By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008
The ego has landed!
"You're the brightest star in the universe," a disembodied, digitized voice told Kanye West when the rap star's sci-fi-themed concert tour touched down Saturday at Nissan Pavilion.
Standing on a stage designed to look like an astral landscape -- all crags, shadows, smoke and starbursts -- West nodded approvingly, his hubris having survived the trip just fine.
The crowd also approved, its roar providing an affirmative answer to this question: If an angsty, needy megalomaniac is marooned in the middle of a lonely planet, will anybody cheer him?
West's "Glow in the Dark" tour is the rapper's latest ploy to prove that he is creatively without peer. It's a wildly conceived one-man musical -- a soul-searching, strangely intimate hip-hopera that begins with West's spaceship computer, a sort of Gal 9000 by the name of Jane, explaining that Earth is in a state of crisis, having "lost all of its creativity."
Questing to save the world from creative stasis, West has gone trolling through space for "a new source of inspiration." But his vessel crashes on a remote planet, leaving the rapper stranded in some far corner of the universe. Rather than throwing one of his trademark hissy fits, though, West breaks into song, prodding himself to snap out of his stupor ("Good Morning") before turning somewhat anxious ("I Wonder").
And off he went, on a 90-minute, 19-song journey that, for some reason, included a bit of Journey: At one point, West sat off to the side of the stage, drinking from a canteen, while his band performed the 1981 rock anthem "Don't Stop Believing." His vision is nothing if not unique.
The concert's bizarre narrative didn't necessarily hold up, as the connection between the story and the songs seemed tenuous at best. (The worst? When West complained to "Jane" that he hadn't had any female companionship in months, prompting the computer to transform herself into a golden hologram hoochie on the video screen -- all so that West might perform the great "Gold Digger.")
He also had the tendency to shout his vocals onstage. Then again, that might have been shrewd, for while West is a supremely talented producer and a clever, occasionally incisive lyricist, he's not the most gifted of rap vocalists, with a flow that can sometimes seem clunky and awkward. With his lyrics coming at high volume and high velocity here, West was, indeed, better, faster, stronger.
The overall result was borderline brilliant, a tribute to his ambition and artistry -- particularly the strength of the songs from his three celebrated albums, "College Dropout," "Late Registration" and last year's "Graduation."
The 30-year-old artist's narcissistic tendencies are well known, and he frequently scratched his itch for self-aggrandizement -- most notably during the arena-rap standout "Stronger," in which, over booming cyborg beats and Daft Punk samples, West commanded the crowd to "bow in the presence of greatness." (Greatness stood alone, by the way, as West kept the stage to himself, with his band and backup singers hidden away in a pit.)
The show even ended on an up-with-Kanye note, with West referring to himself as "a hip-hop legend" during the triumphal "Touch the Sky."
But behind the facade of self-confidence, there lurks a complicated and conflicted figure, all pouty and petulant and racked with doubt and anxiety. That Kanye -- the one who can be brutally honest in his self-reflections -- ran wild on the lonely planet.
He rapped about his character flaws (his love of the "Good Life," his penchant for buying "Diamonds From Sierra Leone"). He addressed his own arrogance ("You say I think I'm never wrong/You know what? Maybe you're right/A'ight?"). He tried to cut a deal with God to get him back to Earth, promising that he'd "stop talking so much [expletive]" and "stop spazzing out at award shows."
In "Can't Tell Me Nothing," West flogged himself for making bad
decisions, growling: "I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny/And what I do? Act more stupidly." As a brooding synthesizer line hovered over a thunderous bottom end, the rapper punched the air, twitched spasmodically and fell to his back before ending the song with a visceral howl. It was a striking display from one of hip-hop's greatest emoters.
But it was hardly the night's only emotionally charged moment. During "Hey Mama," with minimal musical accompaniment, West sang softly and tenderly about -- and for -- his mother, Donda, who died in November, apparently of heart disease and complications related to plastic surgery. In "Jesus Walks," over a thundering tribal rhythm, he dropped to his knees and nearly shouted his vocals in pursuit of redemption.
Earth to Kanye: We give. You are, indeed, great.