Nothing says hip-hop like French horns.
Only Kanye West could have pulled off a track like “All of the Lights,” possibly the most dense, ambitious and ridiculously over-the-top moment on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—which also happens to be the most dense, ambitious, ridiculously over-the-top moment of both 2010 and West’s career.
From a production standpoint, “All of the Lights” is the very definition of “headphone worthy,” layering enough left-field sonics and instrumental texture for a ’70s prog rock suite. After the beautiful, blaring French horn intro (nearly militaristic in its urgent refrain), West and co-writer/producer Jeff Bhasker introduce a plethora of tricked-out sounds: buzzing synths, an orgy of soulful vocals, and a super trebly programmed snare that sounds like a ping pong ball bouncing off a brick wall in outer space.
Lyrically, West is apocalyptically serious, his grave images of spousal abuse and police chases somehow perfectly matching the maniacal mood of the music. Indeed, the “lights” of the song’s title aren’t just those of the night club—we’re talking “cop lights, flashlights, spotlights, strobe lights, street lights,” a recipe equal parts disorientation and ecstasy.
West and Bhasker have managed to create a window into the melted, frenetic psyche of a modern rap star. Everything about “All of the Lights” is ambiguous—when Rihanna, in her trademark sexy chorus, sings, “Turn up the lights in here, baby/ Extra bright, want you to see everything,” it’s unclear whether she’s making love or damning West with crucial evidence in the courtroom.
Then again, though, West has been the most ambiguous chameleon in pop culture the whole damn millennium. Some may lament the passing of West’s playful side—there are no cuddly bear mascots or Vanilla Sky references here. But in baring his soul, exposing his most private—hell, his most “beautiful, dark, twisted”—nerves, he’s never been more inescapably real. And there’s absolutely nothing ambiguous about that.