A consensus appears to be forming. According to three leading music publications (Rolling Stone, SPIN, and, ugh, Stereogum) Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the best album of 2010. Additionally, it is a matter of when rather than if indie taste maker Pitchfork awards the same honor to West, given that Dark Fantasy received a perfect score of 10.0. Thus, with all the praise that is and will continue to be showered upon Dark Fantasy before and after the end of 2010, I believe it is worth evaluating the mass critical reaction in addition to the album. Much like the self-perpetuating nature of groupthink, the music news establishment is loosing its independence and creativity to general consensus.
Fact: I love My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the weeks leading up to the album, I eagerly awaited Friday for the opportunity to download the newest Good Friday song, a project in which West made available early edits and remixes of Dark Fantasy tracks, as well as one-off collaborations with the likes of Jay-Z, Common, and many other artists. With each new track, from the majestic “Devil In A New Dress” to the soulful “The Joy,” it seemed like an inevitability that the album would at least match if not exceed the excellence of the Good Friday output. And, sure enough, when the album became available for download, I gave Amazon.com five dollars for what is easily the best purchase I made all year.
For its verbosity, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy unfolds as just that and after a listen through the entire album, I, like the majority of music reviewers, feel that it is a masterpiece, both for this year and era. The songs, most of which extend beyond radio friendly territory and into the five-minute mark, are bold, honest, and undeniably catchy. This is markedly triumphant since West is a hip-hop artist making compelling pop music over the background noise of his very messy public image. And, if it sounds and feels like a redemption story, it can effortlessly be written about and paraded around as one too.
This, the ascendance by way of the pens and key strokes of writers, especially those who are awkwardly positioned to deliver the praise, is the problem I have with Dark Fantasy’s overwhelming reverence by the media. As great as Dark Fantasy is, it is a single record among a staggering amount of noteworthy releases in 2010. Judged on varied criterion, apart from popular appeal, other albums are equally deserving of the highest praise and recognition. Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma, released in May of this year, is a captivatingly beautiful and painstakingly well produced album that touches on jazz, hip-hop, and electronic. It too is bold in scope and vision, two attributes that are repeatedly emphasised in the defense of Dark Fantasy as the year’s top album. However, while Cosmogramma is popping up on “Best Of” lists, it is being buried in the bottom half where albums are clumsily recognized but easily forgotten. Such treatment of Dark Fantasy, awarding it a spot outside of ten top, is beginning to be seen as contrarian at best and ignorant at worst.
So, where does this leave Dark Fantasy and its manufactured legacy? Is praising the album a recognition of true greatness or a submission to popular opinion? Personally, I’d like to see music publications move away from the all-encompassing “Best Of” format and move toward reviewing the year with an emphasis on achievements within broad genres (see Exlaim’s Year in Review 2010). Although this is not a perfect way to evaluate the year in music nor is it as satisfying in the guilty pleasure way that “Best Of” lists are, it comes closer to the role of music publications as tools for discovery rather than propaganda for the masses.