Kanye's tour raises standard for rap concerts

ImageNot content with establishing a new paradigm for hip-hop productions -- and scoring a string of hits and two multiplatinum albums in the process -- Kanye West set out to redefine the live rap concert with his "Touch the Sky" tour.

Though he's prone to bragging, this was no idle boast: As evidenced by his performance at the UIC Pavilion Monday night, the 28-year-old Chicago-reared superstar has succeeded brilliantly.

More than two decades into the genre's development, many of the best rappers still treat live shows as an afterthought, padding short sets with momentum-killing cameos by their crews, truncating songs into unsatisfying medleys, performing to canned backing tracks and indulging in trite left-side, right-side "battles" while vainly trying to pump up a crowd that they've left sorely uninspired.

While avoiding the most tired cliches, West's two-hour concert set a new standard for imaginative staging and visuals, challenging musical arrangements and tireless energy on the part of the star.

Cutting-edge lighting and well-chosen video clips illuminated a futuristic stage of transparent cubes. Two backing vocalists, a live percussionist, a keyboardist and a string section with two cellos, four violins and a harp decorated the backing tracks controlled by West's talented turntablist, DJ A-trak, to deliver one powerful groove and undeniable melody after another.

West structured the set like a play tracing his personal and artistic development. After an uplifting opening with "Touch the Sky," we found him waking up in his South Side home before going to work at the Gap in Evergreen Plaza mall ("Drive Slow" and "Spaceship"), visiting his ailing grandmother and paying homage to his college professor mom ("Roses" and "Hey Mama"), living through a potentially fatal car wreck and questioning his faith ("Through the Wire" and "Jesus Walks"), and emerging to overcome naysayers by topping the charts ("Bring Me Down" and "We Major").

As much of a notorious perfectionist and workaholic as fellow Chicagoan Billy Corgan, West continues to tinker with the show, and there were several substantial changes from the concert I caught earlier in the tour in Champaign. But the biggest surprise in Chicago came when the headliner turned over the mike to his South Side mentor and friend, Common.

West originally envisioned the tour as a showcase for himself and two of the most successful artists he has produced on his Good Music label, rapper Common and R&B star John Legend. But Legend has been successful enough to headline his own jaunt, and Common dropped off the tour when he accepted a film role, though he flew home to join West for four songs in their hometown.

After trading rhymes with West on "Get Em High" and "Testify," Common tore it up on his own on "Go" and "The Light." For West, ceding the spotlight was a generous move as well as a brave one: Common is one of the most deft and skillful rappers in hip-hop, while many critics contend that West's rapping is the least of his strengths.

But West proved that he could more than hold his own, making up for what he lacked in flow with sheer exuberance and the force of his personality. And while Common's mini-set did derail some of the momentum of West's carefully paced lineup, the star recovered and built to a climactic ending with "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," pointing toward the increasingly political tack of his music and his public statements.

In the funniest line of the evening, West encouraged fans to sing along on the chorus of his No. 1 hit "Gold Digger" -- "Now I ain't sayin' she a gold digger / But she ain't messin' wit' no broke niggaz" -- with the crack, "White people, it's your only chance to say 'niggaz'!"

The biggest knock doubters have on West is what they call his "arrogant" persona. Aside from the facts that it's not bragging if you deliver the goods, and that the same critics have no problem with gangstas such as 50 Cent forever giving themselves props, the "Touch the Sky" tour shows that the boasting is really an act. At heart, West is still a geeky kid dancing alone in his bedroom to "Take On Me" by a-ha, and he isn't afraid to portray that onstage.

Opening the show were two hip-hop/R&B divas. Keyshia Cole is a considerable talent who was ill-served by a short and stripped-down set and suffering from a sore throat, while Fantasia is yet another undeserving "American Idols" prefab pop star unduly fond of bombastic overstatement. Her histrionic screaming during soulless covers of "Purple Rain" by Prince and "Dream On" by Aerosmith doubtlessly had dogs howling in pain throughout the UIC campus.

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