Kanye West, Rihanna, N.E.R.D. and Lupe Fiasco Sunday, April 27 Pepsi Center
The mainstream press' habit of branding Kanye West a one-dimensional egotist tends to make his creative achievements seem like side effects of his neuroses, and that's a shame. His public statements overflow with so much self-love that he makes Narcissus seem like a chronic depressive by comparison, but the confidence with which he operates has contributed mightily to a body of work that compares favorably to that of any popular-music figure to emerge since the dawn of the latest millennium. Nevertheless, these aspects of his character cut both ways, as was apparent from his Glow in the Dark tour, also featuring Rihanna, N.E.R.D. and Lupe Fiasco, which stopped at the Pepsi Center on April 27. No other current performer could have come up with the bold concept behind his headlining slot or had the audacity to try and pull it off. However, his inability to share the spotlight or truly open himself up to the audience left his stint feeling like a fascinating miss rather than an unalloyed triumph.
First up was Westword profile and Q&A subject Fiasco, who faced the longest odds of anyone on the bill. Not only did he have to begin his set with about half the members of the late-arriving crowd nowhere near their seats, but he faced the typical opener's handicap of performing without notable props or accoutrements; his sole backdrop was a black curtain. Still, he didn't let these drawbacks phase him. Emerging behooded to a mock-Gregorian chant like a badass monk, he launched into a half-hour showcase that drew from Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor and Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, his two must-have albums, displaying a leonine grace and an impressive command of the stage. While he brought on rappers and singers such as Matthew Santos as needed to assist him on the likes of "Kick, Push," "Go Go Gadget Flow," "Little Weapon" and, of course, "Superstar," he remained in control throughout, moving his hands like a conductor whenever he wasn't spitting smart, passionate rhymes. The result, unexpectedly enough, was the evening's most consistently satisfying set.
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N.E.R.D. frontman Pharrell Williams, who also recently got the Westword profile and Q&A treatment, had a tougher-than-anticipated act to follow, and he attempted to do so by marshalling the firepower of a full band: a pair of drummers, a guitarist, a bassist, and two keyboard players, including Chad Hugo, his partner in the Neptunes production squad. The group was originally conceived as a rock/hip-hop hybrid, and on this night, the approach manifested itself in massive power-funk riffs played at awesome volume. I'd forgotten to bring ear plugs to the show, and after the set, my daughter, Ellie, who accompanied me, was certain she'd lost hearing in her left ear -- a prospect that freaked her out so much that we promptly headed to the merchadise table and bought new ones. They cost $2 a pair, but that was a small price to pay, since this nickel's worth of foam was all that stood between us and deafness on a level the elderly Beethoven knew all too well.
But while the sheer loudness of this segment certainly made an impression, there was a certain hollowness at the center that revealed an inescapable truth: Williams is a far better producer than he is a performer. His vocal partner, Shay, stood out more prominently on the likes of "Lapdance" and "She Wants to Move" than he did, and his bantering with the audience drew upon the hoariest cliches imaginable -- like a which-side-of-the-arena-has-the-sexiest-ladies contest. Other stereotypes were on display, too, including (yawn) a dueling drum battle, and "Everybody Nose," the single from the forthcoming N.E.R.D. disc, Seeing Sounds, didn't work as well live as it does in the original (and entertaining) studio version. Moreover, Williams, whose main stage manuver consisted of running in place in slow motion, failed to hold the focus as true stars manage to do. Although he asserted in the aforementioned Q&A that he'd be fine remaining behind the scenes, his decision to stand on either side of the stage and milk some more adulation from the crowd following the departure of his bandmates belies this claim. Too bad he remains better behind a mixing board than he is behind a microphone.
