Master Maestro Showdown: Kanye West vs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West’s fifth solo album, is an achievement as grand as his ego. Featuring a bevy of performers and a kaleidoscope of sound, West’s record, out on Tuesday, sounds more like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles or The Legend by Johnny Cash than anything currently on the pop charts. Curious about how West’s album might stack up against history’s highest-regarded musician — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — we invited Jeffrey Beecher, the double-bass player for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, to help us compare West to someone he’d probably consider his musical peer. This is the tale of the tape.
Power vs. Eine kleine Nachtmusik: Eine kleine Nachtmusik was written in 1787 and features viola, cello, violin and strings. “Each instrument comes on with a new personality, like the song’s a dinner party and each instrument changes the conversation,” Beecher says. Power, the first single from West’s new record, is the most traditional hip-hop track on the album and features a sample of 21st Century Schizoid Man by King Crimson. “A lot of ego’s involved in that,” Beecher says, and he’s not wrong as one wry scatological lyric takes braggadocio along an unusually visual path. West elevates this song in his live show, but it pales in comparison to “a little night music.”
Winner: Mozart, by a Viennese choir
Runaway vs. Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major: Mozart took music from other cultures and this piece is nicknamed, “The Turkish.” The song gallops, waltzes and changes on a dime while remaining part of one risky, unrefined whole. Runaway, which has an accompanying 40-minute film, begins w ith a Kubrick-esque piano score and features a memorable chorus with The-Dream singing background vocals. An album highlight, the song is confessional, catchy and fresh, but Beecher doesn’t think it develops. Running over nine minutes, the song’s later noodling is self-indulgent, but West’s personality reigns supreme.
Winner: West, by his sheer volume of tweets
Blame Game vs. Voi Che Sapete from Le Nozze di Figaro A comic opera composed of four acts, this Mozart performance — like West’s original album art — was banned after its premiere. Featuring a soprano aria and eight-bar phrasing, Beecher says the melody of this love story matches a heartbeat and the pizzicato accompaniment screams romance. Blame Game, featuring John Legend’s voice and piano, is a bittersweet break-up song that concludes with a rousing Chris Rock joke. With ambient noises and digital effects adding to the record’s violence, the song highlights West’s emotional and technical proficiency. Still, Blame Game is lyrically lazy and Le Nozze di Figaro is the sixth most performed opera in North America today.
Winner: Mozart, ahead by three centuries
Devil in a New Dress vs. Symphony No. 38 in D Major: Built over a Smokey Robinson sample, this song brings to mind Graduation and is album filler. “You loved me for me, could you be more phony?” West wallows, which he generally manages to avoid on this album. Featuring one of two Rick Ross verses — “Getting 2Pac money, twice over” — the song feels inadequate against the Mozart track nicknamed, “The Prague.” Dedicated to the Bohemians, the original hipsters of 18th century, Mozart’s slow opening bridges into a series of quick allegros. Without following a straightforward rhythm, the wind and string instruments create what Beecher calls “a symphonic masterpiece.”
Winner: Mozart, because it’s impossible to make a symphonic masterpiece with Rick Ross
All of the Lights vs. Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major: Elton John, La Roux, Drake and Rihanna are just some of the guests on this record, which also has French horns, trumpets, woodwinds and violin. The rapping’s as slick as the arrangement and West’s control brings to mind Dr. Dre, if not James Cameron. Mozart’s song is a slow movement featuring a clarinet bassoon and was written for Mozart, first and foremost a violinist, to perform. “Listen to the aesthetic of perfection,” Beecher says. “There’s no other way this song could exist.” The song’s complicated and sorrowful and the tinkling piano drips with angst, but All of the Lights is an album highlight: It’s attitude makes Swagga Like Us sound like Taylor Swift.
Winner: West, for bothering George W. Bush more than wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
Monster vs. Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat Major: It’s not that other artists couldn’t bring together Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver, it’s that nobody else would try. Over a spare Timbaland-esque beat and tribal drums, West’s posse cut also features Jay-Z and enough digital effects to impress George Lucas. Mozart’s song’s been called one of the greatest wonders of the world and features dexterous right- and left-handed piano playing, and wind and string instruments moving forward and backwards, trading starring and secondary roles. Minaj is extraordinary, but she kills it just as hard with the Black Eyed Peas.
Winner: Mozart, by the tippy-top of his wig.
Gorgeous vs. Per Questa Bella Mano: West collaborates twice on the album with the Wu-Tang Clan, here creating a perfect mix of hard and soft, hip hop and cellos, guitar and a dope verse from Kid Cudi. “Choke a South Park writer with a fish stick,” West raps in one of the song’s many quotable couplets, which also includes, “Get caught with 30 rocks/the cop look like Alec Baldwin.” Mozart’s tune, which Beecher says is exceptionally difficult to play on the bass because the bass player was flirting with Mozart’s wife at the time, is an opera love song with triplets and double stops meant to exploit the range of each of the orchestra’s instruments. Mozart wrote the music, but he doesn’t sing. On this track, West shows he’s exceptionally talented at both arts.
Winner: West, by Mozart’s wife’s wandering eyes
In conclusion: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the year’s most exceptional albums. However, Mozart still wears the crown.