Nobody really knows what Kanye West's calling card is anymore—least of all Yeezy himself. His public image and musical identity have undergone so many high-profile changes that it's hard to keep track. In his early days, he was a fashionable, middle-class kid from Chicago who wanted to make it big as a rapper even though he lacked street cred and couldn't get a record deal. He unabashedly titled his first full-length album College Dropout (2004), and it was a breakaway hit that defined the sound of the coming years. By 2008, he had put out hit hip-hop albums titled Late Registration and Graduation, and transformed himself into a controversial pop culture darling known for a variety of highly public slips of the tongue. Then he surprised everyone with an emotional pop album, 808s & Heartbreak, on which he sings more than he raps, probing the pains of love and mourning his mother's untimely death.
Many admire his daring: "West never has shunned from showing us his vulnerable side or daring to confess that he's not cool; one thinks of the heartfelt scenes in earlier tracks at the deathbed of his grandmother, or his professions of love for his mom," wrote Chicago Public Radio reviewer Jim DeRogatis in a review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But everyone, DeRogatis included, noticed that his fifth studio album ventured past mere emo-heartbreak stuff and into a slightly scarier psychological terrain. "Here, he's questioning his very sanity," DeRogatis observed.
"Monster" is a posse-ballad for unchecked defensiveness against the world's criticisms, and anyone who follows his life in the public eye should know that Kanye West is the perfect rapper to run that particular show. But it is also a signature track for an album about a man who perhaps really does believe himself to be deranged; a man whose relationship to fame, attention and ego is blatantly unhealthy, but artistically inspiring; a man more interested, for now, in pulling himself (and others) apart for the sake of music than in pulling himself together.