Naysayers can attack hometown hip-hop hero Kanye West for his undeniable vanity all they want. But remember this: It’s only bragging if you can’t pull it off.
From his earliest high-profile shows in Chicago, when he was backed by John Legend on keyboards and the self-proclaimed “hip-hop violinist” Miri Ben-Ari, to his Touch the Sky Tour in 2005, when he fronted a full string section and a harpist and trotted out more stage sets than an off-Broadway theater production, West has strived to elevate the live hip-hop experience, eschewing two turntables and a microphone minimalism in favor of the elaborate arena spectacles mounted by famously theatrical rockers such as David Bowie and Peter Gabriel.
Launched in mid-April at the Key Arena in Seattle, West’s Glow in the Dark Tour—which comes to the United Center on Friday and Saturday—brings things to a whole new level once again. The current jaunt is evocative of nothing so much as a musical version of “Tron,” the prescient 1982 science-fiction film in which a computer hacker is somehow sucked into the then barely imagined World Wide Web and forced to fight like a gladiator in order to escape.
If the artist’s three multi-platinum albums—“The College Dropout” (2004), “Late Registration” (2005) and “Graduation” (2007)—form a rough conceptual trio, Glow in the Dark offers a conceptual concert wherein West is an astronaut stranded on a distant planet after his a crash landing. He appears onstage alone for most of the show, with the sizable band set in an orchestra pit and much of the stage obscured by giant clouds of fog that that billow around the video backdrop of alien skies.
Kanye’s only companion: a distaff version of Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a computer named Jane. A sample exchange:
Kanye: “Jane, I can’t get off this planet! I’ve been here for so long—for one year! I’ve got to get me some [sex]! Can you help me?”
Jane: “I can help you with that, Mr. West.”
The computer then generates a hologram of a naked woman who undulates as the performer delivers “Gold Digger.” (In classic R. Kelly fashion, things constantly veer from the profane to the sacred, with an emotional West also dropping to his knees to pray for his mother Donda, who died last November.)
Sure, in print, as with so many of West’s public pronouncements, the chats with Jane the computer read equally obnoxious and absurd. But it’s to Kanye’s credit that it all works in context: The tour has generated rave reviews at nearly every stop, with New York Times rock critic Jon Pareles noting, “There is a new yardstick for the size of the universe. It is approximately equal to the size of Kanye West’s ego.”
Egotistical he may be, but West is self-assured enough not to fear being upstaged by openers who comprise one of the strongest package bills that hip-hop or R&B have ever seen, with N.E.R.D. (the funk-rock band led by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the production team Neptunes), singer Rihanna, the chart-topping diva of “Umbrella” fame, and fellow Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who followed in West’s footsteps with similarly genre-expanding sounds on his stellar 2007 album, “The Cool.”
Is West really “the biggest star in the universe,” as this show posits? Until someone else steps up with something quite this impressive, we’ll just have to take his word for it.
The Glow in the Dark Tour featuring Kanye West, Rihanna, NERD and Lupe Fiasco
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Tickets $40 to $78.50
Ticketmaster.com, (312) 559-1212
Here is the set list for Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour:
“Good Morning”; “I Wonder”; “Heard ’Em Say”; “Through the Wire”; “Champion”; “Get ’Em High”; “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”; “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”; “Flashing Lights”; “Spaceship”; “All Falls Down”; “Gold Digger”; “Good Life”; “Jesus Walks”; “Hey Mama”; “Don’t Stop Believing” (Journey cover); “Stronger”; “Homecoming” and “Touch the Sky.”