Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Live From the Bay: Kanye West Glows in the Dark

(*This Post has since been run at Oh Word in a slightly revised form)

To explain what it is I love about Kanye West I submit three tracks for your consideration. The first is “Cause I love you”, a wrought love letter that opens Lenny Williams’ 1978 classic “Spark of Love.” The second is “Nothin Like Home”, a Havoc produced cut off Mobb Deep’s 2001 release Infamy which samples “Cause I love you.” Havoc takes the catchy string arrangement, speeds it up and keeps a chorus of ooohs and aaaaahs on a loop. The song is probably my favorite off the album, a shining example of Mobb at their best post-Hell On Earth and a great Hav beat. The final track is Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity.” From the opening, rich orchestral crescendo it’s clear you’re going to be getting something very different. As Twista gets himself pumped up Kanye brings in Lenny’s most impassioned moment of the song, ushering in mood setting excitement, and then the hook begins, in which West speeds up a sample of Williams’ introduction up to the portion where he holds the I in “you know I love you”. It all sounds very technical but you, along with a majority of the teenagers in the United States know exactly what I’m talking about.

I could go on, the gorgeous piano loop, the double timed bongos, the infectious knuckle crack wood block, Hip Hop Violinist Miri Ben Ari, but the point is that the contrast explains Kanye’s success in a nutshell: He is simply going to work harder than anyone else to put out the best product on the market. While in the past Hip Hop has valued the natural born talent who makes it look easy, (See: Biggie and Jay) this decade has arguably belonged to Rapaholics like studio rat Lil Wayne and Kanye’s uncompromising perfectionism. From diction and delivery to his music videos to his beats, no aspect of this man’s career has been overlooked or slept on. Mr. West is turning himself into a brand, when you hear it attached to anything you can rely on him bringing the same relentless drive he brings to everything else.

On April 19th, Kanye brought his work ethic to San Jose’s HP Pavillion, which for one night was transformed from a hockey arena into a Church of Scientology. Featuring a laughably absurd premise, the show’s minister is Kanye in a post apocalyptic Mad Max get up, a talking spaceship that suspiciously sounds a lot like the automated female narrator from “Midnight Marauders”, a life sized, naked, talking Barbie doll, fire, smoke, a cotton candy lightshow and special effects worthy of Industrial Light & Magic. The stage is meant to simulate the barren face of a foreign planet and features a hydraulic screen at its center. A live band is playing in an orchestra pit beneath.

The Show itself is a tight efficient Kanye West highlight reel featuring several reinterpretations with varying success. (A string heavy, stripped down “Heard em say” is strangely beautiful, a grinding, percussion heavy “Good Life” is not) Particularly effective is a three part group of backup singers who wail and riff on several of Mr. West’s chorus’, giving them new life. Most striking was the use of thundering tympanis to accentuate bass and Mr. West’s punchlines. Kanye featured more call and response than I had ever seen before at a Hip Hop show. This drove home the point that Kanye was able to do this, as in rely on audience participation and pack the arena in the first place, thanks to his inescapable punchlines and hooks that have a way of sticking to your brain. The one place the show was a disappointment was the complete lack of guest appearances, which I suppose in many ways was fitting.

As a performer I was impressed. The last time I saw Kanye was six years ago promoting College Dropout at the University of Maryland, he stumbled over his lines and spent most of the show out of breath. By the third song this evening he looked like Patrick Ewing in overtime, but endured with an Iverson like stamina. (Save a bizarre interlude in which he sits off to the side of the stage and drinks from a canteen while “Don’t Stop Believing” is blasted over the loud speaker. The entire crowd of 80s and 90s babies participated in a sing along which was kind of great, I shit you not) His breath control was impeccable and his enthusiasm was electric. He would get carried away in the moment and sing his own chorus’ off key with goofy yet endearing results and occasionally let out energy in the form of an awkward hop skip across the stage best described as a cross between a crip walk and goose step.

West did a majority Graduation, an album described as arena rap which appropriately translated quite well to an arena. One glaring absence was “Big Brother”, his conflicted tribute to mentor Jay-Z. Perhaps this was a statement. It would appear Mr. West has begun taking cues from another significant artist. At 24, I was the oldest person I saw in the arena not showing people to their seats or selling shit. His outlandish stage show, art house music videos, meticulous preparation and grandiose vision all smack of vintage Mike. Many of Kanye’s detractors disdainfully view his work as more Pop than Hip Hop, a label I’ve always taken knee jerk exception to. On this evening I saw the merit in their insight, and just maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

“Shine a Light”, Martin Scorsese’s concert documentary on the Rolling Stones currently in theaters follows the band performing a two night event in New York in a rare smallish venue. Over the past several decades the Stones have made themselves rich icons as their aging, affluent fan base has continued to shell out increasingly exorbitant sums to watch them perform in packed stadiums. Their children have joined the crush, equally eager to shed allowance and join the spectacle, buying 12$ cocktails and 40$ t shirts to be able to say they saw legends before they hung it up. As I watched Kanye West live, and marveled at his sheer scale and precision, what was truly amazing is that no one had taken this approach to Hip Hop performance yet. I got the feeling that what I was watching was the shape of things to come.

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