Naysayers can attack hometown hip-hop hero Kanye West for his undeniable vanity all they want. But remember this: Its only bragging if you cant pull it off.
From his earliest high-profile shows in Chicago, when he was backed by John Legend on keyboards and the self-proclaimed hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari, to his Touch the Sky Tour in 2005, when he fronted a full string section and a harpist and trotted out more stage sets than an off-Broadway theater production, West has strived to elevate the live hip-hop experience, eschewing two turntables and a microphone minimalism in favor of the elaborate arena spectacles mounted by famously theatrical rockers such as David Bowie and Peter Gabriel.
Launched in mid-April at the Key Arena in Seattle, Wests Glow in the Dark Tourwhich comes to the United Center on Friday and Saturdaybrings things to a whole new level once again. The current jaunt is evocative of nothing so much as a musical version of Tron, the prescient 1982 science-fiction film in which a computer hacker is somehow sucked into the then barely imagined World Wide Web and forced to fight like a gladiator in order to escape.
If the artists three multi-platinum albumsThe College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005) and Graduation (2007)form a rough conceptual trio, Glow in the Dark offers a conceptual concert wherein West is an astronaut stranded on a distant planet after his a crash landing. He appears onstage alone for most of the show, with the sizable band set in an orchestra pit and much of the stage obscured by giant clouds of fog that that billow around the video backdrop of alien skies.
Kanyes only companion: a distaff version of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a computer named Jane. A sample exchange:
Kanye: Jane, I cant get off this planet! Ive been here for so longfor one year! Ive got to get me some [sex]! Can you help me? Jane: I can help you with that, Mr. West.
The computer then generates a hologram of a naked woman who undulates as the performer delivers Gold Digger. (In classic R. Kelly fashion, things constantly veer from the profane to the sacred, with an emotional West also dropping to his knees to pray for his mother Donda, who died last November.)
Sure, in print, as with so many of Wests public pronouncements, the chats with Jane the computer read equally obnoxious and absurd. But its to Kanyes credit that it all works in context: The tour has generated rave reviews at nearly every stop, with New York Times rock critic Jon Pareles noting, There is a new yardstick for the size of the universe. It is approximately equal to the size of Kanye Wests ego.
Egotistical he may be, but West is self-assured enough not to fear being upstaged by openers who comprise one of the strongest package bills that hip-hop or R&B have ever seen, with N.E.R.D. (the funk-rock band led by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the production team Neptunes), singer Rihanna, the chart-topping diva of Umbrella fame, and fellow Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who followed in Wests footsteps with similarly genre-expanding sounds on his stellar 2007 album, The Cool.
Is West really the biggest star in the universe, as this show posits? Until someone else steps up with something quite this impressive, well just have to take his word for it.
The Glow in the Dark Tour featuring Kanye West, Rihanna, NERD and Lupe Fiasco
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Tickets $40 to $78.50
Ticketmaster.com, (312) 559-1212
Here is the set list for Kanye Wests Glow in the Dark Tour:
Good Morning; I Wonder; Heard Em Say; Through the Wire; Champion; Get Em High; Diamonds from Sierra Leone; Cant Tell Me Nothing; Flashing Lights; Spaceship; All Falls Down; Gold Digger; Good Life; Jesus Walks; Hey Mama; Dont Stop Believing (Journey cover); Stronger; Homecoming and Touch the Sky.