Kanye West's Riches-to-Rags Rap

An Argyle sweater-clad West last month during the VH1 Hip Hop Honors in New York City.
An Argyle sweater-clad West last month during the VH1 Hip Hop Honors in New York City. (By Seth Wenig -- Reuters)
By Sarah Godfrey
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

In the realm of hip-hop fashion, almost anything goes. Wanna walk around in an orange prison jumpsuit? Cool. Bulletproof vest? Lovely. Armani suit? Play on, playa. But a look that mirrors some pimply teen folding jeans at the Gap? That's a definite no-no. Emulating the dress of felons and moguls is acceptable, but what MC wants to mimic a mall rat? Apparently, Kanye West.

Leave it to the Chicago producer-turned-rapper, whose arrogance, questionable rhyme skills and groundbreaking beats have changed the game, to challenge yet another norm of hip-hop. At the Patriot Center on Sunday night, West spent most of the show sans gems and precious metals, wearing only jeans and a red shirt with a name tag attached where only a polo player, alligator or tiger should be.

The get-up, a nod to the Louis Vuitton don's former life as an embittered clothing-store employee, was also key to the theme of the concert, which seemed to be convincing young'uns that the road to superstardom is paved with polyester uniforms, fast food and bus passes. Shame on you if you assumed that West's Verizon-sponsored "Touch the Sky" tour was merely a way for him to push his new chart-topping sophomore album, "Late Registration."

After zipping through a few songs to warm up the crowd, West launched into a dramatic episode, complete with props, that was intended to offer a glimpse into his days as a drone, or, as he himself explained on the song "Gone," a time "before model chicks was bending over, and dealerships asked me 'Benz or Rover?' "

The bit started with West lying in a bed in the middle of the stage (his DJ, keyboard player, drummer and string ensemble were in mesh cages behind him), waking up to the gentle violin vibrato that opens "Late." Soon West headed to work, en route performing "Drive Slow" along with GLC, one of the rappers of his Good Music imprint. Finally, he arrived at his job at the Gap, which was conveyed by projecting the clothing giant's logo backward onto a screen and rolling out a rack of drab clothes. West then performed the trippy "Spaceship," which is all about working hard for the money and hating every minute of it.

The segment helped soften West's egotistical image just a bit. After all, how much of a megalomaniac can you be if, as the most buzzed-about rapper in the world, you're still willing to perform in workingman's threads?

The artist became even more endearing during a cluster of tear-jerkers that began with "Roses," which criticizes the health care system through the story of the hospitalization of his grandmother

But for all of its highs, the show wasn't without disappointments. Although opening acts Keyshia Cole and Fantasia both entertained by using their powerful voices to persuade the ladies in the house to brush the dirtbags off their shoulders, the absence of Common was a letdown. West's second-favorite Chi-town rapper was scheduled to be one of the tour's openers, but dropped out because of a movie role and is popping up in only a handful of cities.

The refreshing political bent West has displayed of late was also a no-show. Although his ad-libbed "George Bush doesn't care about black people" comment during a televised Hurricane Katrina benefit concert in September is now infamous, he referenced the current administration only twice. "Crack Music" contains the line, "Who gave Saddam anthrax? George Bush has the answers." And a portion of the 2004 single "All Falls Down" was changed to "Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack, and George Bush get paid off of all a dat," from the more generic "and a white man get paid off of all a dat." The version of "Diamonds Are Forever" West performed was also apolitical -- he went with the clever, but non-topical, original rather than the remix, which attempts to explore conflict diamonds.

And, before the end of the night, West had reverted to his old ways. He put the microphone down on a speaker and decided to let the crowd sing "Slow Jamz" along with his recorded vocals while he rested. Then he hammed his way through "Bring Me Down," the bizarre, messianic tune about his detractors that reminds us that it has been quite some time since West bought a pair of $50 jeans or ate at a food court.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company