Kanye West's 35-minute super-video, Runaway, peaks with a parade. Fireworks flash while red hoods march through a field. At the center of the spectacle is a huge, pale, cartoonish rendering of Michael Jackson's head. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's gargantuan "All of the Lights" soundtracks the procession, with Kanye pleading, "Something wrong, I hold my head/ MJ gone, our nigga dead." The tribute marks another chapter in West's ongoing obsession with the King of Pop.
West's discography contains innumerable references and allusions to Jackson. His first hit as a producer, Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)", sampled the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back". For many, his first memorable lines as a rapper came during 2003's "Slow Jamz": "She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/ Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson." And when West's recent interview with Matt Lauer on the "Today" show went awry, he took to Twitter, writing, "I wish Michael Jackson had twitter!!!!!! Maybe Mike could have explained how the media tried to set him up!!! It's all a fucking set up!!!!" Like most everything else, Kanye may exaggerate the kinship, but it's real. And it's never more apparent than on Twisted Fantasy, a blast of surreal pop excess that few artists are capable of creating, or even willing to attempt.
To be clear, Kanye West is not Michael Jackson. As he told MTV last month, "I do have a goal in this lifetime to be the greatest artist of all time, [but] that's very difficult being that I can't dance or sing." He ended the thought with a laugh, but you get the impression he's not kidding. Unlike Michael, he's not interested in scrubbing away bits of himself-- his blackness, his candidness-- to appease the masses. And while Jackson's own twisted fantasies of paranoia and betrayal eventually consumed him whole, West is still aware of his illusions, though that mindfulness becomes increasingly unmoored with each newspaper-splashing controversy. The balance is tenuous, but right now it's working to his advantage. On Twisted Fantasy, Kanye is crazy enough to truly believe he's the greatest out there. And, about a decade into his career, the hardworking perfectionist has gained the talent on the mic and in the control room to make a startlingly strong case for just that.