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And now begin the Kanye West critical walkbacks

January 5, 2011 |  6:00 am

Ye It’s only the third workday of 2011, but are pop fans already regretting whom they went home with for last year’s consensus pick for album of the year?

Three prominent music writers have recently penned pieces that to one degree or another find some new unsettling or underwhelming notes in Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” that went unremarked upon during the deluge of hyperbole that first greeted it. Each agrees on the album's importance, but implies that “Fantasy’s” ambition and bombast may have covered up some troubling undercurrents in Kanye’s vision, and underlined pop's need to crown consensus heroes.

The most cutting take is from the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who finds that Kanye’s color-coded value system for women in “Fantasy’s” lyrics is “incredibly, almost casually, racist.” Lines such as “Champagne wishes/30 white ....” seem to simultaneously embrace and demean white women as aura-building possessions for West, and Coates also notes that “I'm less amazed, but pretty depressed, that colorism is back -- ‘Rolling with some light-skin chicks and some Kelly Rowlands’  is little more than ‘you're pretty for a dark-skin girl’ in this postracial era.” He closes with one of the most withering criticisms of a rap album in ages: “I'm tired of rappers who deploy slut-shame to smoke-screen their near total fear of (women).”

At the New York Times, Jon Caramanica has a less barbed but still considered re-assessment of what it meant that one potent album so uniformly topped the zeitgeist. “Maybe Mr. West was a titan in an off year,” he surmises. “These ratings and rankings make a statement about not only the presumed quality of the album, but also about institutional decisions regarding an artist’s worthiness, and about those institutions’ desire to be seen acknowledging an artist’s worthiness.” He admits that, even if this is Kanye's best record (and he says it isn't), then what do all these perfect scores mean for his next one? A sixth star or 11.0 rating? Or did we set Kanye up for an inevitable fall that's more or less divorced from the actual quality of his work? 

Caramanica ends on a particularly sad note, finding the grim leaked clips from Kanye’s “Monster” video as “empty provocation and clumsy art, the move of someone who, in a climate of unchecked glorification, has been given too much rope to play with.” Maybe we didn’t like what Kanye actually did as much as we needed what Kanye seems to represent in pop -- one of the few instances of one of the most famous people in music simultaneously being one of the best.

And over at New York Magazine, Nitsuh Abebe makes maybe the most bomb-chucking claim about “Fantasy.” He (more or less genuinely) posits that Diddy Dirty Money’s Europhile trance-pop record “Last Train to Paris” may have been a better album. “Now (Diddy’s) turned some of these trappings -- dance music, high fashion, European rail travel, dirty divas, moody synth pads -- into a shiny action movie of a record. The problem is that there's no series of ridiculous tweets Diddy could have deployed to get us to pay quite as much attention to this album as we did to Kanye West's similarly ridiculous showstopper,” he says.

It’s a weird claim to make of one of the richest men in rap, but Diddy may have been the underdog in this comparison, which implicitly evokes the 2007 chart beef between Ye and 50 Cent when one arrogant artist lost his chart and critical crown to hubris. Abebe implies that maybe we underestimate Diddy (and overestimate Kanye) because he doesn't have George Condo and Vanessa Beecroft in the wings to underscore his claims to High Art. And “when ("Train") hits its mood right, though -- gray skies, Eurorail, and drama -- it's excellent stuff. The hectic format fades away, and the music actually becomes the hypnotic cruise it aspires to be.”

-- August Brown

Photo: Kanye West. Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

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