultimately invalidates the real value of the work by not really hearing it.
The aggressive review further discredits the album by setting the stage for a visceral reaction to its pronounced judgment that should be reserved for the experience of the music. Instead of approaching the album generously, I for one felt impelled to quickly compose a list of several reasons the album is not perfect and had to fight for even ground to come to some more objective decision on its worth. I continue to listen to the album; I find it to be more enjoyable with every listen. But I continue this list in my mind, spending every moment looking for things to dislike about it. I shake my head at dozens of clumsy production moments. I cringe at the continuation of his revolting string of blow-job raps. I raise my eyebrows at the way his guests out-perform him over and over. I marvel at the claim that Kanye is a better rapper than he ever has been, on an album full of awkward phrasings and generally lacking in the clever, disciplined constructions of songs like “Jesus Walks” or “Gold Digger.”
Aside from all these reasons of imperfection, the most celebrated and characteristic theme is the most vulnerable: honesty. Riding the success of his 808s and Heartbreak across the wake of the incredible Taylor Swift incident, Kanye is sharing more with his listeners than ever about his mistakes and missteps and misfortunes. But this sharing isn’t the kind of shockingly transformative cathartic experience that a band like Xiu Xiu provokes. It’s exotic, masturbatory self-indulgence, the likes of which could only exist in the bizarre microcosm of a superstar’s life of luxury and excess. It often feels like listening to an indulged child growing into adult desires.
Kanye raps like Caligula might. In “Monster”, he brags that “She said I bruised her esophagus.” In “Runaway”, Kanye says “I sent a bitch a picture of my dick.” In “Blame Game” he talks about fucking and strangling his lover in a bathroom. But details like these don’t surface in a 10.0. For critical cheerleaders, all of it is assembled into an ambiguous psychology and framed with a sense of Kanye’s humanity, thin veils that purport to forgive his transgressions by fabricating remorse. “Runaway” is not regretful; it is a parry to shame and embarrassment. It’s an anthem for kids in high school who tried to play it off like fucking up was cool when they really just couldn’t help it. The pretense of remorse is a disguise for a cowardly self-pity that cannot pledge to take a complaint seriously.
An unqualified celebration of this moment pays into a dangerous enabling cycle. Kanye errs; Kanye feels guilty; Kanye shares error and guilt in turn. Meanwhile, the public criticizes Kanye; the public forgives Kanye; and then the public admonishes Kanye for the transparency of his errors. The more transparent he is, the more people love him. But the more aggressively Kanye shares his faults, the more his fans respond to the content of his art, validating and encouraging it more and more.
Pitchfork is complicit in this, verifying the appropriateness of this kind of art for not only Kanye and his fans, but for other artists. Which is not to say that music critics have any responsibility to some kind of moral rehabilitation of artists. Artists are fucked up and a lot of the time that makes for great music. But it’s dangerous to herald honesty in art without certain essential conditions, foremost among them being the evidence of a transcendent, historical, timeless accomplishment; the “art for art’s sake” argument is bogus here because as good as this album might be, there’s no way it is perfect.
In fact, the only moment resembling such transcendence comes in the last track, whose finally calmed beat, disciplined and compelling at last, platforms a snippet of a beautifully lacerating Gil Scott-Heron poem, the one extended meditation on something larger than being a judged celebrity. Here now we are free from the Kanyesque quagmire of license and paparazzi, as Scott-Heron muses on grave concerns of freedom and politics, of race and revolution, of human needs and global tyranny. As I sober from reveling in the powerful moment, I react ambivalently to Kanye’s use of the claim that “All I want is a good home and a wife and children and some food to feed them every night.” On the one hand, I feel compassion and pity for a man who I can easily imagine knowing such a simple and universal desire; on the other hand, I reel in bewilderment at the appropriation of such a phrase in the seriousness of its context with no regard for the incredible excess of his glamour life. In a reading of the poem’s original lyrics, I cannot help but find in the edited content a call to Kanye for greater action and a condemnation of Pitchfork for the levity of its piggy-backing pom-poms.