Ego-Fueled Hip-Hop Sci-Fi Space Odyssey
By JON PARELES
Kanye West came to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
Rihanna, N.E.R.D. and Lupe Fiasco opened.
There is a new yardstick for the size of the universe. It is approximately equal to the size of Kanye West’s ego.
That’s not necessarily bad. Hip-hop runs on self-glorification, the transformation of underdogs into self-invented legends. Sooner or later someone was bound to claim what Mr. West’s show did on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden: that he’s “the biggest star in the universe.” That was not only part of the script but also a crucial plot twist for Mr. West’s headlining set on his Glow in the Dark Tour, a quadruple bill with Rihanna, N.E.R.D. and Lupe Fiasco.
Mr. West’s set was the most daring arena spectacle hip-hop has yet produced, and in some ways the best, even as it jettisoned standard hip-hop expectations. The rhymes, the beats and the narcissism were there; the block-party spirit and sense of community were not. Until the encore Mr. West had no human company on the arena stage.
The spectacle is framed as a sci-fi space odyssey, with Mr. West as a lone explorer whose starship crashes on an unknown planet. He’s stranded in a landscape of colored lights, billowing smoke — probably enough dry ice to cool Death Valley — and gorgeous, panoramic video images of clouds, galaxies, fireworks and cosmic eruptions. He converses with his computerized ship, named Jane, and with shooting stars. He raps with barely a respite, and bounds around the stage: striding, hunching, pumping his fist, falling to his knees, grinding against the stage, flailing, shouting his rhymes. It is a show of stamina and lonely self-determination that takes on its own obsessive momentum, like a Samuel Beckett scene staged by Robert Wilson and George Lucas.
Mr. West’s songs — chronicles of his striving, success, fashion sense and media missteps — don’t have much to do with a planet devoid of paparazzi or designer labels. At Tuesday’s show, praying to get back home, he promised God that if he made it, he’d “stop spazzing out at awards shows.” But he wrenched the songs into the concept, turning “Gold Digger,” for instance, into a tryst with a hologram generated by his spaceship.
The music was rearranged (for a band sequestered in an orchestra pit) to sound less triumphal and more melancholy. Mr. West reaches pop audiences with pop hooks, but the concert often held them back, starting instead with drumbeats and reverberating minor chords before allowing sweetness in. The audience joined him every chance it got, and he did eventually get back home, to share an encore with Lupe Fiasco. But in Mr. West’s tour de force, it was lonely at the top. Cosmically lonely.
The other acts were also pushing genre boundaries. N.E.R.D. is led by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, who as producers are a hip-hop hit factory called the Neptunes. N.E.R.D., however, is a rock band that ricochets among rap-rock, sardonic new wave and glimpses of Beatles chords. Mr. Williams, who does most of the singing and rapping, plays the perpetual Lothario in songs that dip into wordplay — like the group’s new “Everybody Nose,” about clubbing and cocaine — and make come-ons like, “I just love your brain.”
Rihanna, whose career arrived with dance tunes, keeps broadening her perspective. Her video-ready set flaunted three costumes and revealed her as a full-fledged singer, with a voice biting enough to leap out of speakers but also supple enough to be inviting. Amid Caribbean-tinged dance grooves and ballads, she sang about flirtation and self-assertion, and also tossed in part of M.I.A.’s gun-toting “Paper Planes.” For her biggest hit, the R&B loyalty hymn “Umbrella,” the singer Chris Brown joined her in an unannounced duet.
In the opening set the rapper Lupe Fiasco showed his own ambitions, verbal and musical. He rapped not only about stardom but also about skateboarding, child soldiers and a worldwide plague. And the music in his short set, using three backup singers, encompassed chattering electronic beats, smooth R&B and mournful rock. It was a good start for a concert that insisted hip-hop hasn’t run out of possibilities, even on this planet.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company