I was running late for the Raleigh date of Kanye West's hyper-ambitious Glow in the Dark tour, so I missed the opening set by Lupe Fiasco. Luckily, I was informed by one concert patron that Lupe Fiasco, a Grammy-winning rapper on a major label, was "really underground." Though initially nonplused by the idea, I kind of saw what the patron meant by the end of Kanye's set. Stature is all relative, and, compared to Kanye, Lupe and the other formidable stars in Glow in the Dark's opening slots might as well have been Sage Francis.
Sure, N.E.R.D., the group led by hit-maker Pharrell Williams, was a lot of fun. Pharrell's backing musicians weren't exactly tight, but they were certainly enthusiastic, and the stage roiled with energy during signature rap-rock jams like "Jump" and "Everyone Nose." Rihanna wore a black leather catsuit with pink trim designed to accentuate her most marketable assets. She had a gold sequined microphone, a keyboard player that looked like Deerhunter's Bradford Cox, and back-up dancers swinging lightsabers. She thrilled the capacity crowd with emphatic, suggestively choreographed renditions of "Pon de Replay" and the ubiquitous "Umbrella" (ella, ella, ay ay ay!).
Both Pharrell, with his wiry, Ritalin-deprived vigor, and Rihanna, with her "I'm totally into you personally" eye contact, had star power to spare, but Kanye made them look bush league even before he appeared onstage. His influence was manifest throughout the venue, in awkward flashes of metro style: neckerchiefs, vests, all-over prints and those white Venetian-blinds shades he wore on the cover of Blender, shoddy plastic replicas of which were available at the merchandise stand for $10.
Kanye got stacks; y'all already know that. But now, I wonder if he meant Marshall stacks, not money, during that "Throw Some D's" remix. The show was appallingly loud, at least from the front row: not the cheap trebly loud of a small rock show, but the deep bassy loud of God smiting you up close. Sometimes, when the volume levels peaked, it seemed as if the band Kanye had secreted offstage (which included two bash-happy drummers) might include members of noise band Wolf Eyes.
But all of the inner-ear trauma in the world couldn't peel me away from the stage, which, for nearly two sweat-dripping hours, Kanye magnetized with his ostentatious props and firebrand charisma. He stalked a giant platform with an irregular surface, like a shallow half-pipe, from which another platform would eventually ascend, bearing our man to even greater heights. He was alone onstage, save for two backup singers dressed like Blade Runner extras at stage right. A panoramic screen stretched behind him, projecting him into various locales, from outer space to the desert. A smaller screen intermittently descended in front of the first. There were prodigious smoke streams and 20-foot gouts of varicolored flame.
The performance was arrayed around a crashed spaceship narrative as Kanye interfaced with a female-voiced version of Kubrick's Hal. He managed to pull off the Banana Republic look and the Highlander look simultaneously, and did lots of arms-outstretched, messianic basking amid his expensive smoke and thunder. If you can imagine watching Die Hard, Star Wars and Cirque de Soleil simultaneously, with Kanye as Bono as Han Solo, you've begun to approach the intensity of spectacle that informs his live show.
Indeed, by now, it's hard to even call Kanye a rapper: His last album, Graduation, was influenced by Euro-techno, Japanese pop art and patrician designer fashion. He's a global pop ambassador, at least a Beck if not a Prince or Madonna, and as befits this always self-conscious performer, he seems acutely aware of such a role. He even edited himself, swearing a bit but conspicuously dropping some of the more hate-intensive language from his set, like "bitches," "hoes" and the paparazzi/Nazi conflation of "Flashing Lights."
One thing that Kanye did not revise, though, was his self-aggrandizement. "We need the brightest star in the universe, Kanye," his co-captain computer said to him during an extended edit of "Stronger." "Only you can glow in the dark." And during a self-congratulatory monologue, he said, "A few years ago people were saying that I couldn't even rap," looking to the ebullient audience for vindication. "I have to laugh at that," he added, snarkily appropriating a line by Jay-Z, the very father figure who'd doubted him at the outset.
