From the start, it's been Kanye West's problematic shtick: creating extraordinary music while engaging in behavior that makes him impossible to love. Even for his biggest supporters—from the Pazz & Jop critics who awarded him top album honors two years in a row to the fans who bought millions of his records—West's surplus of self-regard has threatened to become a deal-breaking turnoff. Verbose self-love is a noble superstar tradition: Muhammad Ali's witty boast explosions won over the world. But West's bouts of self-aggrandizing bitchery diminished everything about him. Was the artist responsible for lyrics as deep and funny as those of "We Don't Care" and "Family Business" and music as rich as Late Registration really too dumb to know that Grammys are arbitrary bullshit?
The apex of West's tower of pettiness was famously unveiled at MTV's 2009 Video Music Awards, where the most gifted music maker of his generation introduced himself to a worldwide audience as a bizarre, out-of-control bully. West's idiotic bum-rushing of Taylor Swift had its upside: Unlike the 1,001 less brutish but plenty regrettable outbursts that preceded it, Taylorgate actually seemed to give West pause, instigating an immediate and brief apology tour followed by a tight-lipped retreat from the spotlight. (Being called a jackass by a Nobel Peace Prize–winning president can do that to a person.)
West's mandatory exile ends, officially and with characteristically ostentatious fanfare, with the November 22 release of his new record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but the road to this return has been a dazzling show unto itself. First came "Power," the single whose cover introduced West's collaboration with New York artist George Condo, whose mythic caricature of West as slain king seemed to presage the artsy-persona deconstruction true believers like me were hoping for. Lyrically, "Power" did what it should—dissed the haters, addressed West's rep as "the abomination of Obama's nation," flirted with suicide—but the music is where the layered drama of the cover art was fully realized. Over a stark vocal chant, West constructs a sonic world as rich as any he's ever created, adding on corrosive percussion, fuzzy synths, and spooky King Crimson samples until the track attains an almost operatic pitch.
After "Power" came the GOOD Friday series, with West releasing a new song for free each week on his website. These guest star–laden tracks have been uniformly pleasurable, if a bit repetitive stylistically, and the best of them would qualify as high points of other people's records. But as the extravagantly accomplished Fantasy proves, the GOOD Friday tracks were merely rough drafts and springboards.
Three GOOD Friday releases make it to the Fantasy track list, all in modified final mixes: "Devil in a New Dress" is expanded from a slight R&B interlude into a laid-back jam of "We Major" proportions, while "So Appalled" and "Monster" retain their original structures as they undergo whatever blend of studio voodoo and obsessive-compulsive perfectionism bumps a track from A to A-plus. Most importantly, the monolithic "Monster" doesn't fuck with its greatest chunk: Nicki Minaj's riotous, galaxy-conquering verse that—among various other triumphs—boils the accomplishments of Madonna's Immaculate Collection down to 90 seconds, gathering together a bunch of skin-deep poses that reveal the poser as a brilliant artist.
Any GOOD Friday tracks I thought I'd miss are bested by corresponding tracks on Fantasy. The rejected "Take One for the Team"—a typically inventive blast of artsy hip-pop blessed with a Keri Hilson vocal hook—pales in comparison with Fantasy's "All of the Lights," an explosion of audio surprises (spazzy techno beats! cheesy horns!) blessed with a Rihanna vocal hook. (Sorry, Keri, but Rihanna's the only girl in the world right now.) One exception: "Don't Stop," the blistering GOOD Friday track credited to Child Rebel Soldier, West's on-again, off-again supergroup with Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell Williams (also responsible for the "US Placers," the great, Thom Yorke–biting highlight of the Can't Tell Me Nothing mixtape). In a perfect world, "Don't Stop" would've replaced Fantasy's "Hell of a Life," a similarly styled track that rides a Sabbath-sized synth riff to a singsongy chorus that sounds like an Auto-Tuned rip of "Iron Man."
Beyond this, Fantasy's weakest moments come from the couple tracks content to ride a pro forma midtempo Kanye West Beat™, most notably the opener, "Dark Fantasy," the music and lyrics of which suggest that—rather than a new frontier of groundbreaking musical experimentation—the titular beautiful dark twisted fantasy refers to West's mindfucky past few years. "The plan was, drink till the pain's over," raps West, tossing a nod to everything from the loss of his mother to the loss of his self-control and dignity. Lyrically, he doesn't dig much deeper into his mess—self-effacing wisecracks abound, but those hoping for West to tackle his own drama with the level of wit and insight displayed in his sharpest lyrics (the deathbed scene of "Roses," the kaleidoscopically illuminating "Family Business") will be left wanting.
Instead, like Graduation, Fantasy is a work devoted not so much to breaking messy new ground, but to rendering past innovations more perfectly. In this regard, Fantasy can only be heard as a triumph, an hour-plus of state-of-the-art hiphop projected in the audio equivalent of CinemaScope. Even in getting-everything-perfect mode, West can't help himself from exploring, from collaborating with Bon Iver to blowing out the seemingly simple "Runaway" into a nine-minute opus that earns its running time. (Speaking of which: The 35-minute [!] video that West directed [!!] for "Runaway" is much better than it has any right to be. It's overwhelmingly pretentious, Kanye's acting sucks, and that bird lady kinda looks like a reject from The Wiz, but the minifilm also contains a number of legitimately impressive scenes, in which music and visuals—and ballerinas and douchebags—combine to create something new and beautiful. If you've got a half hour to spare, check it out.)
And when it comes to getting things perfect, no one's better than Kanye West. For proof, see the final two and half minutes of Fantasy's next- to-penultimate track, "Blame Game," featuring the funniest skit ever to barge its way onto a hiphop record, starring Chris Rock and a Yeezy protégé with a re-upholstered pussy. Even when West is fucking around, he makes it worth your while. His mother would be proud.