Last week I crossed the Walt Whitman bridge and braved the mean streets of Camden to attend the closest stop on Kanye West's Glow in the Dark Tour, and I can report back with an unqualified recommendation. All jokes that I will likely spit out here aside, it was one of the best shows I've ever seen, and you should go if you have any opportunity to do so.
Guess in the comments section how much the merch guys inside were charging for those shades. Just guess.
Because of extenuating circumstances, (like forgetting to have any cash on me to park and being in a city that can't sustain banks) Wifey and I were running late. Although we knew there was no way a rap concert was going to start on time, we were worried once we were forty-five minutes after the start-time. To my surprise though, everyone else was just as tardy. Philly fans are really into getting wasted in parking lots, and their herculean tolerances put them on the same schedule as us. I don't get it; I like drinking and everything, but if I pay eighty dollars for a concert ticket, I'm going to sacrifice that last cup of fuzz. These people were quite a distraction though. I wasn't too worried about missing "Everybody Nose" when I was dodging trashed teenagers on my way to an aquarium ATM.
So we pushed through the crowd, which was about sixty percent White and thirty-five percent high school, and sat down just as Pharrell and company graced the stage, a full hour late. N.E.R.D. started with two underwhelming but aggressive songs from their upcoming album, and they would continue to preview new cuts while mixing in the three songs casual listeners know. The touring band was a bit bloated. Pharrell and Shay (the useless member) shouldered vocals, while Chad Hugo played keyboards behind them--hoodie up, shades on, no acknowledgment of the crowd whatsoever. There was also a bassist, guitarist, dancing kid, and two drummers. Someone has to call out Skateboard P when he's taking lineup cues from Slipknot. Oh, and behind them, there was a screen playing effects that, at times, looked like the pause screen on Metal Gear: Solid.
This DVD extra is when they started to dip into madness.
Their new sound is cluttered and desperate for attention, although that might have just been the sound of two drummers. Pharrell insisted upon skanking throughout the show, only he called it spazzing, and I guess that makes it okay. (Can't you imagine Chad vetoing the dance move only to have Pharrell do it anyway?) He also kept repeating that he was trying not to curse, on account of all the kids at the show. It was a bit awkward when he said that and then went straight into their song about oral sex.
Without a doubt, the highlight of their set--and perhaps the entire night--came halfway into new song "Spaz." As Pharrell got his skank on, a mysterious hoodied man appeared out of nowhere and leapt onto the front of the stage, where he danced twice as furiously and smoothly as everyone else. This went on for maybe a minute, until the Jumbotron camera got in close, and the guy pulled back the hood to reveal that he was Chris Brown, who is following the tour Penny Lane-style to snuggle up with Rihanna. He smiled, made the Star Trak sign, and left without a word. The crowd's reaction to that moment would not be eclipsed the entire night.
The set changes between the N.E.R.D. and Rihanna portions of the show were time-consuming, but I was distracted by the mammoth woman sitting next to me, whose fat overflow occupied 1.4 seats. It was impossible for me to avoid touching her.
Clearly, Rihanna is becoming a big star, but she's still at the point when guys have to justify watching her in concert. The fellas behind me, who would later give Kanye an embarrassing Wayne's World "we're not worthy," kept convincing themselves to sit through it: "I mean, she'll do 'Umbrella' and everybody'll go nuts." "Yeah, and she's hot so whatever." Shut up. Rihanna's awesome.
Until you're listening to one after another, you forget how many hits she has after only two albums. I knew almost every word just from hearing them cycle on the radio, plus she did a perfectly realized medley of covers that included Beenie Man, Lauryn Hill, and M.I.A. The crowd's instant recognition of that last one hints at either Rihanna's potential edginess or M.I.A.'s hidden accessibility, I'm not sure which.
So she likes M.I.A., plays XBox Live, and has a cute Barbadosian accent? I'm going to stop thinking about this.
It should be mentioned that there were all the trappings of arena concert excess as well. There were a few costume changes, during which some ninjas in fencing gear and laser cyclop eyes danced around seductively while playing washboards. Whoever came up with that should not be allowed to work on Good Girl Gone Bad II: Gone Worse. Also, Rihanna's second outfit was polygonal enough to be on a Virtua Fighter. (Two Playstation One references in one column? That's...nowhere near a record.) Rihanna acquitted herself nicely and performed her eight songs with a presentation that bordered on being too professional but was well-suited for an opening act.