This all got at the fundamental paradox that informs Kanye's music. He is an egomaniac who writes himself into galaxy-saving superhero narratives, yet still raps about human insecurities and longings. He's infinitely larger than life, but he's just like us, which makes us feel larger by comparison—a recipe for pop stardom if ever one was. —Brian Howe
You have to think that, at some point, Kanye West will make the thespian jump so many other rappers have made during the past decade-plus: The multi-platinum, high-fashion, high-concept stars particular combination of charisma and vainglory sort of demands a big-screen ascendance sooner or later. His two-hour headlining set Friday night in Raleigh was an epic piece of music theater then, a trial-run complete with elaborate stage design, a backing band hidden in a pit (actually, in this case, behind West and to his side), and scripted lines spoken by West, the only person on stage for the shows duration. The writer was the director was the producer was the star, and it was all perfect—except for the acting itself, which often made West sound as stiff and theatrically unpracticed as the computer guiding his crashed spaceship.
But Wests strengths have never been in delivering the details up close: While early talk that he would never be a good rapper has been mostly panned by his amphitheater status, he often still sounds awkward on tape. His dash and zeal sometimes misshape his cadence, and his ungenerous editing often forces his flow into awkward bends and clips. But his albums are massive, dynamic sprees, sprawls of occasionally imperfect artistry tempered by the general feeling that West is sort of the shit. And who hasnt been swept up in one of his songs, beats, hooks or lines, something that made you feel—if only for a moment—the full force of his persona? Maybe youve thrown your free hand up to Gold Digger while driving a sedan, run a mile (or chuckled) to The New Workout Plan, or felt like you could conquer most everything during Diamonds are Forever (or at least the remix). Ill admit to all four emotions for those three songs, and Id wager that most people who know the tunes can empathize.
Fridays show was much like a West album in that way, as capable of being as overwhelming and awesome as it was being nitpicked to near-nothing. The concept of West crashing in his spaceship, piloted by a female computer named Jane, was pure cheese, as was Janes metamorphosis into two exotic dancers when the shows star felt lascivious. The projections on Janes control panel were often blown-out and distorted, and the backing band was sometimes so loud and unmanaged it made listening physically painful. West delivered dialogue like a robot, and the script itself was all melodrama and ego trip. A shooting star told West he was the biggest star in the universe and only he could glow in the dark. There was a Journey cover and a leifmotif of Stronger. In other words, all the stops.
But every chuckle at the shows overblown nature was met two-fold with real, starry-eyed wonderment: If I leave a summer shed blockbuster feeling more exhilarated or exhausted this year, Ill be shocked. This was the product of an ego unfettered and an imagination energized, a shot from half-court that is still sitting on the rim, daring somebody to get closer to the bottom of the net. West made the front row feel like a living room, getting so close that he looked you in the eye. But he also used the stage—a lunar landscape with Piedmont topography and a lit platform rising from the center when the star really needed to shine—like an athlete. Friday night, I watched West, quite literally, from the front row of Walnut Creek and from the last piece of grass on its massive hill. He dominated from both vantage points. Perfectly placed stage lights cast his shadow on the amphitheaters walls and over TVs that flashed live feeds from several cameramen. The show was, in fact, better from a distance, when West—moving from side to side, front lip to back recess—could emphasize the vastness of his lunar solitude and his attempt to overtake it and us. When you could see the size of his ambition from a distance that didnt reveal too much, West was unstoppable.
When that shooting star told West about his universal stature and importance, you needed to agree. Pharrell Williams N.E.R.D. and Rihanna both opened (along with Lupe Fiasco, who I missed), and their performances seemed so trivial in light of Wests production and tirelessness. Williams, like West, bounded across the stage as the sun was beginning to sink. But he seemed more like an Energizer bunny, browbeating you into paying attention rather than just grabbing as much and running with it. Rihanna let her moderate backing ensemble and day-glo-covered, washboard-wearing dancers do most of her work. While they moved, she paced the stage and sang her songs, winking and smiling at the first few rows. It was pleasant at best.
But West did all of the (visible) work, reinforcing his energy with the very emotions that sometimes get him in trouble. In doing so, he was the workaholic with the ego and the inspiration that pushed in the same direction. When he rapped Spaceship Friday night—You cant fathom my love, dude/ Lock yourself in a room doin five beats a day for three summers/ Thats a different world like three summers/ I deserve to do these numbers—the words sounded as though theyd been penned backstage by a dude who thankfully doesnt know when or how to quit. Bad acting or no, I left with sincere admiration. —Grayson Currin