Let's get this out of the way: we know Kanye West can seem like an asshole. But it's almost like he plays up the abrasive side of his personality as a smoke screen, to deflect attention from how much he exposes himself as a composer. His music is emotionally risky and open on a level that's shocking before you even notice the raps. He redefined hip-hop in terms of heart-on-sleeve expression, from his jubilant soul samples on Jay-Z's The Blueprint, to the deep-freeze Auto-Tune depression of 808s & Heartbreak, the weirdest breakup album since Neil Young's On the Beach. Where others would use a harpsichord or cello as a sound effect, he manipulates them as musical tools. Who else would move the crowd with Can or Laura Nyro samples? Who else makes tracks that soar like "We Major," "Hey Mama" or "The Glory"? And those were just his deep cuts. No wonder Yeezy wants everyone to think he's a dick. It's less pressure than getting recognized as the compulsively personal singer-songwriter he is.
This story is from the December 24th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.