(The New Jersey/Philadelphia stop was one of the dates without Lupe Fiasco, which kind of crushed me when I realized it after having already bought the tickets. What made it suck more was knowing that he was actually there when he trotted out for a rendition of "Touch the Sky." Alas.)
That's a lengthy introduction for the main event, a weary but triumphant two hours of Kanye West. The framework behind the Glow in the Dark concept is one that threatens to stifle the show's spontaneity but eventually becomes enjoyable. Because he is the "brightest star in the universe," West has been chosen for a secret mission across the galaxy. When his anthropomorphic spaceship Jane crashes, however, he is marooned on an unknown planet and needs to find a way to make his "Spaceship's" "Flashing Lights" "Stronger," etc. It's equal parts Dune, The Man Who Fell to Earth, 2001, and sci-fi porn. That might seem like a reach, but I'm almost positive Kanye West has seen an out-of-print David Bowie movie from the mid-seventies.
"Lollipop, lollipop/Breastses just like Dolly Par-ton"
The songs are all justified by this concept, and, rather than interacting directly with the crowd, West sets them up through scripted dialogue with Jane. This is unintentionally hilarious but occasionally creates electric moments like the one early on, in which Jane teases, "Kanye, this is not your first crash," at which point the unseen band hurtles into "Through the Wire." The concept adds a sense of spectacle to the proceedings, and it lends grandeur to what is probably the most technically-complex arena rap show ever. A lot of it doesn't even make sense. At one point, the huge "Flashing Lights" ball props hanging from the rafters turn into Murakami anime faces that bewitch West, and "Drunk and Hot Girls" plays for a minute until he realizes that these "shooting stars" will not provide enough power for his ship? These elements add up to a full experience though, and the way the ambition behind them always teeters on the precipice of self-indulgent failure without going over is what Kanye West does so well.
Despite all the bells and whistles, West reveals how in control he is of the show with his energy and presence. He was winded by the third song and had trouble keeping his breath on the faster numbers, (There's a reason Late Orchestration was never released in the U.S.) but he commands every inch of the stage. For his entire set, he's the only person up there, and the presence required to entertain thousands of people, knowing that every eye is on you, is astounding. This control is underlined by certain elements of the presentation, such as West summoning flames with seemingly off-the-cuff ad-libs or stomping on "Heard 'Em Say" to splatter electronic paint onto a canvas in time.
Sadly, Drop-Out Bear did not make an appearance. I kept trying to think of reasons he would be there. Like, maybe Kanye crashed onto a planet populated by Drop-Out Bears who have created their own civilization and they put him on trial and stuff and, during the encore, he finds the Sears Tower buried halfway in sand and he screams out, "You animals!" You know, something like that.
West danced and sang more than I expected him to--he even does the T-Pain parts on "The Good Life"--and he takes a few chances with the songs live. Headphone records such as "Jesus Walks" are stripped down to swaths of bass, and I thought I heard the main piano riff of "Heard 'Em Say" morph into the HBO theme. The excerpt of "Get 'Em High" was done with a voice-lowering effect on the mic that transformed his mush-mouthed passion into a swaggering monster, which is a nice comment on the contradiction of a song that never sounded like him anyway.
What I saw last week was a confident artist in full command of his own vision and accomplishments, even when that vision bordered on the egotism of only topping himself. During the encore, he couldn't resist boasting about how investors were sheepish to support such an expensive tour, how they said "the public won't know any better" if he doesn't apply such effort, how They "hold onto stuff for four years because They don't think the public is ready." He went on to remind the crowd that he was once one of us, "screaming his head off at the Hard Knock Life tour"; he bet that someone in the crowd would be equally inspired by him.
The Glow in the Dark tour feels as if it's as much an artistic statement as any of West's albums, and it's one that is characterized by solitude and otherness. On one hand, there is the revelling in stardom and acknowledgment of the gravitas needed to throw a lavish tour, but on the other side is the yearning to return to the crowd, to be separated from the product he has become. Judging from that speech and an introverted, misogynistic batch of songs that leaked in the last two weeks, this might be the last evidence of the first wave of Kanye West, and it's a fitting cap to a fascinating opening movement of a career. He seems on the verge of becoming less amused by hypocrisy and artifice and more embittered by it. Let's hope he stays inspired regardless.
Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West- "Put On"
Lil' Wayne feat. Kanye West- "Lollipop (Remix)"
N.E.R.D. feat. Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Pusha T- "Everybody Nose (Remix)"