I don’t listen to much rap or hip-hop music and over the years have only observed from afar the popular and critical acclaim for such artists as Jay-Z, 2Pac, Nas, Dr. Dre, Public Enemy, and Kanye West. My musical preferences are unapologetically guitar-centered, from acoustic Americana to punk and everything in between. So even the most intense adulation over hip-hop and rap stars hasn’t sufficiently stirred my curiosity to prompt me to purchase one of their records . . . until now.
Kanye West’s latest album, entitled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been making every 2010 top ten list I’ve seen, including those at Pitchfork, Amazon.com, and EW.com. It was chosen as album of the year on other lists such as Rolling Stone. And despite its often vulgar lyrical content, even Christianity Today reviewed MBDTF. So why all the excitement? I decided to check it out for myself and bought the album last week. It only took one trip through (at almost 70 minutes in length) to see what the fuss was about. In short, this is beautiful music—richly orchestrated, melodically multi-layered, and full of compelling vocal and instrumental performances by West and his many guests, who include Jay-Z, Bon Iver, and Elton John. The album is just as bold and creative lyrically, featuring sharp social commentary and witty cultural observations. In fact, some of the songs had me laughing out loud.
But there’s just one problem. MBDTF is morally repugnant. Aside from the scores of F-bombs, N-bombs, and profane phrases, West’s well-known arrogance is on full display, as are endorsements of self-indulgence, violence, misogyny, and drug and alcohol abuse (at one point West exultantly proclaims “I’ve been drinking, and now I’m driving!”). On top of this, the album is theologically confused, alternately praising Allah and Jesus, and declaring, “if we die in each others’ arms, we’ll still get laid in the afterlife” (“Lost in the World”). Elsewhere, West confesses, “We love Jesus but you done learned a lot from Satan… We ain’t married but tonight I need some consummation… May the Lord forgive us. May the gods be with us” (a line eerily repeated over a sensual 1970s R&B looped sample in “Devil in a New Dress”).
So what do you call a work of art that is aesthetically excellent but morally and spiritually subversive? Amy and I use the phrase “dangerous beauty” to describe such works, and I would say that MBDTF is a paradigm case of this. Judging by the album title, I wonder if Mr. West himself wouldn’t agree.
Paul D. Adams
Good note here. This raises lots of interesting questions, such as how can one be so mega-talented and so morally upside down? Take Bill Evans, for instance; one of the finest Jazz pianists whose lifelong abuse of heroin eventually drove him to the grave as “the longest suicide ever.” Yet his skill continues to inspire and inform every jazz musician at one level or another. I could go on with examples. My point is that, like you, I’m continually amazed at the seeming gap between the aesthetic world of beauty God creates and the corruption of the souls who contribute to it scaling the heights toward bliss.
P.S. Wish I could’ve run into you and introduce myself at ETS. Sorry I was unable to make your session/reading but the airport was calling me onward.
Thanks for your comments. And I’m sorry I missed you at ETS. Perhaps we can connect next year in San Francisco!
“Dangerous beauty” is a great phrase and an important concept. Thanks for sharing it…and your thoughts on West’s latest.
I think I remember the name of Mr West mentioned during the disaster in New Orleans brought on by the great hurricane Katrina (which by the way was only a fraction of the destruction that occurred on the coast of Mississippi). His comments were that President Bush didn’t care about Black people. I had similar thoughts at the time, that George Bush didn’t care about Mississipians…but I suspect now that both ideas are wrong. It was obviously just a very bad hurricane brought on by the explosion of economic activity (capitalism) which increased carbon emissions and thereby increased the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico by a fraction of a degree which intensified Katrina. Which led me to another thought…without Capitalism not only would we not have bad hurricanes we wouldn’t have people like Kanye West making hip hop “works of art”. Where are the communists when you need them?
I know this is an old post, but I wonder if this same concept applies to “Black Swan”. I left the theater in a tizzy. While beautifully made, it was woven with immoral circumstance. Several of the scenes felt claustrophobic and it was difficult to know what to do with it when it was over.
I haven’t seen Black Swan, but based on what I’ve read about the film—and from what I’ve seen of Aronofsky’s other films, especially Requiem for a Dream—it doesn’t surprise me that it might fall into the “dangerous beauty” category.
Please review Yeezus!
I hope you’re doing well, Dr. Spiegel!
Hmm… I’ll have to check it out.