When I was a freshman in college, I made a big decision in my life. I decided to get rid of all of my secular rap CDs and stop watching rated R movies. This decision came about due to the guilt that accompanied listening to music that contained a “Parental Advisory” sticker on the cover or watching films with racy scenes and foul language while attempting to live a proper Christian life. This new life choice lasted for the better part of two years and I still debate with myself whether this decision was helpful or not. On one hand, perhaps it was a wise choice for a young Christian man in college to separate himself from potentially harmful influences. On the other hand, I missed out on some great art. To this day, I still miss particular classic albums that were disposed of during my hiatus from secular rap.
The most notable lasting change that took place during this period is that I never returned to listening to mainstream rap music, for a number of reasons. For one, during this time (early 2000s) I felt that the genre took a turn for the shallow, as a plethora of new artists emerged with a similar style and mind-numbingly similar content. Also, I began following the undergound hip hop movement that was blossoming at the time. I found most independent secular hip hop artists to be making much more progressive and thought provoking music than any of their mainstream counterparts. Enter Kanye West.
In 2004 I was co-hosting a hip hop talk show with three other fellow college students at a local radio station. I knew Kanye’s back story, I knew of his debut album, “College Dropout,” and I knew that it was supposedly a big departure from the current sound that was dominating the radio. However, my admittedly elitist attitude toward the genre kept me from giving Kanye a fair shake. That is, until one of my friends on the show pulled me aside one day and told me I really needed to listen to this album, because it sounded a lot like “that weird stuff” that I listened to.
Needless to say, “College Dropout” went on to become one of my favorite albums of the past decade. I loved his honesty, his social awareness, and his passion for taking hip hop back as an art form. Like many people though, I slowly became disillusioned with West due to his constant non-music-related antics and his absurd commentary on just about everything he could open his mouth to. So when I heard about his new album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” my interest level was far from peaking. However, I once again found myself urged both by friends and the overwhelming hype surrounding the release, to give it a proper listen. And so I did, only to once again find myself caught in the question of what I, as a Christian, should be devoting my time and my ears to.
It deserves to be said that you cannot listen to Kanye’s latest without being overwhelmed by what a labor of love this album must have been. In a time when Lil’ Wayne is able to release albums while in prison, there’s something to be said for an artist who puts as much time and effort into a project as West did with “Fantasy.” Also, much respect is due for the extremely collaborative nature of this project – the list of artists and producers who played a role in the shaping of this album is a mile long and essentially consists of a who’s who among hip hop royalty, both past and present.
“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is a brilliantly produced and executed album. From a strictly musical standpoint, the album can easily be debated as 2010’s best as well as perhaps one of the best of the decade. Unfortunately, the look inside Kanye’s mind that we are given with “Fantasy” is not a pleasant one. Sure, it’s honest and true to the concept set forth by the project, but as Christians, where do we draw the line between the experience of great art and content that lies in direct contradiction with our values?
The difference between “Fantasy” and the average mainstream rap album currently on the shelves lies in the purpose of the content and not the content itself. “Fantasy” boasts as many curse words and as much graphic sexual imagery as any other rap album put out in recent memory, but instead of reveling in and celebrating his exploits, West seems to be caught between bragging on his lifestyle and coming to the conclusion that it has left him empty. Perhaps this is best exhibited on the ear-tickling track, “Hell of a Life,” a track that includes as much sexual imagery as you could pack into one song. The track presents itself as a typical party-type hip hop celebration of lust until it’s startling conclusion, when the phrase “hell of a life” appears to turn on it’s original presentation and leaves Kanye solemnly acknowledging the hellishness of his live-for-the-night lifestyle.
One of the most talked about tracks on the album is “Runaway,” a song that finds West taking an extremely critical look at his personality and character. The sobering track was seen by many of West’s detractors as a much-needed wake-up call to himself, yet everything about it feels genuine. It’s hard to listen to tracks like this and not feel some sort of compassion for Kanye. Yet for every one of those moments, there’s another that brings about a complete opposite reaction. Whether it’s his admittedly controversial cover art that actually got banned from several retailers or Chris Rock’s unbelievably uncomfortable dialogue with a former lover of West’s at the end of the track “Blame Game,” it’s hard to tell what kind of reaction Kanye is wanting to extract from his audience. Perhaps that’s the point.
I had a similarly divided reaction when I recently saw the movie “Black Swan,” which I consider to be one of the best movies of 2010. The film is rated R and contains some very graphic scenes of sexuality as the lead character, played by Natalie Portman, finds herself falling deep into obsession and madness over her fear of losing her role in the ballet production of Swan Lake. Although we are taken deep inside the mind of Portman’s character and see every detail of her spiral into insanity, the viewer leaves the film feeling a sickness for her rather than gratification from her exploits. In fact, an argument could be made rather convincingly, that the viewer would be unable to grasp the totality of her obsession without particular scenes, some of which are quite explicit.
It appears that in our current culture of post-modern art, it’s more important than ever for Christians to wrestle with the struggle between our desire for beauty along with our need for modesty, as the lines are constantly being blurred and the conclusions are progressively being left open for the listener, reader, or viewer. On one hand, Kanye West should be commended for the boldness and honesty delivered on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” especially in a genre that is in desperate need of a reality check. On the other, Christian listeners should be very careful when taking the journey into the minds of those such as West and at the very least, be willing to admit to themselves when they feel that “line” being crossed. Whatever the case, let each of us be convinced in our own minds.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from the topic at hand is for us to realize the opportunity we have to bridge the gap between a Christian culture that continues to isolate itself from the outside world, including its art, and the secular culture that views that sort of religious response as a knee-jerk reaction to their impropriety. While I can’t say that I will have Kanye’s latest album on regular rotation, I can say that it has provided a good platform for dialogue amongst myself and others about the nature of man, the appropriate intake of secular art from a Christian perspective, and the future of hip hop. At the very least we can hope that Kanye’s “Fantasy” is a stepping stone towards recapturing some of the beauty in an art form that has been mired for too long in the dark and the twisted.