Rihanna, who followed, had a different problem: She was much more interesting to watch on the two giant video screens on either side of the proscenium than on the stage itself, where she tended to blur into the busy background. Maybe it was her trendy short haircut, which made her seem unexpectedly boyish from even a modest distance despite her first costume -- a leather corset/unitard with pink piping that matched the hue of her gloves and the straps on her ski-style boots. Or maybe it was the descrease in energy necessitated by tunes such as "Rehab" -- penned by her "good friend" Justin Timberlake -- and "Hate That I Love You," a duet with Ne-Yo that she performed by her lonesome, to the detriment of the tune's effectiveness. She's being marketed as a baby Beyonce, but she doesn't have the latter's lungs or magnetism despite having scored a rash of smashes lately. The allegedly rocking "Shut Up and Drive" seemed fairly lackluster, particularly given the roar just emitted by N.E.R.D., and "Umbrella" was a let-down, with the backup dancers lamely twirling bumbershoots as Rihanna, in a new outfit that resembled a cross between workout gear and a military uniform, pumped her fist and high-stepped like an aerobics instructor. Clearly, she's a star made for video. The camera loves her more than the naked eye does.
Finally, forty minutes after Rihanna waved farewell, West's extravaganza got underway with a cinematic introduction setting up a sprawling storyline. Kanye, it seems, was sailing through the universe in a spaceship named Jane searching for a power strong enough to end a severe shortage of musical and creative energy. Seconds later, West was revealed lying on a platform set amid a primitive planet-scape, dressed like a daring intergalactic adventurer. He soon clambered to his feet and rapped song fragments around dialogue exchanges with sultry, robo-voiced Jane, represented by a viewing screen that appeared and disappeared as needed. At other moments, an even larger screen behind him broadcast galactic imagery -- rippling atmosphere, flashing meteorites, fiery explosions -- supplemented by showers of sparks, blasts of gas and other primordial outbursts.
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At first, it appeared that West was setting up a theatrical epic that would include multiple characters and something like a narrative arch. But no: Aside from a metallic android who briefly floated in and then promptly disappeared again, West was by himself from one end of the show to the other. (He stuck his band in the equivalent of an orchestra pit at his feet, virtually invisible to a hefty percentage of the audience and totally ignored by him.) The results called to mind Hollywood productions such as I Am Legend and Cast Away, as well as a key sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with an isolated protagonist battling against the elements with no help from any man, but, in this case, an assist from God, who decided to take mercy on West following a rendition of (natch) "Jesus Walks."
The result was a one-man show on a vast scale, and West clearly put his all into it, throwing himself around the stage until he was as covered with sweat as Shaquille O'Neal in the fourth quarter. But despite his exertions, the show still became redundant after a while. The sound mix contributed to these difficulties; the bass was far too loud, its distorted buzz burying many of the clever elements that make his songs so multifaceted and sometimes overwhelming his raps, too. In addition, the story didn't build in any meaningful way, and neither did West's performance, which was relentless in a fairly samey way. Moreover, the manner in which he knit songs such as "All Falls Down," "Touch the Sky" and "Gold Digger" into the proceedings occasionally seemed forced and/or corny. He might have been able to lessen this impression had he interacted with the throng, but he stayed in character for the vast majority of the time. The chief exception took place during "Hey Mama," a tribute to his mother, who died unexpectedly last year. As he sang, he scanned the audience and pointed accusingly at anyone who wasn't standing, ordering them to rise "out of respect."
As these incidents imply, humor, a significant part of his music, was notably lacking. Aside from a monologue promise to stop "spazzing out at awards shows," he kept things on the serious tip. Apparently, we weren't supposed to think of George Jetson during his repeated screams of "Jane!" or to snicker when the cure to the energy shortage proved to be an infusion of life from none other than K.W., described as "the brightest star in the universe." And no eye-rolling was allowed when West was urged not to quit his quest by a blast from Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" -- and no thoughts of Tony Soprano, either.
The show was unique, no denying it, and West is to be praised for his ambition, his work ethic, and his drive to keep pushing himself forward. And if the appearance was ultimately less pleasurable than his Colorado appearance in 2005 -- the best large-scale hip-hop concert I've ever seen -- it's better that he shot too high and only grazed his target than if he'd chosen to coast. At the same time, though, it's hard not to wish that he'd reined in his ego just a little more. That way, the Glow in the Dark tour would have earned an even more glowing review. -- Michael Roberts