M.I.A.’s /\/\/\Y/\ is a good album. I disagreed with the reception it received, and was tired of reading the same complaints reworded slightly in reviews and comments, so I scribbled 8 Reasons Why /\/\/\Y/\ Is Better Than You Remember. It’s understood people have different tastes, that reviews are just opinions, but blind consensus can get in the way of both of these things. Once the of-the-moment dust settles it’s worthwhile revisiting collections, even albums that weren’t initially overly praised or slammed. In the digital age there are definitely more voices out there, but weirdly (or not weirdly), I find there being less originality and distinct critical opinions. Which is why I decided to start Double Take. For the first installment I figured I might as well begin with one of 2010’s biggest music-related stories, the critical tongue-bath given to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. You’ve already heard too much about the record, so I’ll keep it brief.
MBDTF is a good album, no doubt. I’m not here to say it isn’t. I am here, however, to say people got out-of-hand in their praising of it, especially folks who don’t listen to much rap otherwise (and who ostensibly got on the bandwagon because such a bandwagon existed). Was it actually perfect? Was it really The Best? Or was it more that West grabbed the most headlines, had the biggest promotional budget (i.e. the right journalists eating out of his hands, the lame “square” journalists like Matt Lauer spitting in his face) and the pull of pop culture on his side? I thought carefully on it and couldn’t find a place for it in my Top 50. (Right, it was the No. 1 on Stereogum’s Top 50 of 2010, but I tried convincing Scott, Amrit, and Jessica to replace all uses of the words “Kanye West” with “SALEM.”) Then again, I’m not a huge rap guy. Then again, neither were a bunch of the people and publications who ranked it so high. This isn’t meant to be contrarian: I’m genuinely curious about the pull. (And the free pass: People who were up in arms about the violence of King Night, as one for instance, seemed OK with West’s dicier lines and that “Monster” video, etc.)
A couple of weeks ago MBDTF lover Jon Caramanica wrote a thought-provoking piece in the NYTimes that looked at some of the “unimaginative group-think” surrounding the album:
Having such strict agreement among critics is a bit like letting the blind judge a beauty pageant: the results are sometimes unreliable, and even less translatable to the world at large.
That’s a good point. Outside of the 10.0’s and multiple stars and A grades, what did you think of the record? Was it an album that was shoved down your throat? Or did you (and your grandmother) accept it willingly?
My main issue with West is that for all the charisma of the man, and the gloss of the productions, his music feels empty. The hooks are there, as are the clever rhymes, but despite what he wants you to think (“heart” on designer sleeve), the tracks lack an actual pulse. In the Times piece Caramanica made a reference to the fact that, via Twitter and etc., we’ve discovered West’s inner-self is basically the same as his public persona. It goes back to the helpful cliché of “all style, no substance.” I feel that with his music, even when he’s in mourning or offering open-heart surgery: All surface, no core. (Logorrhea, gold teeth, and half-digested visual art tropes do not a genius make. I don’t mind vacuous celebrities, but I also don’t have much use for them in my record collection.) If the Internet’s taught me one thing, though, it’s that at the end of the day, people want to belong to something bigger. In 2010, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy seemed to hold the key to that clubhouse.
I have my (cynical) thoughts on why it happened — what’s your take? If you believe the album really was that good, please convince me. So far nobody’s lifted their criticism to the supposed height of West’s production. If there’s one thing I appreciate about the man, it’s his work ethic: At the very least, his fans (paid or unpaid…) owe him a similar effort.
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