Music: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West * * * *
Kanye West shoots his mouth off with such frequency and acts like the Great American Jerk so regularly that it's easy to forget that he's not just a preposterous quote machine and publicity seeker, but is actually one of the most innovative, important forces in music of the past 10 years.
Over the course of four albums and countless collaborations and production jobs, he has proved to be as daring as anyone operating in the mass market. And this is yet another milestone release from a man who likes to make a grand statement with each album.
Try telling him that the format is on the way out -- a reported $3m was dropped on this extravagant, sprawling, ambitious and frequently breathtaking album.
It's about as far as you can get from his minimal last record, 808s & Heartbreak, although his fondness for Auto-Tune has not abated entirely. It's still used to manipulate his voice when he chooses to sing. But for the most part, this is an album that finds West return to spectacular rapping form. His wordplay has never been better, and rarely as angry.
Gorgeous is typical of the cocksure, self-aggrandising figure that's so divisive. At one point, he has in his sights the most celebrated band ever. "I don't believe in yesterday/ What's a black Beatle anyway?/ A f***ing roach?" (Last week, incidentally, he asserted that Coldplay were better than The Beatles, which is an argument I'd pay good money to hear him attempt to prove.)
There is a dizzying array of guest appearances including -- deep breath now -- Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Elton John and La Roux on one of the album's more populist moments, All of the Lights, a track that's likely to enjoy the sort of ubiquity that Gold Digger achieved five years ago.
Elsewhere, Kid Cudi (Gorgeous), Rick Ross (Devil in A New Dress), John Legend (Blame Game) and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon (Lost in the World) are among those who've hitched a ride. The latter name is especially eye-catching, but then West has frequently looked outside the usual hip-hop talent pool when collaborating. Incidentally, Lost in the World -- born out of a track on Bon Iver's Blood Bank EP -- suggests the union has been mutually beneficial.
And then there's the aggressive, awesome Monster, which is undoubtedly one of the key tracks of 2010. Hip-hop royalty Jay Z spits out the rhymes, but its the astonishingly potent machine-gun rap from the year's new sensation, Nicki Minaj, that truly elevates the experience. Minaj releases her debut album, Pink Friday, in this part of the world today -- go investigate.
Sample aficionados have plenty to chew over here too. Gil Scott Heron's potent words on Who Will Survive in America close the album, but there are surprising lifts, too, not least a snippet of 21st Century Schizoid Man from English prog-rock visionaries King Crimson.
Once again, this infuriating but compelling provocateur has confounded expectations.
Burn it: Monster; Blame Game; Lost in the World