Kanye West's "VH1 Storytellers": inanely great

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Before we really get going here, how about a pop quiz?

Which of the following statements does Kanye West make on VH1 Storytellers?

a. He gives O.J. Simpson props, calling him "amazing"
b. He declares himself "a soldier in the war on conventional thinking"
c. He compares himself to Jim Carrey's character in The Truman Show
d. He riffs on Jay-Z's classic intro to "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)"
e. He states that he doesn't bother to read, and implies that reading is bullshit, which suggests that the "turn my life to Stephen King" line from "Robocop" was maybe ghostwritten

If you chose "f" -- for "all of the above" -- you win; check's in the mail.

Recorded live in February 2009 on a VH1 sound stage, Storytellers arrives at a moment -- or maybe we should say moments, since the thing was initially slated for a Christmas release, then was pushed to early January -- when West's rep could maybe use a little polish. Is this product insanely great? Inanely great, maybe. It's not even remotely comprehensive in its scope: the lion's share of songs are culled from 2008's 808s & Heartbreak, and there's nothing to represent 2004's The College Dropout. Classics like "Flashing Lights" and "Touch the sky" and "Heartless" are stretched to marathon lengths and larded with largely unilluminating stage banter ("I'm a real person, and real people grow"). West flubs some of his easiest lyrics, routinely loses his train of thought, and elevates self-aggrandizement to an art form. He doesn't intentionally reveal anything about himself that we didn't already know.

And yet, for all that, Storytellers is not without merit, significance, or charm; even if I wouldn't advise anyone to buy the whole thing, at least half of the set is worth your iTunes dough. (I'd give you a rough total of the cost, but the iTunes store doesn't have the mp3s for sale at the moment.) What Storytellers offers is a torn Polaroid of an immensely talented, polarizing, and egotistical pop star working in the rough and feeding off of his audience's boundless energy and enthusiasm. He shouts out Tenancious D. He spits out stage directions to his DJ or sound person or whatever, like a 21st century James Brown. Shorn of digital varnish, his voice is full of raging, phleghmic grit that lends weight to fare as bouyant as "The Good Life" and as disco-bawl snide as "Stronger." Live instrumentation and back-up singers inflate his bangers into larger-than-life epiphanies -- even if those epiphanies remain thoroughly self-serving. He's still a dick, but he -- and his cheering, enthused crowd -- make you want to believe in him one more time.

On "Flashing Lights," West paradoxically apologies for not getting into the meanings behind "Flashing Lights" -- then turns around and makes a seething, veiled threat against either the doctor responsible for his mother's cosmetic-surgery related death or someone who wrote a book about it, maybe. Rough stuff. Somehow, this iteration of "Stronger" is more warped, more penetrating, more electronic; the squiggle-strewn, blip-blasted intro sounds like it was remixed by My Cat Is An Alien. Good thing this came near the set's end, because West was in serious danger or shredding his voice, putting everything he had into lyrics that jab and punch like a heavyweight's dukes. And "The Good Life" -- where West chants "We love the girls who ain't on TV, cuz the got..." then lets the crowd shout the "...more ass than the models!" part back to him -- finds him growling the party-hard verses. When he sings "I'ma get on this TV momma, I'ma put shit down? Goosebumps, man. Because, Donda, you know?


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