We knew well before "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" that Kanye West is a tortured genius. He had made enough headlines and leaked enough music to make that clear. The main question left for his fifth album was, what's in it for us?
A lot - if you like reality TV, celebrity tabloids and car crashes. As a producer, Kanye's immense gifts have reached a new peak, and his lyrics remain double-edged blades of young black pathos. The only thing missing from this "Fantasy" is a good time.
Kanye's previous album, "808s & Heartbreak," also was a bleak experience, but "Fantasy" delves into an uglier place. There's no happiness, vicarious thrills or funny stories, no touching odes to his mentor or his mother, just a man torn apart by the world and himself. You get women, ego, fame, evil, power, pain, even sex and religion as unholy bedfellows - all delivered in defiant rhymes laden with multiple meanings and punch lines.
This dysfunction still sounds incredible, though, because West lays down his torment on beds of sound that reveal new beauties with each listen.
Some of his musical compositions are made for the stadium, like "All of the Lights" and its red carpet of 14 vocalists ranging from Elton John to Charlie Wilson to Rihanna. Some are destined for European discos, like "Lost in the World" and its bipolar declarations: "You're my questions, you're my proof / You're my stress, and you're my masseuse."
But this is emphatically a hip-hop album, so the boom-bap is never far. "So Appalled" sounds like new-millenium Mobb Deep; "Monster" is a throbbing menace where Jay-Z psychoanalyzes Kanye and millions of other scary black men to a T: "Everybody wanna know what my Achilles heel is / Love! I don't get enough of it ..."
Love does seem to be the root of Kanye's issues, which he deconstructs on the simply brilliant "Runaway," bravely discarding the Auto-Tune and building a single piano note into a glistening monument to his problems.
As great as the song is, though, it's tough to party or bounce to, unless you're one of the "scumbags" he's toasting. That goes for most of the album - we can gawk at Kanye's troubles, but few would want to live them.
It makes you wish Kanye could finally find the woman or the award he yearns for, so he could escape from his own head and give us another hilarious "Gold Digger" or redemptive "Jesus Walks." Until then, he's like a Picasso who only paints self-portraits.
CHECK THIS OUT: The minute-long "All of the Lights" interlude is haunting, beautiful - and wordless.