Study Guide

Monster Technique

  • Music

    "Nobody else is making music this daring and weird," wrote Rolling Stone in a review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, "from the spooky space funk of 'Gorgeous' to the King Crimson-biting 'Power' to the paranoid staccato strings of 'Monster.'" (Source)

    Paranoid and staccato just begins to describe the strange sounds emitting from "Monster," which seems to take inspiration from the horror-camp of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" but turns out to be a much spookier tune. Pitchfork called it "the weirdest A-list event-rap posse cut in recent memory" (source), and we concur. Musically, the song is downright strange.

    "Monster" opens with a grandiose Bon Iver/Justin Vernon choral moment, backed by a dark layer of voices and deep synth tones. But suddenly, an axe-murder-in-the-woods type scream marks the moment where Kanye (as famous for his production of catchy, creative beats as for his rapping) drops the beat. 

    "Monster" is a parade of famous voices, and the voices themselves form the most important instruments on "Monster." With the second part of the hook ("profit, profit"), the song's most interesting background feature comes into play—an alternating "beat" that is made from distorted human voices. The distortion and layering makes the beat sound like a group of zombies chanting their way out of a deep cave. Pitchfork called it "the straight-up funkiest beat Kanye West has made in years, a rippling electro push-pull that adds an effortless strut to his recent progged-out chilliness."

    The song builds steadily, flowing from Kanye to Jay-Z while making clever use of sparseness and bringing the creepy back-up voices in and out at just the right moments. At one point during Jay-Z's solo, all the beats drop out except a muted bass, and Jay's solo builds tensely back up to the hook. The next round of "gossip, gossip" is marked first by a dark monstrous growl and then by recordings of a cheering crowd in the background. The choruses of voices sound increasingly dramatic—maybe even over-dramatic, especially over Jay-Z's somewhat whiny complaint about the pains of making other people rich—but nothing is as dramatic as Nicki Minaj's entry into the song.

    If voices are the primary instruments on "Monster," this track is definitely Nicki Minaj's virtuoso moment. As MTV put it, "Minaj obliterates the track with a hodgepodge of styling—from her flow to her vocal inflection and varied tonal cadences." (Source) Her voice is trembling, full, and patently strange, complemented by West's distorted echoes and the sudden entry of a sharp high-hat during her solo. Unlike the other rappers in the song, Minaj is truly convincing when she screams that she's a "monster."

    With that, Justin Vernon's electro-emo chorus drunkenly wraps up the track, leaving the listener weirded out but willing to go back to the start and listen again, if just to take in those 80 seconds of Minaj madness one more time.

  • Calling Card

    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. (Source

    "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.

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