Live: Kanye West Justifies Everything
Can't believe he pulled this off
Kanye West + Rihanna + N.E.R.D. + Lupe Fiasco Madison Square Garden May 14, 2008
A few years back, I read an interview with Dr. Dre in which he talked up his next big touring idea: a bastardized rap musical. The idea was that the songs would somehow fit the show's narrative logic; an undercover cop would get shot, say, and Snoop and Dre would emerge to do "Deep Cover." "It could work," said Dre, and I remember thinking No. No, it couldn't. Needless to say, it never did, and maybe the sheer galling logistics of the challenge were what ended up driving Dre into permanent semi-seclusion. But on his ridiculously ambitious new Glow in the Dark tour, Kanye West is trying something analogous, delivering his set in the form of a loose narrative and waiting until the very end to break character. That Kanye's tastes tend toward stylized sci-fi rather than grimy gunplay only renders the very concept more insane. And yet there Kanye was, standing alone amid dry ice and elaborate lights, talking with an on-board spaceship computer named Jane rather than the thousands assembled to see him. In a show-opening voice-over, Kayne outlined the story's relevant details: Earth is dead, and so Kanye and his spaceship leave to search the universe for inspiration, crashing on an alien planet as the narrative begins.
None of Kanye's songs actually have anything to do with this malarky, of course, and so the transitions between story and song are awkward at best: Kanye does "Spaceship" when the spaceship finally gets ready to fly and "All Falls Down" when it crashes again, etc. He couldn't find ways to shoehorn some of his songs ("Drive Slow," "The New Workout Plan") into that story, so they never appear. Others find vaguely disturbing placement; Kanye only does "Gold Digger," for instance, after his spaceship basically offers to fuck him. Given Kanye's attention to detail and his penchant for theatrical excess, it wasn't too surprising how straight-up beautiful his stage set was: a rippling polygonal landscape, projections of sunrises and deep space on the wall behind him, a raised platform that starts out looking like a giant laptop and eventually becomes a robotic riser, beams of pastel light shooting in every direction. Kanye also threw himself into his acting role with hilarious gusto ("What are we going to do, Jane?").
This was the first time Kanye had ever headlined Madison Square Garden, making it his biggest-ever New York show and probably one of the biggest press-circus nights of his career, so the temptation to derail his carefully planned narrative with random guest-stars must've been overwhelming. But he stuck steadfastly to the absurd purity of the show's concept; other than a quick run-in from opener Lupe Fiasco on the show-closing "Touch the Sky," Kanye was the only visible human onstage all night. And I can't help but admire the dizzy ambition of a show like this. Just a week earlier, I'd seen Kanye's onetime mentor on the same stage, breezily and effortlessly running through his hits for the millionth time. Kanye's show was exponentially more involved and intense, and his set will stick around in my memory a whole lot longer. The Glow in the Dark show is Kanye's attempt to pull off a rap equivalent of, say, Bowie's Glass Spiders tour, an immersive experience way beyond a mere greatest-hits show. Years from now, I'll remember the name of Kanye's tour.
At a Graduation listening session last year, Kanye said that he'd written the album with gigantic venues in mind, spacing out his words and simplifying his lyrics so the people in the cheap seats would be able to hear him. It showed. Virtually every one of the newer songs made for a massive Garden-wide singalong, probably the reason that Kanye extended "The Good Life" for what felt like ten minutes. This wasn't a rap show in any real meaningful way; Kanye's rapping wasn't anywhere near the focal point, and his new arrangements don't exactly favor tricky wordplay. That's a smart adjustment; rapping has never been Kanye's strongest point, and I thought I heard him stumble over his own tracks a few times last night, though the reworkings were too busy to say for certain. Older songs, songs Kanye made when he still concerned himself with quaint concepts like dusty drums and Talib Kweli guest-spots, morphed into alien things. The pianos in "Get Em High," for instance, became gasping trancey synths, and Kanye rapped his verse through a filter that made him sound like Darth Vader. Vocoders were everywhere; even the Ray Charles sample on "Gold Digger" got robotized. And Kanye did a whole lot of singing, too, even taking on some of the T-Pain parts on "The Good Life." And still, somehow, everything worked. At its worst, most self-indulgent moments, all this spectacle still thoroughly entertained. And at its best, it became moving. "Dear Mama," a song Kanye blessedly didn't try to fit into his narrative, was a bruising emotional climax, Kanye for once ending his chest-thumping/stage-humping spasmodics, standing stock still and clutching the mic with two hands, rapping heartbreaking words straight ahead. When he got done, he sat off to the side of his stage while his unseen band led the arena in a massive incantatory singalong of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." It was cheesy as hell, I knew it was coming, and still I got caught in the moment.
