It's probably best to be upfront about this: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn't a great album. It's a good album, and interesting album, and a brave album, but it isn't a classic. Anybody who's read a music website, blog or magazine in the last month may be a little surprised by this sentiment, because the critical consensus seems to be that it's incredibly impressive and important. Rolling Stone have called it 'maniacally inspired'. NME think that it's 'utterly dazzling'. Pitchfork awarded it 10/10, which is almost unprecedented for a new release, never mind a new release by a rap artist. It's difficult to escape the feeling, when listening to the album itself, that there's a certain amount of groupthink occurring here: there's an incredible amount of hype surrounding the record, and it's undoubtedly very ambitious, and everybody else seems to love it, therefore (the thought goes) it must be wonderful. Well, unfortunately it isn't. The Emperor isn't exactly naked; he's certainly wearing something, and it's pretty swish, but he hasn't got as many clothes on as everybody seems to think.
First of all, the good: Kanye's on fine form throughout, as both a producer and a rapper. As a producer, he's now utterly unafraid to try new things and push his sound in new directions, and he works with a broader range of sounds than ever before. There are spoken word segments and choirs of voices. There are guitar solos and squelching synths. There are organs and cellos and keyboards. If it was possible to play the kitchen sink, Kanye would almost certainly have hired somebody to do so. His rapping, meanwhile, is both clever and funny. He rhymes 'abomination' with 'Obama's nation', and claims that 'the same people that tried to blackball me/forgot about two things, my black balls'. There's something compelling about his persona, the way he sounds simultaneously egotistical and insecure, attacking his critics during 'Gorgeous' ('choke a South Park writer with a fish stick') and then calling himself a douchebag on the chorus of the marvellous 'Runaway'. On top of all this, there's some impressive guest appearances by on-form big names: Jaz Z, Raekwon and Pusha T all make memorable appearances.
So, what's not to like? First of all, much of the critical adulation seems to rest on the idea that this is a rap album which is unafraid to embrace guitar music. This is certainly the case: neo-folkster Bon Iver shows up on 'Monster' and 'Lost In The World', there's some sterling guitar work on 'Gorgeous' and 'Devil In A New Dress', and the manic 'Power' samples progressive rockers King Crimson. It's less clear that this is always a good idea, though. 'Power', for instance, has its moments, but is also an uncomfortable reminder of why history frowns on both progressive rock and rap-rock. It's brash and demanding without being especially exciting. There's a case to be made that Kanye's embrace of the six-string is causing such a stir amongst writers primarily merely because their taste in music is being validated by a hip-hop star. Hey, Kanye likes folk and rock, it's not uncool any more!
The album's maximalism can also be a little wearing. There's so much going on that songs have little room to breathe; instead the listener is bombarded by bombast. Kanye's pared back last album, 808s and Heartbreaks, did an excellent job of showcasing his ability to write simple and effective songs. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, on the other hand, sometimes sounds too cluttered and over-complicated, and on occasion the complexity exists only for the sake of complexity. To coin a cliché, less can be more.
It must be emphasised that despite its faults this is a very good album, and one of this year's better records. It's not quite the masterpiece that some are claiming, but it's an impressive set of songs nonetheless. Coming at the end of a year which has also seen Big Boi, Curren$y and The Roots release compelling records, it's further evidence of hip-hop's renaissance.