Monday, June 09, 2008

Live: Kanye rocks The Bay

From the second level seats of the HP Pavillion in San Jose, I watched Kanye West put on perhaps the best hip-hop show I've ever seen.

This was not your average rap show, where a rapper is on stage with 20 people, all carrying microphones, yelling over pre-recorded beats and demanding the crowd to throw their hands in the air, yaddada. As Kanye's talent, profile and ego have developed over the years, so to has is insight into what live rap shows could and should become.

The first thing seems to be theatrics. Kanye is drama king el primero in the pop star universe, so he understands that in order to gain attention he has to stage everything accordingly. That means all eyes on him front and center, with absolutely no accompaniment.

However, that doesn't mean 90 minutes of Mr. West rapping and dancing on a hallow stage. His set-up was a cross between the barren desert landscapes of the sci-fi novel/movie “Dune” and the neon-glow of Michael Jackson's “Bille Jean” video.

The show's story arc had something to do with West traveling in search of inspiration. He crash landed on a mysterious planet and woke up on a lit center-stage riser. “Good Morning,” the intro to his third album “Graduation” bumped through the arena sound system.

The impact was fierce. West, laid out on his back staring toward the ceiling, as the powerful bass hit hard enough to tickle my nose. As the song's hook paced in, the crowd couldn't help sing along to the ‘Ooh-we-oohh” harmony.

The rest of the set was a crash course through Ye's considerably dope catalog. “I Wonder” was an inspired with West yelling the song's spaced-out vocals. Throwing up the Roc-A-Fella records diamond gang sign during “Diamonds Are Forever,” the crowd participated in traditional yet completely new-feeling, hands up partying.

While the party was getting warmed up, Ye left plenty of room for spiritual awakenings and charged affirmations.

“Can't Tell Me Nothing” became an arena rock-worthy ode to self-perseverance and determination, Ye defiantly emphasizing the line “This is my life, homie, you decide yours!”

“Spaceship,” transformed into a back-in-the-day, rags to riches tale, while “All Falls Down” piggy-backed the former song, with its lines of self-consciousness resonating more than ever.

Ye somewhat awkwardly shoe-horned two of his biggest hits, “Gold Digger” and “Good Life,” into the narrative. The former song also features some space-age booty shots of what may or may not have been Salinas native video queen Ms. Veronica.

The last quarter of the set was a non-stop, emotional and self-reverential affair. Whereas Ye could get the arena to chant along to the stomping rhythm of “Jesus Walks,” he flipped it with a heartfelt “Hey Mama” dedicated to his deceased mother.

The weird parts came as show-closing self reflection. Ye's back-up singer blasted through a funny rendition of Journey's “Don't Stop Believing” (Ye mus have loved that Sopranos series finale) and ended the set with a near-rant, targeting the media before declaring “I am Michael Jordan, I am Muhammad Ali,” in an attempt to declare himself the biggest star in the universe.

For all of West's grand-standing, it was hard to argue his point. Ye has in fact propelled himself, through sheer will no less, to universal superstar status. That much was obvious from the cheap seats on Friday night.

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