Voice review: Greg Tate on Kanye West's Graduation Voice review: Robert Christgau on Kanye West's Late Registration Voice review: Hua Hsu on Kanye West's College Dropout
In one way or another, all of Kanye's openers responded to the theatrical challenges that his headlining set posed. Rihanna, for her part, went nu-rave goth, rocking a huge, lacy black dress as she entered a stage made to resemble a blinking neon cave, keeping pace with vinyl Catwoman jumpsuits and fencing masks. Later, she changed into her own Catwoman jumpsuit, and then into a gleaming red shirt with giant plastic shoulderpads that made her look like an Autobot. (I'm still figuring out which one. Ironhide maybe?) During the set's opening segment, her band played what sounded like Crystal Castles remixes of her club-pop hits, and she and her dancers later twirled gigantic glowsticks during "Don't Stop the Music." Even when she's smiling, Rihanna evinces a kind of icy, imperious ferocity onstage; when Chris Brown, the night's one big surprise guest, emerged for the show-closing "Umbrella" remix, Rihanna looked about ready to cut his head off and soak his doofy Happy Days letterman sweater in blood. She also, evidently, has great taste in covers: Beenie Man's "Who Am I," M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)." Somehow, and I'm not quite sure how this happened, Rihanna has about the most viciously fascinating live show in arena pop; it really didn't matter that her backup singers did most of the vocal heavy lifting. She only violated her dystopian aesthetic for a quick ballads segment, and even that offered the welcome insight that "Unfaithful" could totally be a Def Leppard song.
Voice review: Rodney Dugue on Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad
N.E.R.D.'s set raised questions. Like: Why did they end their set playing the riff from "Seven Nation Army" over and over? (Absolutely no reason.) Did Pharrell really say "What up, Murakami?" mid-"Spazz"? (Pretty sure, yeah.) Did Lupe Fiasco, finishing his vocal-free run-in, actually flash the Roc diamond? (I may have hallucinated that one.) And most importantly, why did the Neptunes decide to submerge their frisky synth-funk in thudding brotosaurus riffage? I have no answer for that one. N.E.R.D. have evidently reimagined themselves, at least onstage, as drooling mall-rock with a nine-piece lineup (two drummers!) that does them absolutely no favors. N.E.R.D. was the only act on the bill performing without the benefit of an already-released new album, so maybe they felt like they had to ramp up the mosh-up aspect of their sound to work in an arena. This was total bathroom-break material for me, but I liked the psychedelic WinAmp screensaver graphics on the screen behind them.
Voice review: Christian Hoard on N.E.R.D.'s Fly or Die Voice review: Jon Caramanica on N.E.R.D.'s In Search Of... I missed at least half of Lupe Fiasco's opening set, but I got to my seat in time to see a whole lot of running, jumping, and flashing of the gold record that Lupe had apparently earned that day. It was good, even if he let boring-as-hell crooner Matthew Santos hog the mic a bit too much. I was absolutely unprepared for how nuts the kids in the audience went for Lupe, though; an arena-wide Lupe chant is not something I ever expected to hear. Kids really like this guy, and at this point I wouldn't rule out the possibility that he might end up headlining the venue some day. After last night, anything seems possible.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.