Slate‘s Jonah Weiner dares to use the B-word — “best” — in declaring that Kanye West’s new record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is not just the best album of the year, but the best of West’s career. Serious critics tend not to use the word easily, but West’s album seems to be inspiring similar accolades all over; Pitchfork blessed it with a rare 10.0, and its current Metacritic score is an impressive 98. It’s as close as pop records come to a universal critical hit.
I tend to agree with those singing the album’s praises, and if I were still reviewing records regularly, I’d have issued a big fat rave. Fantasy is as rich and grand and satisfying as pop music gets these days, or ever really, and the primal, heart-wrenching melancholy that’s built into its foundation only makes it more compelling. As far as I’m concerned, after a dozen-odd listens, it’s an instant classic and a work of near-perfect pop art.
But I’ve written before about the arbitrariness of pop music criticism, which seems to have far fewer clear and recognizable standards than, say, movie criticism, or lit crit. Thanks in part to the walls between genres, it’s far more subjective. And thanks to a variety of incentives and cultural norms, music criticism tends to issue a lot of “pretty goods” and relatively few ratings of “this completely sucks,” at least in comparison with movies or novels or plays.
When you read pop music criticism, you’re not really seeing a record or a song measured on some roughly understood and agreed upon set of critical criteria. You’re finding out whether or not a certain critic or publication liked it. There’s just nothing like a universal scale, or even a handful of competing aesthetics. Sure, pop songs often rely on formulas. But pop criticism is much less standardized. The closest you get are different schools of criticism based around different publications — Rolling Stone or Pitchfork or Stereogum*. But even those aesthetic schools typically reflect the choices of some founder or editor or other influential figure.
So it’s strange, then, to come upon an album like Fantasy that pretty much every critic who writes about pop music regularly agrees is not just pretty good but stand-up-and-cheer great. And that brings me to what I’m really interested in with this post: speculating as to why Fantasy pleases so many music critics and music-critic-types (this is where I note that my first writing gig was reviewing a dozen or so records every quarter for the now-defunct indie-rock journal Skyscraper). Obviously it’s impossible to know for sure — this won’t be a data-driven post — but my guess is that most critics start with a genuine love for the form. Not just for innovation and experimentation, but for pop songcraft, in a strictly formulaic sense.
But of course, over the years, as a critic or music geek, you tend to hear thousands and thousands of variations upon that form. Most of them are pretty unmemorable at best. A lot of them are just okay, no more no less, which makes sense given that there’s a time-tested formula involved. And even the stuff that’s just fine is less exciting given that you hear so much of it, day in and day out. Which is why there’s a good chance that you end up turning to a lot of experimental acts that really push the boundaries of the form, and probably break them pretty frequently. But there’s a limited amount of satisfaction in breaking the form, because, when it comes down to it, what you want is the classic form delivered in some wholly new, artful, and unexpected way. And when it comes to pop music, that’s pretty much what Kanye West specializes in. He’s mixing hip-hop and indie-rock irony and lush pop and any number of other influences into something that’s both highly original and highly accessible. The only other current act that comes to mind that does this as well is Radiohead (though you can see elements of this in acts as varied as Nine Inch Nails, Dismemberment Plan, Jay-Z, and Sufan Stevens). And what both acts end up doing is fulfilling that innate desire of just about every cynical, cranky, jaded critic who’s heard it all — every variation, every innovation, every hook and every production trick and every effort to make something old seem fresh — to somehow fall in love with the form again.
*I thought about adding Spin to the list, but I’m not sure the magazine has ever developed a recognizable musical aesthetic. And no, something-other-than-Rolling-Stone doesn’t count.