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Kanye West: 'Beautiful' Soul Or Raging Egomaniac?

I am fascinated by Kanye West on every level. I thought his first two albums, 2004's College Dropout and 2005's Late Registration, were and remain some of the strongest, most diverse and imaginative hip-hop collections of the decade.

As a producer and rapper, his imagination seems limitless -- he covers more ground in his cultural references than any other contemporary pop musician under the age of 40. He's also, depending on your point of view, a sensitive soul or an egomaniac of the highest order. At this point, West is like Blue-period Joni Mitchell with a Twitter account.

West's new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of the year's most anticipated albums. And in "Runaway," a nine-minutes-plus opus, West takes himself to task for being an arrogant perfectionist who can "always find something wrong."

"I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most," he says, shortly before offering up a toast -- in blunt language -- to self-centered perfectionists such as himself. Because West knows that, in any given art form, it is not uncommon that one person's self-centered perfectionism is another's acclaimed genius.

"Runaway" was also the taking-off point for a 35-minute avant-garde musical that aired on TV in October. It includes images as varied as a phoenix fallen to earth, ballerinas and an eerie parade whose marchers carry a giant papier-mache bust of Michael Jackson. As with so much of what West does, describing it makes it sound pretentious or precious -- in execution, however, the work has a bristling, poignant yet confrontational energy.

At other points on the album, West diffuses his self-regard so that it becomes universal. In "Lost in the World," West creates a surging soundscape that transports the listener, carrying you along with him as he seems to travel around the world, searching for his place in it. Being "lost in the world," as the song title says, means combining American and African pop rhythms with a sample of the poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron declaiming, "Who will survive in America?"

Scott-Heron placed his question in the context of the oppressed and of conspiracy theories that were being floated at the times about radical groups such as the SDS, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords. West, appropriating it, applies it to the drama of his own life. You can say it's yet another example of egregious self-aggrandizement. It's also superb music-making.

While Kanye West is very much a man of the pop moment, I think he connects with a very strong strain in American popular music: the musician who cultivates an image that is inseparable from his music -- an artist whose work can be enjoyed on its own -- yet which is fully completed only when we also form opinions about his public persona, his statements, his actions.

From Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to Michael Jackson to Madonna to Bruce Springsteen, pop music has a history of both sincerity and assuming a pose that takes on its own authenticity. This 60-year-old tradition finds its current embodiment most glowingly in Kanye West.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

Kanye West's new album "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is one of the year's most anticipated recordings. West's public-relations gaffes, last year's interruption of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at an Academy Awards ceremony - at an awards ceremony and more recently, losing his temper during a "Today Show" interview, have only increased interest in how West was going to either use or hide his outspoken nature in his new music.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has an answer and a review.

(Soundbite of song, "Gorgeous")

Mr. KANYE WEST (Musician): (Singing) Ain't no question if I want it, I need it. I can feel it slowly drifting away from me. I'm on the edge, so why you playing? I'm saying. I will never ever let you live this down, down, down.

KEN TUCKER: I am fascinated by Kanye West on every level. I thought his first two albums, 2004's "College Dropout" and 2005's "Late Registration," were and remain some of the strongest, most diverse hip-hop collections of the decade.

As a producer and rapper, his imagination seems limitless. He covers more ground in his cultural references than any other contemporary pop musician under the age of 40. He's also, depending on your point of view, a sensitive soul or an egomaniac of the highest order. At this point, West is like Blue-period Joni Mitchell with a Twitter account.

(Soundbite of song, "Runaway")

Mr. WEST: (Singing) And I always find, yeah, I always find something wrong. You been putting up with my - just way too long. I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most. So I think it's time for us to have a toast.

Let's have a toast for the douche bags. Let's have a toast for the - let's have a toast for the scumbags, every one of them that I know. Let's have a toast for the jerkoffs. That'll never take work off. Baby, I got a plan. Run away fast as you can.

TUCKER: That's "Runaway," a nine-minutes-plus opus in which West takes himself to task as an arrogant perfectionist who can, quote, "always find something wrong."

I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most, he says, shortly before offering up a toast - in blunt language - to all self-centered perfectionists. Because West knows that in any given artform one person's self-centered perfectionist is another's acclaimed genius.

At other points on this album, West diffuses his self-regard so that it becomes universal.

(Soundbite of song, "Lost in the World")

Mr. WEST: (Singing) I'm up in the woods, I'm down on my mind; I'm building a still to slow down time. I'm up in the woods, I'm down on my mind; I'm building a still to slow down the time.

I'm up in the woods, I'm down on my mind; I'm building a still - down the time. I'm lost in the world...

TUCKER: On a composition such as that one, titled "Lost in the World," West creates a surging soundscape that transports the listener, carrying you along with Kanye as he seems to travel across the world, searching for his place in it. Being lost in the world, as the song title has it, means combining American and African pop rhythms with a sampling of the poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron declaiming, "Who will survive in America?"

In the early '70s, Scott-Heron placed his question in the context of the oppressed and of conspiracy theories that were being floated at the time about radical groups such as SDS, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords. West, appropriating it, applies it to the drama of his own life. You can say this is yet another example of egregious self-aggrandizement. It's also superb music-making.

(Soundbite of song, "Power")

Mr. WEST: I'm living in the 21st century. Doing something mean to it. Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it. Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it. I guess every superhero need his theme music.

No one man should have all that power. The clock's ticking, I just count the hours. Stop tripping, I'm tripping off the power.

Mr. GREG LAKE (Singer, King Crimson): (Sampled audio) 21st century schizoid man.

Mr. WEST: The system broken, the schools closed, the prisons open. We ain't got nothing to lose, everybody, we rolling. Huh? Everybody, we rolling, with some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands. In this white man world, we the ones chosen. So goodnight, cruel world, I see you in the morning. Huh? I see you in the morning. This is way too much, I need a moment.

No one man should have...

TUCKER: While Kanye West is very much a man of the current pop moment, I think he connects with a strong strain in American popular music: the musician who cultivates an image that is inseparable from his music, an artist whose work can be enjoyed on its own yet which is fully completed only when we also form opinions about his public persona, his statements, his actions.

From Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to Michael Jackson to Madonna to Bruce Springsteen to Kurt Cobain, pop music has a history of both sincerity and assuming a pose that takes on its own authenticity. This 60-year-old tradition finds its current embodiment most glowingly in Kanye West.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" by Kanye West. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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