By: Alex Proctor
Kanye West :: 04.19.08 :: HP Pavilion :: San Jose, CA
As the crowd entered the HP Pavilion in San Jose for the sold-out third stop of Kanye West's "Glow in the Dark Tour," greeters handed out copies of the hip-hop mogul's new book, Thank You and You're Welcome, essentially the wit and wisdom of Mr. West. A little ridiculous for a pop star to be handing out pearls of wisdom, you say? Especially when it's full of gems like, "I'm often seen as complaining in situations when I lose. I see it more as an explanation of why I should have won." Er, fair enough. I guess.
What ye fails to deliver in life lessons, though, he more than makes up for in ambition, and the "Glow in the Dark Tour" is one of the most ambitious concert productions in the history of hip-hop. Before his set began, the entire stage was hidden behind black curtains. When the curtains fell, a screen full of stars and a mysterious alien landscape announced the interstellar direction the night would take as a computer named Jane guided a marooned Kanye as he struggled to get his crash-landed spaceship working again.
Almost like musical theater (a space hip hopera?), the plot driven show followed a fairly tight storyline. West, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and something that looked like the Nintendo PowerGlove, rapped from a Daft Punk lit platform raised above the smoke enshrouded planetary set. Between alien visitations, pyrotechnics and attempts at liftoff dramatized by more smoke and rushing stars, what looked to be a nine-piece band played Kanye's re-orchestrated hits from the darkness below the stage. No huge changes to the radio-friendly material; more T-Pain style vocoder here, more soaring orchestral sound there. And in spite of the necessity to stay within the confines of the narrative, none of the song choices seemed forced or unnatural. Kanye's performance ranged from the raw emotion of "Hey Mama," during which he appeared to be genuinely choked up, to the self-aggrandizing "Champion," but aside from occasional musical greatness and sheer spectacle, some of the most enjoyable moments of the night came in the form of self-commentary.
Speaking to disembodied HAL 9000 soundalike, Jane, the only "person" to have the privilege to share the stage with K Dubya, West promised to "stop spazzing out at award shows," an acknowledgement of his previous outbursts at two separate MTV events. Jane, seeming to take on the role of an audible version of Kanye's inner monologue, told him not once but twice, "You're the brightest star in the universe," a mantra it's all too easy to imagine Kanyeezy repeating to himself in the mirror, a la Dirk Diggler.
Before Kanye's mothership made its emergency landing, however, those in attendance were treated to three high-profile opening acts. Lupe Fiasco's excellent, high energy set culled from cuts off of his (slightly) slept-on 2007 release, The Cool, had hip-hop fans in the know were bobbing their heads and throwing their hands in the air as the Kanye West protégé blended intelligent rhymes and space-age beats into something entirely new. He was followed by N.E.R.D., Pharell's and Chad Hugo's (The Neptunes) live band incarnation, who unfortunately couldn't match the young Chicagoan's energy or skill. Pharell may be a wizard in the studio, but the only interesting part of their performance was "Everyone Nose," the first single off of the soon to be released Seeing Sounds, a cautionary tale of starlets and cocaine that borrows the guitar and bass lines from The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." In spite of also playing hits from their back catalog, like "Brain" and "Run to the Sun," the rest of the time N.E.R.D. sounded like any bad rap-metal act out there.
The surprise of the night, though, had to be Rihanna and her Ziploc-tight, uber-professional backing band. Her bass player was downright nasty, alternating between big, funky grooves, double-slap solos and melodic turns high on the fretboard, and Rihanna herself was outstanding. She looked beautiful, danced and went through wardrobe changes like a seasoned pop star, and her voice was impeccable. Unfortunately, her set, as well as the other artists', only lasted for 30 minutes. She could have played twice as long.
All told, the "Glow in the Dark Tour" amounts to a very impressive stage production, but hip-hop's favorite egomaniac might have overhyped a few specific aspects. The lighting, pyrotechnics and set were all spectacular, but puppets and holograms? The only puppet that made an appearance looked like little more than a skinny mannequin with a purple wig and glowing eyes, and the hologram girls were just projected on a screen. Nonetheless, if Kanye brings this stage production with him to Bonnaroo, it's almost impossible to believe that they would give him anything other than a late-night slot – and it's equally impossible to believe he wouldn't blow minds. Critiques aside, this is almost undoubtedly the most sophisticated set design ever in the hip-hop world, and one of the most elaborate in the history of rock as well. With the tour's cosmic scale, West has created something truly unique and special, an arena large enough to showcase not only what makes him great, but also, for better or for worse, his flaws.
JamBase | Silicon Valley
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